Cronkite: And That's The Way It Was

I met Walter Cronkite once, just a few years ago, on the day I became a consultant at CBS News. Though his departure from CBS News was acrimonious, Cronkite kept an office at CBS News headquarters on 57th Street, and would visit his old newsroom occasionally, shaking hands and posing for pictures with the staff. He was much smaller than I imagined. But his voice -- that voice -- made me shiver.

During the darker days at CBS News, I'm told that Cronkite's visits kept up morale, reminding the staff of what the Tiffany network represented in its halcyon days. America trusted Cronkite and trusted him to deliver the news. He brought them through Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, the death of MLK, the moon landings. There is no analog in today's media landscape: LBJ, musing about the horror of Vietnam, once told his advisers that "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Maybe Tim Russert came the closest.

The media today is much more fragmented and the audiences are much more demanding, generally a positive development. I don't know whether Cronkite's "old school" style of broadcasting and newsgathering would be tolerated; Cronkite's politics -- Middle American liberalism -- would probably be more important than his style, grace or skills. Cronkite began his career as a print guy, and he brought print standards (wire service standards!) to broadcast journalism. He was mentored by Edward R. Murrow but no one taught him how to be classy; he was a classy guy. Authentically classy. Authentic, too. He did not fake his gravitas, and he did not -- and I think this is very important -- he did not mask his emotions (man lands on the moon, and he says "Oh Boy!") or his feelings (he was the first modern anchor to tear up on camera, and did so regularly). He knew how to merge voice and words to create a story. He invented modern anchoring.

I'm too young to have direct memories of watching Cronkite on television, although the famous bulletin announcing the death of President Kennedy transcends all age cohorts. I've been fortunate to work with several TV legends who considered Cronkite their mentor and teacher, most notably Rick Kaplan, the current executive producer of CBS Evening News, and Susan Zirinsky, now the executive producer of 48 hours.


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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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