Long, long ago, when network news mattered, viewers swore allegiance to a television news anchorman much as they did to an automobile brand.
You drove either a Ford or a Chevrolet, and you loyally watched either Walter Cronkite or the anchor team of Huntley-Brinkley. Selections were limited, but competition fierce.
I’m a voice person. Voices are primarily why I love actress Debra Winger and actors Ben Johnson and Robert Duvall. Jack Nicholson’s voice is why I think scruffy old Jack remains far sexier than his younger colleague Brad Pitt.
And Walter Cronkite had the perfect news voice. Few in television news have had that authoritativefriendly combination delivery that was Uncle Walter’s. Charles Kuralt had it. Hughes Rudd. Certainly Edward R. Murrow. But not many.
And Walter Cronkite, like others in that halcyon age, had print-journalism experience that gave him gravitas. He knew about gathering the news, not just how to read it.
I was blue when I heard about Cronkite’s death. He had lived a long, full life and was a widower. So it wasn’t so much that it wasn’t his time. Turns out, rumors of his grave illness had not been exaggerated.
But his death was a sober reminder of a simpler, purer broadcast era, when you didn’t choose your news based on your political persuasion. Back then we wanted to know the way it was, not the way we wanted it to be.
What happened? How did we go from a nation that wanted just the facts, ma’am, to news consumers who merely want our political leanings validated?
From Sean Hannity to Keith Olbermann, we search for a slant that suits us.
When his show was canceled in 1958, Murrow expressed disgust with television’s “decadence and escapism.” If he could see it now ….
So Cronkite’s death is more than the death of one man, albeit a famous, even iconic one. It officially marks the end of an era when broadcasters first took news from past tense to present tense but let it speak for itself.
Sure, Walter wiped away a tear when Kennedy died. He was human.
But when he walked the Normandy beaches with Eisenhower in 1964 for a “CBS Reports” episode, or toured the front in Vietnam to see that confusing war for himself, you got the feeling that Cronkite went with an open mind and came back to report what he had seen.
He might form an opinion along the way – What smart person would not? – but he didn’t form the opinion before he did the reporting. He let truth, not a political party’s talking points, be his guide.
Cronkite famously loved to sail. His retirement never gelled completely, but he reportedly spent many happy hours on the water, a comforting thought now to those millions of us who will miss him.
He gave the television world the term “anchor,” but it seems the broader, nautical definition of the word suits him perfectly.
“A rigid point of support, as for securing a rope. A source of security or stability.”
We trusted him because we could.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson