Saturday, July 18, 2009

November 4, 1916 - July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite was a bit before my time. That's not to say that I don't remember him, but I remember the mythology, not the man.

My parents had yet to meet when he broke the news of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963. The Apollo 11 lunar landing happened two years before my birth, and I was barely walking in the waning days of the Vietnam War.

When Walter Cronkite retired from his post as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 6, 1981, I was admittedly more interested in baseball scores and being a nine year old kid than the hum-drum last broadcast of a silver-haired guy who talked really slow, let alone about things that I barely gave a second thought.

If only I knew then, what I know now.

I wrote a thesis on the Vietnam War in college, and you couldn't write about the war without reading about Walter Cronkite. When he declared that the war was unwinnable during the Tet Offensive in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson stated that if he lost the support of Cronkite, he'd lose the support of middle America.

When Walter Cronkite died yesterday at the age of 92, it was more than an iconic newscaster that passed away. He brought with him the integrity of the American media, and the trust that President Johnson knew was integral to any straw poll and public opinion.

Walter Cronkite was more than just a news anchor, he was the most trusted man in America. What strikes me most about his passing, is the people talking about how he made them feel. The emotions he stirred. The calm he portrayed. When he spoke, people listened. Trust was inherent in his tone. Nobody questioned a single word he ever said.

Today, we question everything.

In the modern age of infinite television channels and instant internet feeds, ratings are won by breaking news first and fastest, not articulately and accurately. It's not about being calm and composed, it's about creating hype. And it's not about sense and sensibility, it's about sensationalism.

There used to be an air of finality to the news. Now we watch the news expecting it to change if we watch long enough. And if it doesn't change, we can just change the channel, where chances are good someone is reporting something else.

In the quarter-century since Walter Cronkite's retirement, news has evolved from something that is broken with integrity and reported with an air of nobility, to something that is broken in pieces, and sent over the air with little more than a concern for ratings.

Long before America was addicted to Red Bull and Twitters, Walter Cronkite knew that slow was the way to go. While the average American speaks at a rate of approximately 165 words per minute, Cronkite paced his newscasts at 3/4 that speed. He understood that delivery had just as much impact on the news, as the news itself.

Walter Cronkite was distinguished by his finesse. Today's newscasters rely on little more than flair.

Yes, that's symptomatic of the world we live in. And that's exactly why the passing of Walter Cronkite represents so much more than the loss of a television news anchor.

It is the end of an era in American journalism.

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