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Uncle Walt
His passing reminds us how much America has lost

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
June 28, 2009

It's been a time of celebrity deaths. The sudden death of Michael Jackson has all but swamped the airwaves, obscuring important stories such as the passage of the carbon emissions bill in Congress, or the growing wave of dissatisfaction in Iran that will prove a far greater challenge to the theocrats than all the the riots and Neda's death could provide. Ed McMahon went the way of all sidekicks, Farrah Fawcett filmed her death, an act of courage that will gain her some of the respect she deserved.

But the most important death of all remains in the wings, as Walter Leland Cronkite III pauses in a twilight zone between life and death, waiting to intone one last time, “That's the way it is, Some day soon, June 2009.”

Most Americans under the age of 40 probably won't understand just how important Uncle Walt, “the most trusted man in America” was to America. Sometime soon, they will see old clips of him, voice shaking ever so slightly, announcing the death of John F. Kennedy, or the assassination of Martin Luthor King Junior, or muttering “wow” as the Apollo 11 astronauts step out onto the moon.

The kids will watch, and solemnly agree that he was a pretty good voice talent, given that he spent half his career working in black and white television and without teleprompters. But, they would probably ask, is he really better than Bill O'Reilly or Steven Colbert?

Yes, he is. Cronkite was a journalist, at at time when journalism mattered in television news, and when journalistic standards were far, far higher than they are today. Cronkite wasn't just a camera talent droning out copy so people would have a reason to keep watching from one set of commercials to the next; he was the managing editor of the show. Virtually every word that he uttered in his newscasts came about as a result of his own extraordinary background as a conventional journalist. He began broadcasting in 1935, and gained widespread respect during World War II when he did things as a journalist rarely seen these days outside of the BBC: accompanying bombing runs over Germany, riding in a glider over battle lines on D-Day, reopening news bureaus in Amsterdam and Brussels (in Holland, television reporters are known to this day as “Cronkiters”, a slight irony, given that his family name was Dutch, from Krankheyt. But they don't call them “Krankheyters”.)

As a television journalist, he was arguably the best. As a kid, I was an avid space fan, and would get up an an ungodly hour to watch the long, often “on hold” countdowns for the early Mercury shots. It was black and white, on a 13” screen that sometimes rolled vertically, and it was the local CBC channel, taking the feed directly from CBS. I quickly learned that the avuncular fellow with the trim mustache was the best one to watch, because he had a knack for stopping to explain the things I didn't understand, and seemed to share the sense of wonder and adventure those risky first steps into space brought with them.

Try to imagine one of the blow-dried multi-millionaire “voice talents” of the news biz getting up at 4 am and going to the Cape to spend six hours trying to make static shots of liquid oxygen vapour on the sides of a rocket exciting. Most, in minutes, would be reduced to bringing pop stars on the show to talk about space flight and their latest movie, trying to fill the five minutes between commercial breaks.

I was raised on the BBC and CBC, two of the finest news organizations on earth, and in those days, American press in general, and CBS News in particular was considered to be even better. Watching Cronkite, I believed it. I do to this day.

Cronkite taught me that news wasn't just madmen with AK-47s running through the streets of a hot, dry city, or US helicopters flying over swamps, as futile and lovely as dragonflies. News isn't just celebrity deaths or disgraced politicians caught by the cwtches' brew of third-rate floozies. And it certainly isn't papparazzi jostling for the honey angle of Paris Hilton climbing out of a limo.

Then Kennedy was shot, and while I didn't see his announcements in the hours immediately after the shooting because I was in school, learning who Kennedy was and what “assassinated” meant, his voice was on the Canadian television for many hours over the next three days, more so than Lorne Greene or any of the Canadian broadcasters. The world was suddenly a much darker and colder place, even if I didn't understand why, but Uncle Walt was there to reassure us that yes, things were bleakers, but it was going to be ok in the end.

Then I was in California, and there was a new coldness in the land, and Cronkite was there to tell us, “This war cannot be won.” At his words, the most powerful man in the world slumped his shoulders and acknowledged the truth, and decided to stop being the most powerful man in the world. Nobody, not even Woodward and Bernstein with Nixon and the Watergate scandal, had such a direct-drive effect on the course of a presidency.

If Cronkite was aware of the incredible power he wielded as “The most trusted man in America” he never showed it. He just went on, five nights a week, 50 weeks a year, being “Uncle Walt”, the man to watch to keep up with world events.

His enthusiasm for the space program never dimmed, and for the 27 hours that the Apollo 11 astronauts were on or around the Moon, he was on-air for 22 of them. Nor did he desert the program when things turned sour, doing marathon sessions during the dramatic limp home by the Apollo 13 crew. Without false promises or false jocularity, he seemed to assure us all that everything would be all right, no matter how grim things looked out in the lonely emptiness of space. And in the end, everything was all right.

Younger Americans won't understand how much Cronkite meant to America, because they live in an era when news is entertainment, and entire “news networks” exist, not to inform, but persuade. Those that aren't just lackeys to a vested interest are profit-driven, and aren't going to say anything that would offend their sponsors, or make people switch the channel in search of more palatable takes on the news. When Cronkite was broadcasting, “Network” was a brilliantly funny parody, one that worked because it was so over the top and improbable. Imagine a corporation hiring a lunatic to rant to the public in lieu of news for profits! In the days of Cronkite, that was unthinkable.

If I could visit Cronkite right now and whisper in his ear, I would first thank him, and then tell him that people always need news, and that in order to get reliable news, they would need good journalists. Despite the corporations and the potemkin media empires of billionaire fascists, America still needs real news, because it still wants to be a free country and good journalism is the life-blood of a free country. There are lots of good journalists in America, and they will find a demand for their livelihood as Americans realize that the crap they see on TV these days doesn't help them a bit.

And then I would thank him one more time, because if good journalism keeps us free, Cronkite may have done more to keep us free than any other journalist of his generation.

Posted: June 29, 2009

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