It’s truly a sad day in my business, television news, and for America as a whole. Walter Cronkite died Friday night at the age of 92. He was in failing health and his death comes as no shock. He lived a healthy, full life.
He also was a man who took a job and, by virtue of the way he handled his daily work, made it something more powerful and more influential. He was an “anchorman”. I know the word now conjures up images of Wil Farell’s character, but for a generation of Americans, there was no more important man than Walter Cronkite.
To understand his power, you have to go back to the days before “i”: iPhone, iPod, iTunes. In fact, the only “i” that matter was spelled “eye” as in the CBS eye. CBS was the network of choice for news during his heyday of the 60’s and 70’s … and he was the choice of a nation. The image of him briefly choking up while delivering the news of the death of President Kennedy still has the power to move. Some say he did more to end the conflict in Vietnam than all the world leaders when he turned briefly into a commentator and said America was “mired in a stalemate”.
It was a time when ( imagine this ) Americans came home from work by 6pm and actually sat down together to have dinner and watch the national network news. A time when there were only ( gasp! ) three stations. A time when one man could actually be seen as “the most trusted man in America”.
I will not lie to you and tell you he was my role model for becoming a TV news anchor. I didn’t even consider a career in TV when he was on his way out. However, he does represent what we all should be as reporters and anchors. He considered himself a “newsman” first … and later a news presenter. He never considered himself above the news he was covering and because he didn’t have that “anchor” look or “anchor” hair, we listened as a nation to what he had to say. It almost seemed as if he had spent the day gathering the news, writing the copy … and reluctantly had to deliver the news on air.
You will hear a lot in the coming days, along with the tributes to this man, about the state of television news. You will hear how much the quality has fallen, the line has been blurred between news and entertainment and how today’s anchorpeople fall woefully short of Walter. You may even hear how Walter could not get an anchor job today because he doesn’t have the anchor look.
To all this I say bull. This is no time to bemoan what is wrong with TV news. Rather this is a time to celebrate a life that turned what we do into an important function. Just as it did in Cronkite’s day, the television is where the majority of Americans turn to see breaking news unfold. Say what you want about Twitter, the Internet and all these web ways to watch defining moments. From 9-11 to the death of Michael Jackson, we all turned to TV and we all listened to the narration and dissemination of facts from the anchor.
What Walter Cronkite did was set this tone for this practice. The use of short, descriptive words delivered with calm and caring. The brief allowance for emotion and the adding of context to the pictures that we see. That has not changed since Cronkite took our national through the painful assassination of President Kennedy. We as anchor people still do that today … and we have Walter to thank for giving up the blueprint.