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Remembering Walter Cronkite

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the achievements of Walter Cronkite. See his previous OUPblogs here.

For most of the second half of the twentieth century, Walter Cronkite was always there whenever history moved. Before the word “embedded” came into fashion, he flew on the first bombing raids over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Before he covered the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam and Watergate, he was also right there at the Battle of the Bulge. He covered the first nationally televised Democratic and Republican National Conventions – out of which the term “anchor” (and the Swedish term “Kronkiter”) was coined to describe his role. Walter Cronkite was always there; he was the anchor of all anchors.

But while Cronkite was always there, he understood that it was never about him, but about the facts. Today however, his model of reporting is praised by everyone, but emulated by no one. Not by Lou Dobbs, or Keith Olbermann, and not even by his replacement at CBS, Dan Rather, who tried to meddle in politics rather than to report it. CNN has a name for this narcissistic reporting style: “I-report.” I don’t think Walter Cronkite believed that there was an “I” in the news, however much an event lent itself to self-reflection.

So Cronkite’s legacy lives on only in advertising slogans. CNN may be “the most trusted name in news,” and Fox news may be “Fair and Balanced.” But “the most trusted man in America” would tell us that self-praise is no praise and that objectivity should be practiced, not trumpeted.

To be sure, it isn’t that today’s journalists are unrepentant gossips or opinion exhibitionists (though some are). It is that their bosses know that opinion and feisty debate sells. It is because experts in mass communications and social psychology have discovered that listeners and viewers like to hear what they want to hear, especially opinions that cohere with their own. That is why our journalistic umpires venture their opinions, and if they don’t, they pose incendiary questions to get their interviewers to say something about their political opponents that would start a war of words. While Walter Cronkite covered the news, the news establishment today wants to drive it.

Cronkite was a first-rate journalist who understood that it is always about the news, never about the reporter, transmitting the news faithfully while at the scene but never making a scene. He didn’t
engage in story making, he didn’t engage in frivolous banter about the role of the media in order to insinuate the self-congratulatory premise that he is a mover and shaker and master of the universe. Walter Cronkite knew that it was never about Walter Cronkite. It was his principled commitment to reticence that made his exceptional departure in declaring the war in Vietnam unwinnable so compelling. In his self-abnegation lay his considerable credibility.

Walter Cronkite was confident enough in the processes of American democracy, and humble enough to know the difference between newscaster and newsmaker, to desist from meddling from either the meaning or movement of politics. Without touch-screen monitors or a teleprompter, he brought us the news. Plain and simple. He wasn’t cool, he wasn’t a model, and he was even, by his own admission, “dull at times.” Though his career is a period piece in the age of facebook and twitter, we will do well to remain anchored in his journalistic values.

“And that’s the way it is.”

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