Commentary: Cronkite led, but he didn't corner the market on quality or innovation
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 21, 2009 - He's being called iconic, authoritative and avuncular. When Walter Cronkite died last week, it did indeed feel like the end of an era. And as always, when we reflect on the past, we tend to believe that everything used to be better.
In the case of Walter Cronkite, I think that is mostly true. As an employee in the KMOX-TV (now KMOV) newsroom in the 1970s and early '80s, I was inspired by Cronkite.
It was a proud time to be associated with CBS News, and we felt what we were doing was important and serious; CBS was sometimes called the Tiffany network, because of its perceived excellence. Cronkite was a big part of that, since the Evening News was appointment television and Cronkite was the best.
Viewers could depend on him daily for a comprehensive and clear overview of the world, and we knew he was the man to turn to when something momentous occurred. It seems like a cliche to say viewers trusted him, but we did.
In obituaries and commentaries, Cronkite is cited as being trustworthy because he was objective. He wasn't always, of course.
His 1968 commentary that the Vietnam War would end in stalemate was said to have changed the course of that war. And when, later that year, he called the Chicago Police "thugs" in light of their treatment of protesters at the Democratic convention, he took a stand that some would dispute.
Overall, however, Cronkite held his own counsel, which made those moments of emotion more meaningful. When he showed sorrow about the Kennedy assassination or excitement about the moon landing, it reinforced viewers' understanding of how big these moments were.
Today, emotion from some television announcers is so common we are immune to it. Too many news stories are presented to us as tragedies, threats or nightmare scenarios. Outrage from those presenting the news is all too common, particularly on cable news networks.
As we look back, some will inevitably say that the golden age of broadcast journalism is past and that we will never see the likes of Cronkite again.
I believe the second part; we'll never have another Cronkite. His rise through the ranks from print to radio to television is a path that doesn't happen anymore.
But I dispute the idea that everything good in journalism is behind us.
When you examine his career, you realize that Cronkite was on the cutting edge of the technology of his time. He began broadcasting on radio in the 1930s, a little more than a decade after the first commercial radio broadcast. He moved to television in 1950, when fewer than 10 percent of American households even had television. He succeeded in journalism by adapting to the changing technology of his time.
Similarly, tomorrow's important journalists are adapting to new technologies. There are more and more ways to reach people; and just as the early days of television seem clumsy to us now, it's likely that in 50 years, today's efforts on the internet and personal devices will seem as archaic as television stations going off the air at midnight, as they did well into the 1970s.
In 1963, with Cronkite at the helm, CBS became the first network to lengthen its evening newscast from 15 to 30 minutes. No one could have foreseen a time when we would have 24 hour news. We can't imagine what is ahead of us, either. I'd like to think that Cronkite would be excited about the possibilities of journalism in the future. I'm an educator, and I know I am.
Walter Cronkite was one of the greats, and I was privileged to get into the news business in his time. Not all of the journalism then was memorable, and that's still true today. But there's hope. We just have to be open to the possibility of new and exciting ways of doing great journalism, just as Uncle Walter was.
Eileen Solomon is a professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Webster University.