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Friday, July 17, 2009

The last great American news anchor has died
Posted by Jill | 8:42 PM
I feel sorry for young people today who don't remember what it was like when the network news that was on every night was about actual news and events, rather than nonstop coverage of Michael Jackson's hair catching on fire. There was a time when news was "stuff you should know", rather than the news-o-tainment that dominates the networks and cable news shows in the age of the 24 x 7 news cycle.

I remember when TWA 800 crashed thirteen years ago, and Brian Williams, not yet ready for prime time, was phumphering his way through the coverage. I remember watching the news coverage on September 11, 2001, when news reporters were as freaked out as the rest of us.

And even though I was only eight years old at the time, I remember Walter Cronkite covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy:

Even though we had been through the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nikita Krushchev banging his shoe on the table at the U.N., quoted as saying "We will bury you", it's hard to imagine how shaken this nation was on that day in 1963. On that day, the nation turned to Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite went on so long, outliving by many years compatriots like Chet Huntley and Eric Sevareid and Howard K. Smith, it had begun to seem as if Walter Cronkite would always be with us -- a reminder of the golden age of television journalism, when news anchors weren't look-alike bots with poufy hair, but were seen as authoritative figures. And no one was more authoritative than Walter Cronkite. After this on-air editorial about the Vietnam war in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

For all that today's Republicans are at the beck and call of lunatics like Rush Limbaugh and the increasingly unhinged Glenn Beck, it's hard to imagine a Republican President with any grip on consensus reality saying "If I've lost Limbaugh, I've lost Middle America" -- and have it sound anything but just as unhinged as the current purveyors of white male hysteria.

A look through the archives at YouTube shows Cronkite as a real-life broadcast version of Forrest Gump, present at every major event of the mid-to-late 20th century: The Kennedy assassination shown above. The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Three Mile Island. The 1979 total solar eclipse.

In the era of real television news anchored (if you'll pardon the expression) by Walter Cronkite, news was news and entertainment was entertainment, and the twain did not meet.

One of the hardest parts about growing old is watching pieces of your childhood fall by the wayside. Some of them, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, died young of their own youthful recklessness. Others have died too soon ravaged by diseases we used to associate with old people. Many of the people who were part of our lives when we were kids were part of our parents' generation, some of them long forgotten until their deaths, others still present in public life, their deaths a reminder that we, the next generation, are in the on-deck circle to the great beyond after they depart. That Walter Cronkite stayed with us so long always seemed reassuring, that as long as that piece of the world in which we grew up was still there, we were somehow still safe.

And now Walter Cronkite, the kindly voice of world events for so many decades, has left us. And like children forced to spend our first night without our security blankets, we feel the world to be a bit meaner, a bit scarier, and even less certain than before.

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Blogger Distributorcap said...
great piece --- when people like him really made a difference

i remember my mother saying she could watch no one else except Walter Cronkite - and if it wasnt for him, the country would have falled apart on Nov 22, 1963.

but the best Walter - went he was overwhelmed by the moon landing

Anonymous jb said...
Well said, as usual. I wonder if the 80s and 90s would have seemed as odd and disconnected as they did if Cronkite had been there every night covering them.

Blogger Charlie said...
I think that CBS pushed Cronkite out to facilitate the move to news entertainment. He would have continued to fight it all the way.