The Way It Was

One wonders whether Wolf Blitzer, the CNN news anchor, cringes every time he has to say on air that his network has “the best political team in the business”. He should. Certainly, I cringe whenever I hear some marketing type insist on calling South Africa “world-class”. If you have to keep reminding people that you are world-class  or the best, you are almost by definition saying the opposite of what you intend.

Walter Cronkite, the legendary American newscaster who died at 92 on Friday, never had to brag or utter silly slogans for his network, CBS. Anchoring the evening news through two tumultuous decades, the 60s and the 70s, “Uncle Walter”, as America affectionately call him, was quite simply the best. In 1972, he was voted the most trusted man in the country.

Back then, there were only three US television networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, and watching the evening news, often round the dinner table, was still a national habit. Cronkite and his competitors had a lot of unsettling news to deliver. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev Martin Luther King, Vietnam, race riots, the shooting of anti-war protesters at Kent State University, Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Three Mile Island nuclear scare and Iranian hostage crisis all happened on Cronkite’s watch.

Through it all he was a deeply reassuring presence, the very antithesis of the exquisitely groomed entertainers, provocateurs and carnival barkers who battle for attention in today’s highly overtraded news space. He was rumpled, he had jowls, his upper lip sported a faintly comical salt and pepper moustache. But he had a voice, a sonorous baritone, a Gary Cooper sort of voice which he used with a Gary Cooper sort of imperturbability. When he closed his broadcast each night with the words “that’s the way it is”, you knew it was.

There was, of course, much more to his credibility than his look and sound. Having covered World War II for the now-defunct United Press news agency, he was a master of the disappearing craft of getting the story and telling it fast, accurately and with dispassion. As anchor, he didn’t simply read the news, he acted as an old-fashioned news editor, working sources himself to pin down facts and bashing out his own scripts on a thing called a typewriter. There was no room for fat. This was before the days of round-the-clock cable news broadcasts . Thirteen of the show’s 30 minutes were taken up  by ads, leaving just 17 for Cronkite and his team to convey the day’ events.

His report the day of the King assassination, April 4, 1968 — now viewable on You Tube — is a classic. The writing is precise and unadorned, the delivery urgent yet measured and utterly free of histrionics, the screen uncluttered by graphics and crawlers. Today’s producers would almost certainly have branded their coverage with movie-like titles: “Murder in Memphis”, brought to you by the “best political team in the business”. The air would be thick with the voices of talking heads hastily assembled to fill the space between the arrival of new facts with opinions and vaporous instant analysis. Unburdened by digital technology, Cronkite delivered the awful news with magisterial authority.

Turbulent as the period was, America was also engaged in an extraordinary adventure to put a man on the moon. Cronkite was the pre-eminent narrator. To this day, it is his voice that American baby  boomers hear when they remember the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions that culminated in the landing 40 years  ago yesterday. It is a sad irony that he died so soon before the anniversary. It would have been good to hear him reminisce.

He did the play-by-play for the Apollo 11 mission. Watching his coverage of the landing again, I think I heard him say, almost as an aside as mission control ticked off the minutes to touch down, “4 1/2 minutes left in the era”. The momentousness of what was happening summed up in a perfect gem of understatement. Four and a half minutes later, words finally failed him as they failed almost everyone else at that moment. “Oh, gosh,” he said.

He retired in 1981, choosing not to fight CBS’s then mandatory retirement at 65. As someone said, it was as though George Washington had walked off the dollar bill. He instantly regretted it as did much of his viewing public. His successor, Dan Rather, was unable to conceal an ego the size of Texas. Rather made you feel his broadcast was as much about him as the news he was reporting. Cronkite never did that. He had a quality that is increasingly rare in his profession — indeed, as New York Times columnist David Brooks has recently argued, it is now rare anywhere — and that is dignity. Another possessor is Nelson Mandela.

Published version here

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