A journalism icon

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Walter Cronkite died this past Friday, the world lost a journalism giant. "The Most Trusted Man in America" was the iconic newsman. Millions welcomed him into their living rooms each evening for two decades, and his broadcasts have become part of American history.

When I think of Kennedy's assassination, I can picture Cronkite sitting at his CBS news desk and hear the measured cadence of his voice announcing the exact time of President Kennedy's death. There are also those famous images of Cronkite wearing camouflage and a helmet as he broadcast from the jungles of Vietnam or telling the world that man had landed on the moon, letting his professionism slip for just a moment as his voice rose in almost boyish glee at the achievement. This is also a journalist who had the opportunity to sit down and interview Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Eisenhower and Nixon as well as reporting on the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Cronkite's rise to prominence came at the same time television news was coming into its own in American culture. Cronkite became the voice of news that people trusted. He was a newsman first and foremost and never thought of what he did as entertainment. When you compare Cronkite's broadcasts to the TV newscasts of today, there is stark contrast. Cronkite delivered the news professionally and without fanfare and flourish. He spoke with authority, and his audience trusted him and never doubted they were hearing the truth.

In the world of 24-hour cable news, news stories "develop" and in the rush to be the first to break the story, truth and facts are sometimes pushed aside in favor of sensationalism. Cronkite followed the philosophy that he'd rather get it right than get it first. I also doubt that we would have seen Walter Cronkite giving the latest update on the Jon and Kate Plus Eight saga or reporting on a celebrity's latest stint in rehab. Back in Cronkite's day there were only three evening news broadcasts and tuning in to hear Cronkite deliver the news became a nightly habit in millions of households across the nation.

News anchors today seem more interested in their own celebrity and their own opinion and appear to have forgotten the key element of their job, which is to deliver the news fairly and accurately. Because of Cronkite's immense popularity with viewers and the people he interviewed, there were those pushing for Cronkite to enter politics. When asked why he never made a run for public office, Cronkite said he believed it would have hurt the credibility of his profession. He said viewers would wonder whether he was reporting the news truthfully or coloring the newscast for his own political agenda.

As a journalist, Walter Cronkite represents the best of the best. His legacy lives on, and his body of journalistic work will set the bar for generations to come. His suits, the austere-looking news sets and the black and white images may look old-fashioned, but Cronkite's delivery, his insight and his professionalism will continue to serve as a model for all aspiring journalists - it's his legacy. For a number of years, Cronkite's autobiography, "A Reporter's Life," has been among the books on my bedside table. I have read chapters of the book but never the entire memoir. As I head off to vacation at the end of the week, "A Reporter's Life" will be in my luggage. I have no doubt Cronkite's words will inspire me, so that upon my return to work, I have a renewed commitment to my profession and a deeper drive to ensure that the Cassville Democrat newspaper remains Barry County's most trusted news source.

Lisa Schlichtman