Thursday, July 23, 2009

So Long, Uncle Walter

By Mark Frankel

I wonder how Walter Cronkite would have responded to the tsunami of coverage and commentary sparked by his death last week at 92. Certainly, his obituary earned its place above the fold on The New York Times. (To anyone under 40: That’s a newspaper term, referring to its placement on the top-half of the front page). My guess is he would have expressed wry bemusement at the heaps of low-calorie pontificating and punditry his death inspired. He always regarded himself as simply a reporter doing his job.

But make no mistake: Presenting the news from the anchor’s chair on The CBS Evening News during two of the most volatile, combustible decades in recent American history, Cronkite was a journalistic—and ultimately national—institution.

His privileged spot as one of the handful of men (yes, they were all men) heading up one of the three networks’ evening news shows made him a dinner guest (or after-dinner speaker, if you ate before 7 p.m.) in millions of homes, five nights a week. In an era when Americans were hungry, desperate, for facts—about the confusing and unwinnable war in VietNam; about the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr; or the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon—he supplied them in a sonorous, Midwestern baritone that so many people prefer their news (and late-night monologues) to be delivered in.

Yet, unlike today’s parachuting anchors, whose presence on the scene signifies an unfolding Big Story, Cronkite never portrayed himself as somehow bigger than the events he covered.

No one who has come of age since 1981, the year Cronkite retired and a few years before the networks commenced their slow, unrelenting slide into irrelevance, can truly comprehend the social sway that the Big Three network news anchors once wielded. (Though as someone whose father and brother worked at NBC News for decades, I’d like to loyally point out that Cronkite only fully inherited the mantle of “Walter Cronkite” after The Huntley-Brinkley Report, the dominant news broadcast for most of the 1960s, went dark in 1970, when Chet Huntley retired.)

To a degree unimaginable today, the network anchors once set the national conversation. While Woodward and Bernstein became folk heroes for uncovering Watergate in Washington Post, it was Cronkite, in his role as CBS Evening News managing editor, who decided to devote 14-minutes—an eternity-plus-a-day of time, in broadcasting terms, then as well as now—to explaining the scandal and its full implications, to his TV audience. Doing so, Cronkite boosted public awareness of Watergate to a new level, and bestowed upon a flagging newspaper story new legs and significance.

Ditto for his 1968 broadcast that labeled the VietNam War unwinnable, and urged Washington to negotiate with Hanoi and the Viet Cong. Afterwards, Lyndon Johnson fretted to an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

For the life of me I can’t imagine Barack Obama saying the same thing about either Charlie Gibson or Brian Williams.

Mark Frankel is a former Marketing Leader of Communications at Mastercard Advisors.

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