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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Walter CronkiteHe fought against “compromising journalistic integrity in the mad scramble for ratings and circulation.”

Walter Cronkite was a newsman’s newsman. He was a man for the ages. His insistence on objectivity, fairness and truth and his love for the job made him a role model for journalists everywhere.

He got his start and spent much of his career in print but will be remembered most for his 19 years anchoring the CBS Evening News. When he died recently at 92, so did what the New York Times called “something of a national institution.” He was that because of the public trust he generated. He earned that trust in his reverence of the unique role the First Amendment of the US Constitution assigns to the mass media. With that guarantee of a free press, the Founding Fathers protected a cornerstone of freedom and democracy.

Cronkite’s straightforward, unvarnished delivery of the news made him the most trusted man in America. He was so cherished some Americans wanted him to run for high office – in 1972, for example, for Vice-President on the Democratic ticket of Senator George McGovern against President Richard Nixon. But Cronkite remained at CBS until his retirement in 1981. He later went on the CBS board where he continued his fight for high standards against those who worshipped “the bottom line.”

“At a time when there is so much debate about whether journalists can be objective, it is appropriate to remember Walter Cronkite for his greatest legacy to our profession: proving that it is possible to report news responsibly, accurately and fairly and in the process earn the trust of readers and viewers,” said Myron Belkind, who lives in Washington, DC after 42 years with The Associated Press, almost entirely abroad as bureau chief in New Delhi, London and Tokyo, and who now teaches at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. He chairs the National Press Club’s International Correspondents’ Committee.

On 17 September 1987 in New Orleans, Cronkite received from the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) its coveted Edward R. Murrow Award, named after a pioneer and icon of TV news.

In his acceptance speech, Cronkite said, “With almost total unanimity, our big, corporate owners, infected with the greed that marks the end of the 20th Century, stretch constantly for ever-increasing profit, condemning quality to take the hindmost. If there is any solution to this problem it might be found in educating the share-holding public to their responsibility in owning this business which is fundamental to the preservation of our democracy.”

He went on to say, “If they understood the nature of this public service and treated their investment in it accordingly, we would be saved from compromising journalistic integrity in the mad scramble for ratings and circulation. In other words, if they did not expect the constantly increasing, unconscionable profits now expected from most investments but accepted a rational and steady return on their investment in this essential public service of newspapers and broadcast news.”

His credo was that news should be unadorned with reportorial opinion. It should be given straight. He proved a journalist could be objective no matter what his personal views. Many may have suspected but few knew Cronkite’s liberal philosophy until after his retirement. In reporting, he strove to be as fair to conservatives as to liberals and to all those in between. It can be done. He did it. In his RTNDA speech, he said, “There are bad apples in our barrel, of course, but as a class, there is a purity of intent and purpose in journalism that is unique… Our only enemies are those who would erect barriers between the people and the truth. And the perpetual struggle against them – ah, my friends, there is a crusade that’s worth the ride.”

Cronkite attributed his choice of career largely to the unpaid volunteer journalism teacher he had in a Houston, Texas high school and to a story he read in American Boy magazine. The teacher, Fred Birney, was a newspaperman who thought journalism should be taught in high school. “He was an inspired teacher who directed the course of my life,” Cronkite wrote in his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life. “He wasn’t even a professional teacher but he had the gift… He spent a couple of days each week circulating among Houston’s five high schools preaching the fundamentals of a craft he loved.”

One result was that Cronkite became sports editor of the Campus Cub, “our semi-occasional school paper.” That’s how many journalists get their start. Cronkite also gives some of the credit to the magazine’s “series of fiction pieces featuring various occupations… none intrigued me as much as that on the newspaperman.” But it was Birney who drilled into him the fundamentals of good journalism. Cronkite wrote that his “every criticism, every suggestion, made clear that there was a sacred covenant between newspaper people and their readers. We journalists had to be right and we had to be fair.”

Those were the traits that marked Cronkite through a career that embraced not only TV and radio but also the Houston Post, the Houston Press, and for many years the United Press which sent him to Europe to cover World War II. After the war he was at the Nuremburg war crimes trials and became one of the seven American newspaper and radio correspondents in Moscow where he was based two years.

But Americans came to know him best when he took over the CBS Evening News anchor’s chair in 1962 and the news was expanded from 15 minutes to a half hour. Commercials took a heavy whack out of that. Cronkite tried in vain to get it stretched to an hour to give listeners and viewers the news background he felt viewers and listeners needed. He was always thinking first and foremost of the news consumers and the decisions they must make as citizens of a democracy. That’s why he won their trust.

Bob Webb was the Washington Bureau Chief for the Cincinnati Enquirer, 1970-75, and news editor, 1975-76. He was a senior editorial writer and twice-weekly columnist for the paper, 1976-93.