They don't make journalists like Walter Cronkite anymore

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[image-1]And that’s the way it was — for space launches, political conventions, election nights and, sorry to say, a number of political assassinations. He delivered a lot of bad news. 


He was an artist of journalism. 


He was also part of the last generation of broadcast journalists to come from a newspaper background. He got into broadcasting after making fun of friends who worked in radio. When put-up-or-shut-up time came along, Cronkite was up to the challenge. 


He was one of those people who defined the medium. The “super” — super-imposition of an identifying name over an image onscreen — was invented during Cronkite’s coverage of the 1952 Democratic convention. Producer Don Hewitt recognized that Cronkite’s reporting and its deep background would be disrupted if he had to stop when every new shot appeared on screen in order to identify the person in the picture. Having lunch at a diner, Hewitt noticed the ‘today’s special’ sign and bought it from the manager. He experimented with putting letters on the black background of the board, dropping out the black, and leaving white letters to pop up on the black-and-white screen. It was a great breakthrough, and it all started at a greasy spoon in Chicago. 


Another thing Cronkite brought into being: longer newscasts, with room for feature pieces, such as Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” vignettes. Back in the early 1960s, network newscasts were 15 minutes long — nothing more than a headline service, really — until Cronkite said he wouldn’t do the job unless CBS expanded its news broadcast to a half hour. 


It took a while for someone to try to define what Cronkite — and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley — did. Eventually, they were called anchorman. But Cronkite insisted on being called managing editor of CBS News. It was a tradition he carried over from his newspaper and wire service career and it indicated the sort of care and precision that he brought to the profession. Sad to say, much of that grace and professionalism has been lost.


I met him once at a dinner in Arizona. In fact, that evening was a trifecta of journalism greatness. I shook hands with Cronkite, was the butt of a characteristically snide comment from Andy Rooney and squeezed into a buffet line with Bill Mauldin. Rooney was laughing when he made the joke at my expense, and no offense was taken. Mauldin was a little embarrassed to squeeze in front of me in line. But meeting Walter — well, it was a little like shaking hands with Mount Rushmore.


SOME CRONKLINKS:


We know he's really dead because the New York Times wrote this great obit.


How Walter would've fared in the blogosphere.


Cronkite coverage to make Walter cringe.


William McKeen is chairman of the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism and author of several books, including the acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalistnow available in paperback.

Journalist Walter Cronkite is dead at 92.

The word for “anchorman” in Swedish is kronkiter. That tells you an awful lot about how important Walter Cronkite was to broadcast journalism. He so thoroughly defined a role that the job took its name from him.

I believe his genius as a broadcaster was in coverage of the live event. He gathered information — as a reporter — then knew precisely when to use it (or, rather, download it). He learned how to talk over pictures and not insult the intelligence of viewers by explaining the obvious. He always knew the background, the interesting personal histories, of the people he was covering. And that’s what made his broadcasts superior to those of the other networks. 

He also was a great student. In the late 1950s, when he realized that the space race was coming, he learned everything he could about the tools and the technology. And that’s why he beat the socks off of all the other networks during the coverage of the space program in the 1960s. When the inevitable launch delays occurred, all the other networks could say was, “Well . . . there appears to be some delay. The rocket is still on the launching pad . . . .” But Walter not only knew the problem, he could tell us about it in terms we could understand. 

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