Cronkite’s Passing: A Death in Everyone’s Family
For anyone who knew him as "Uncle Walter," his loss must feel like a death in the family.
To a younger generation, the very idea of widespread grieving over a TV news anchor may be hard to fathom, as is the concept of a large part of the population being happy to get their news from just one, generally loved figure. They have no reference point for Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at 92, because his kind, rare enough in his heyday, does not exist anymore.
So they just have to take it on faith when we tell them that few TV figures have ever had as much power as Cronkite did at his height - and even fewer have used it as carefully. For nearly two decades, from 1962 to 1981, he was the anchor-chair voice of the "CBS Evening News," and for most of that stretch, he was the predominant news voice in America. But it was a calm voice, warm, dispassionate and apolitical. A voice that informed, and sometimes soothed, but never inflamed.
That's why we called him "uncle," and why a decade after he left the air, polls still named him "the most trusted man in America."
Natural abilities had much to do with his success, but it also helped that he was in the right place at the right time with the right background. Cronkite was a well-regarded print war reporter who moved to TV in 1950, just as CBS was beginning to put its team in place. He quickly rose at the organization - the term "anchorman" was coined for him when he served as the lead reporter at the 1952 convention - and was perfectly placed to grow with the medium just as the medium was growing into a major force.
The '60s and '70s were plush times for the three broadcast networks, which pretty much had TV to themselves. And at CBS at least, the network responded by treating the news division as a well-funded public trust. In turn, Cronkite did everything he could to make sure our trust was justified.
Compared with newscasters today, what's most remarkable about Cronkite is not so much what he did as what he didn't do. He didn't appear on 10 broadcasts a day, chattering about everything from the latest political scandal to the newest big-screen blockbuster. He was a newsman, not a personality, who rarely made the talk show circuit. He kept his opinions to himself - and, generally, himself to himself.
In Cronkite's eyes, his job was to tell us the news, not what he thought about the news, and to tell us what people did, not what he thought they might do or why they might do it. For most of that 20-year stretch, we knew little about his personal opinions beyond his love of the space program; on that subject, he was a zealot. But there weren't many people who were anti-space in those days, so being pro-space didn't cause much controversy.
It's precisely because of his fabled impartiality that his two most famous on-air breaks in the pattern had such power. One was a tear that he allowed to fall when he was reporting the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1962, a moment far more moving than any of the emotion-porn gushing anchors are prone to today. The other was an editorial he gave in 1968 after a special report on the Tet offensive, proclaiming his belief that the Vietnam War could not be won - which apparently convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that middle America, and middle-aged America, had now turned against the conflict.
No one is ever universally loved or respected; there were those who thought Cronkite was too stuffy and conservative, and those (like Archie Bunker) who saw him as a spokesman for all the "pinkos." But they were in the minority. To most Americans - far more than watch any newscaster today - he was a voice of reason and a man who could be trusted.
When a man like that dies, how can we not grieve?