Friday, July 17, 2009

Godspeed Legendary Anchorman Walter Cronkite

Tonight at a little before 7:00 Central, 8:00 Eastern, legendary newsman and long time anchor of The CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite died at the age of 92. According to his son Chip Cronkite the cause was complications from dementia.

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on November 4, 1916. His father, Walter Leland Cronkite Sr., was a dentist of Ducth ancestry, whose forebears had settled New Amsterdam. His mother was Helen Lena Fritsche Cronkite. Walter Cronkite was only nine years old when he had his first encounter with the news business. He sold copies of The Kansas City Star every Saturday night.

Mr. Cronkite's family moved from Missouri to Houston, Texas when he was 10 years old. It was Fred Birney, a journalism teacher who made a circuit about Houston area schools, who got young Mr. Cronkite into journalism. Birney appointed him editor of the school newspaper. Later he also helped Mr. Cronkite get a job at The Houston Post as a cub reporter and a copy boy. Mr. Cronkite delivered the paper at the same time he was a reporter. In his autobiography Walter Cronkite made the statement, "As far as I know, there were no other journalists delivering the morning paper with their own compositions inside." It was also when Cronkite was only sixteen that he had his first encounter with television. He and some friends went to the World's Fair where he took part in a demonstration of an experimental form of television.

Mr. Cronkite attended the University of Texas in Austin, occasionally reporting for the The Houston Press and other newspapers at the same time. He was at the university only two years before he decided he would rather be working. He took a full time job with The Houston Press, where he worked for a time. He was visiting Kansas City Missouri when he picked up a copy of The Kansas City Star and read news of the opening of KCMO Radio. It was in 1936 that he was hired as KCMO's entire news and sports department. At KCMO he broadcast under the name Walter Wilcox, because in the Thirties radio stations did not want broadcasters to use their real names for fear that if they left they would take their listeners with them. It was at KCMO that he met Betsy Maxwell, a University of Missouri graduate who wrote advertising copy for the station. The two married in 1940. Mrs. Cronkite died in 2005.

It was in 1939 that Mr. Cronkite took a job with United Press, for whom he covered World War II. He covered The Blitz on London. He also accompanied the first Allied forces in Northern Africa. In 1943 Edward R. Murrow offered Mr. Cronkite a job with his radio broadcast team out of CBS's Moscow Bureau. Mr. Cronkite turned Mr. Murrow down, deciding to remain with United Press. It was also in 1943 that Mr. Cronkite was one of only eight reporters selected to accompany B-17 Flying Fortresses and their crews on bombing runs into Germany. Walter Cronkite covered the Invasion of Normandy. He also landed with the airborne operation known as Operation Market Garden. Among the important battles he covered was the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war Mr. Cronkite covered the Nuremberg Trials.

It was after the Nuremberg Trials that Walter Cronkite left United Press to serve as the Washington correspondent for several Midwestern radio stations. It was in 1950 that Edward R. Murrow finally brought him to CBS, although he would be working in television rather than radio. He was hired to develop the news department for a new CBS television station in Washington D.C. It was only a year later that Mr. Cronkite was appearing in nationally broadcast programmes. He was the moderator on It's News to Me and Facts We Face in 1951. In 1952 he was the moderator of Man of the Week. It was also in 1952 that Mr. Cronkite was chosen by CBS to head the coverage of both the Democratic and Republican Conventions. The Democratic and Republican Conventions made Mr. Cronkite a household name for the first time in his career. He would anchor CBS's coverage of every political convention and election until 1980, with the exception of 1964. For the Democratic Convention that year CBS replaced Mr. Cronkite with the team of Roger Mudd and Robert Trout in an effort to challenge NBC's team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who had received good ratings earlier that summer covering the Republican convention.

Starting in 1953 that he hosted the classic series You Are There, a programme which presented historical events as if they were being reported by television news. The series featured future film directors John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet among its directors. You Are There lasted four years and was revived in the Seventies as a Saturday morning show (again with Walter Cronkite). It was in 1954 that CBS made its first attempt to challenge NBC's Today Show. For The Morning Show CBS selected Walter Cronkite as its host. While on the short lived show Mr. Cronkite made the programme's sponsor, R. J. Reynolds, unhappy by correcting the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" to the more grammatically correct "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should." From 1956 to 1957 Mr. Cronkite was the narrator of Air Power, a documentary series covering the history of manned flight. Starting in 1957 he was the narrator of the long running series The Twentieth Century, a documentary series which covered important events in history.

