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,
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
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
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.