Afghanistan, Journalism

Cronkite…Broadcast Journalism’s Gold Standard

Cronkite This photo, Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, is probably how many of us will remember the quintessential CBS anchor.

It’s been noted extensively since Cronkite’s recent death at age 92, that he was a “working reporter” even as he became “the most trusted man in America” and largely invented the role of “anchorman.” As a former TV reporter, who lived for the excitement of live, election night coverage, I still marvel at Cronkite’s ability to maintain poise and deliver serious content while anchoring coverage of a space mission or a raucous political convention.

Among the many tributes I’ve seen since Cronkite’s death, two stand out.

My colleague, John MacDonald, a former Associated Press editor and reporter, served up as nice a rememberance of as any I have read:

And Pat Murphy, a former editor of the Arizona Republic, who now lives in the Wood River Valley in Idaho where he writes for the Idaho Mountain Express, had a wonderful piece about Cronkite and a dinner any of us would have enjoyed attending.

At his best, and Cronkite was frequently at his best with coverage of Vietnam and civil rights, he demanded that his “correspondents” (a revered titled at CBS) challenge the dinnertime viewer. Were, as Pat Murphy suggests, the network news divisions given a half hour every night to report what “viewers wanted to hear” or what “they needed to know?”

It was Cronkite’s considered judgment – the editorial judgment of an old United Press International (UPI) reporter – that determined the story content of the nightly “broadcast” The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was never a “news program” or “show.” Playing the role of Managing Editor, Cronkite served up what we needed to know as opposed to what might have gone down easier with a TV dinner.

Cronkite’s broadcast anchored a different time, before 24-hour news cycles and endless “talking heads” on cable. It is a time long gone and Cronkite’s passing begs the question: can any reporter or news organization command such respect again? More importantly, perhaps, do we news consumers care any more about Cronkite’s type of content? Do we want journalism to challenge us…or give us an escape from what we really need to know?

In a 1996 inteview with the Newseum, Cronkite was asked about his regrets. Not surprisingly he had some:

It is a cliche that the old UPI man would have abhorred, but we’ll not see his like again.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.