It was in 1961 that Mr. Cronkite replaced Edward R. Murrow as CBS's senior correspondent. It was on April 16, 1962 that he replaced Douglas Edwards as the anchor of The CBS Evening News. Under Cronkite The CBS Evening News would see some changes. It would be broadcast from an actual news room rather than a studio, as it had formerly been. On September 2, 1963 The CBS Evening News expanded from fifteen minutes to a half hour. It was when the broadcast was expanded in time that Mr. Cronkite began his famous sign off, "And that’s the way it is." Mr. Cronkite was the first person to ever anchor a half hour television news broadcast. It would take several years for it to do so, but with Walter Cronkite as its anchor, The CBS Evening News would overtake The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC in the ratings. In time Walter Cronkite would become known as "The Most Trusted Man in America" and lovingly as "Uncle Walter."

As the anchor of The CBS Evening News Mr. Cronkite would cover some of the biggest events of the 20th Century: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the arrival of The Beatles in the United States, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, the Watergate scandal, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and many others. Even while working on The CBS Evening News Mr. Cronkite continued to narrate The Twentieth Century. He also served as a reporter on various episodes of the series CBS Reports. Starting in 1980 he was the host of the science series Walter Cronkite's Universe. Walter Cronkite retired in 1981 at the age of 64.

His retirement was hardly sedentary. He still worked as a special correspondent for CBS, CNN, and NPR. Among the historical events on which he served as a special correspondent was John Glenn's second flight into space in 1998 (he had also reported on his first flight in 1961). He served as the Master of Ceremonies for The Kennedy Centre Honours: A Celebration of the Performing Arts for many years, starting in 1979. He was the host of 50 Years of Television: A Golden Celebration in 1989. After Katie Couric took over as the anchor of The CBS Evening News in 2006, it was Walter Cronkite's voice which introduced the show each night.

Walter Cronkite has been called "The Most Trusted Man in America." There are many who would say that, short of Edward R. Murrow himself, Mr. Cronkite was the greatest television newsman of all time. And they would not be without good reason. Walter Cronkite was known for reporting the news in a wholly unbiased manner. Throughout his career, Mr. Cronkite was the epitome of journalistic integrity. While he might express his opinions off camera, he never did so while on camera. At the same time, however, Mr. Cronkite was one of the few television newsmen who was approachable. The average American not only considered him one of us, but practically family. Walter Cronkite was not only "The Most Trusted Man in America," but he was also "Uncle Walter." It is perhaps a mark of his greatness that, among other things, Walter Cronkite is the only Missourian to have his own bust placed in the Hall of Famous Missourians at the State Capitol while still alive.

And while Mr. Cronkite was scrupulously objective in his reporting of the news most of the time, like the average American he could be moved by the momentous events of history. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Cronkite had to wipe tears from his eyes. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, he could not restrain an enthusiastic "Oh, boy!" Mr. Cronkite was fair and impartial, but like the rest of us he could be moved by powerful events.

As for myself, I must say that this has been one of the harder eulogies for me to write. Mr. Cronkite became the anchor of The CBS Evening News less than a year before I was born. He retired when I was 18 years old. For the first 18 years of my life, then, it was through Walter Cronkite that I received the news. It was largely because of Walter Cronkite's enthusiasm for the space programme that I became a supporter of space exploration. I have been a NASA enthusiast since childhood. It was partially because of Walter Cronkite's enthusiasm for history, particularly through the series he hosted, Your Are There, that I also became a history buff. During the time I was a journalist major in college (before moving onto Film and Television), it was Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite to whom I looked as to how to report the news. Walter Kronkite, a fellow Missourian, impacted my life in a way few celebrities have. For that reason, I am very sad tonight.

And that's the way it is, Friday, July 17, 2009.

Walter Cronkite's Report of the Historic Apollo 11 Moon Landing

1 comment:

Toby O'B said...

I appreciate how hard it had to be to write that, Merc, but I'm also glad you did it. Too many other sources will be just the bare highlights of this giant's career. You gave us a great look back at his life....