Walter Cronkite at 100: ‘He trusted us’

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, longtime anchorman of CBS News and the revered broadcast journalist who came to be known as “The Most Trusted Man in America,” was born 100 years ago today — November 4, 1916 — in St. Joseph, Missouri.

As I wrote when he died in 2009, no anchorman before or since has come close to his reputation for integrity and credibility. For generations of Americans, watching him deliver “The CBS Evening News” was a nightly ritual. His trademark signoff, “And that’s the way it is,” became a cultural touchstone and a benediction.

He was at the center of every major news story during the second half of the 20th century. Our collective memories of the Kennedy Assassination, the 1968 Democratic convention, the moon landing, the Vietnam War and Watergate are forever linked to his voice, his face, and his calm and reassuring manner.

Here is an excerpt from President Barack Obama’s remarks at Cronkite’s memorial service at Lincoln Center in New York on September 9, 2009:

He was forever there, reporting through world war and cold war; marches and milestones; scandal and success; calmly and authoritatively telling us what we needed to know.  He was a voice of certainty in a world that was growing more and more uncertain.  And through it all, he never lost the integrity or the plainspoken speaking style that he gained growing up in the heartland.  He was a familiar and welcome voice that spoke to each and every one of us personally.

So it may have seemed inevitable that he was named the most trusted man in America.  But here’s the thing:  That title wasn’t bestowed on him by a network.  We weren’t told to believe it by some advertising campaign.  It was earned.  It was earned by year after year and decade after decade of painstaking effort; a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle.  He didn’t believe in dumbing down.  He trusted us.

When he was told of this extraordinary honor that he was the most trusted man in America, he naturally downplayed it by saying the people had not polled his wife. When people of both political parties actually tried to recruit him to run for office, without even asking for his stances on the issues, he said no — to the relief of all potential opponents.  And when, even a decade and a half after his retirement, he still ranked first in seven of eight categories for television journalists, he was disbelieving that he hadn’t won the eighth category, “attractiveness.”

Through all the events that came to define the 20th century, through all our moments of deepest hurt and brightest hope, Walter Cronkite was there, telling the story of the American age.

And this is how we remember him today.  But we also remember and celebrate the journalism that Walter practiced — a standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility to which so many of you have committed your careers.  It’s a standard that’s a little bit harder to find today.  We know that this is a difficult time for journalism.  Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing.  Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line.

And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed.  “What happened today?” is replaced with “Who won today?”  The public debate cheapens.  The public trust falters.  We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should –- and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation.  We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society.  Which price is higher to pay?  Which cost is harder to bear?

“This democracy,” Walter said, “cannot function without a reasonably well-informed electorate.” That’s why the honest, objective, meticulous reporting that so many of you pursue with the same zeal that Walter did is so vital to our democracy and our society:  Our future depends on it. 

Walter was no naive idealist.  He understood the challenges and the pressures and the temptations facing journalism in this new era.  He believed that a media company has an obligation to pursue a profit, but also an obligation to invest a good chunk of that profit back into news and public affairs.  He was excited about all the stories that a high-tech world of journalism would be able to tell, and all the newly-emerging means with which to tell it.

Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time.  In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check?  Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance?  Would he still offer the perspective that we value?  Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

And somehow, we know that the answer is yes.  The simple values Walter Cronkite set out in pursuit of — to seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world the best he could — they are as vital today as they ever were.

Our American story continues.  It needs to be told.  And if we choose to live up to Walter’s example, if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I’m convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one — and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead.

Walter Cronkite invited a nation to believe in him — and he never betrayed that trust.  That’s why so many of you entered the profession in the first place.  That’s why the standards he set for journalists still stand.  And that’s why he loved and valued all of you, but we loved and valued Walter not only as the rarest of men, but as an indispensable pillar of our society.

He’s reunited with his beloved Betsy now, watching the stories of this century unfold with boundless optimism — every so often punctuating the air with a gleeful “oh, boy!” We are grateful to him for altering and illuminating our time, and for the opportunity he gave to us to say that, yes, we, too, were there.