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Walter Cronkite, 1916 – 2009

Monday, July 20 2009

walter_cronkite

Walter Cronkite. Still from CBS video biography.

(Click to go to CBS tribute page to Walter Cronkite.)

Walter Cronkite, legendary anchor of the CBS Evening News, died at his home in New York at 19:42 on Friday July 17. He was 92. For millions his reporting is indissolubly associated with key events in recent American history such as the Cuban missile crisis, the arrival of the Beatles in the USA, the assassination of President John Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and the Watergate scandal.

The young Cronkite became fascinated with journalism after a reading an article about the adventurous work of a reporter in American Boy, a children’s newspaper. At San Jacinto High School he became editor of the school newspaper. He started a degree course in political science, economics, and journalism at the University of Texas. He contributed to the Daily Texan, and took a part-time job with the Houston Post. His work as a journalist took priority and he dropped out of college in his second year.

His broadcasting début was as a radio announcer for WKY in Oklahoma City.  He was also the sports announcer for KCMO in Kansas City. In 1937, he joined the United Press. He flew on bombing raids over Germany, landed in a glider in Operation Market-Garden in the German-occupied Netherlands, and covered the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg trials and then served as the head of UP’s Moscow office from 1946 to 1948.

While working for the UP, Cronkite was offered a job at CBS by Edward R. Murrow – but he turned it down. In 1950, he accepted a second offer and newly emerging medium of television. In the early ’50s, many journalists regarded TV as inferior to radio and the print media. During a TV career that lasted 31 years Cronkite did more than most to change that view.

In 1952, the term ‘anchor’ was coined to describe Cronkite’s role during CBS’s coverage of both the Democratic National Convention” and the Republican National Convention – the first conventions broadcast on nationwide TV. Cronkite went on to anchor the CBS’s coverage of the ensuing presidential election.

In 1962, Cronkite became anchor of the CBS Evening News, a 15 minute news programme which was expanded to 30 minutes in 1963. The added time gave the broadcast more depth and variety. At the same time Cronkite became the programme’s Managing Editor, which gave him more influence over content and coverage.

At the time, national news reporting in the USA was dominated by NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, the most popular television newscast in the country. Cronkite relaunched the expanded program with an interview with President John F. Kennedy. Two months later, Cronkite broke into CBS’s regular programming to announce that Kennedy had been shot. Initially, there was no camera ready in the newsroom and viewers only heard Cronkite’s voice, later on they were to see him announce that the president had been killed.

His struggle to retain his composure was a defining moment for Cronkite, and for the USA. In 1969, with Apollo 11, and later with Apollo 13, Cronkite made CBS the most-watched television network for the missions. In 1970, CBS finally overtook NBC as the American top TV news network.

In 1968, Cronkite journeyed to Vietnam to report on the progress of war. Upon return Cronkite closed his report with an editorial comment:

…it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Cronkite gave voice to what millions of Americans were feeling. Following Cronkite’s report, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Cronkite’s professionalism and objectivity gained him the sobriquet in viewer opinion polls of being “the most trusted man in America”.

His last day in the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News was on Sunday March 6, 1981; he was succeeded on Monday by Dan Rather. One of Cronkite’s trademarks was ending the CBS Evening News with the phrase “…And that’s the way it is,”. With his passing the world lost one of its greatest journalists ever – and that’s the way it is.

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