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Media > Politics and Prejudices

That's the way it was

Looking back on Cronkite, the last man to unite us as Americans

 

Published 7/22/2009

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My guess is that if you are in your 30s, or younger, you have a hard time understanding why everybody made such a big deal over Walter Cronkite dying last week. He hadn't anchored a news program since 1981.

You probably don't remember him, except as a sort of ghostly, grandfatherly figure in some old documentaries, telling the world that JFK was dead or that man had landed on the moon. Personally, if I were young, I might just shrug off the outpouring of sadness over Uncle Walter's passing as merely another case of self-indulgent baby boomer nostalgia, like Beatles "tribute" bands.

And sure, for some, there may be a tinge of that. But that's mostly not the way it is. That's not the way it was.

Here's what was really going on: Walter Cronkite was the last newsman to make us feel that we were one country. We saw ourselves as united in a voyage of discovery, having to fend off evil and outside perils, and on a mission to make our lives and the world we lived in better. We were basically a good people who sometimes screwed up, but we were trying to make a living and make sense of this world together. 

There was an American consensus that we don't have today. We felt ourselves threatened by the Soviet Union and the prospect of nuclear war.

News, important, significant news, had value.

The Great Depression was no further removed from the America of 1963 than the Reagan administration is from today. We wanted peace and prosperity and everyone wanted to participate in the American Dream.

When Cronkite started anchoring the CBS Evening News, a year before they took the news to half an hour for the first time, World War II had been over for only 17 years. We were one nation, united by television for the first time, and Walter Cronkite and his only rivals, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, both now long gone, took us where it was happening and showed us what was going on. We trusted them to be straight, honest, and to get it right.

Cronkite had the most power to do that, because he was the managing editor of the CBS Evening News as well. He had earned his stripes as a reporter, a writing wire service reporter. He spent much of World War II, not in a trench coat on camera, but in a muddy ditch with a typewriter, writing stories for $92 a week. When CBS first tried to hire him for more money, he turned them down. 

Today everyone says that Walter Cronkite was the last play-it-straight, non-ideological broadcast journalist in America. Yet what we remember most about him were the times when he took sides. He produced a carefully nuanced special report on Vietnam, at the height of the war, and told viewers it was his judgment that we could not win, and that our nation needed to look for a negotiated solution.

What nobody adds is that his opinion changed policy not a whit, and our participation in that futile war went on for four more years.

However, he did influence history in a big way in 1977, when he literally pushed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meeting with each other, something that eventually led to the two nations making peace. Since then, despite all the bloodshed, there has been no major war involving Israel and the other nations in the Middle East.

What mattered to him was the significant. Ironically, one of his few wrong calls was for the right reason. He refused to make Elvis Presley's death the main story of the day on Aug. 16, 1977. Elvis Alive, by the way, wasn't nearly the cultural phenomenon Elvis Dead would become.

Cronkite's News would not have pumped up nothings like Paris Hilton. He would not use exit polls on the last election night he anchored in 1980. CBS was behind in projecting Ronald Reagan's victory. But a network without exit polls would have looked damned good on Election Night 2000, when the networks called the wrong winner — twice.

Ironically, two other phenomena, both now considerably outdated, sadly stifled Walter Cronkite's later career. He was forced out as anchor at 64, thanks to an outdated CBS policy and the network's eagerness to get Dan Rather in the chair before he could jump to a rival network.

After that, he was paid a million a year to essentially do nothing. A few documentaries here and there. CBS wanted everyone to concentrate on Dan Rather. They did, and the network's ratings went into the toilet and stayed there, No. 3 and not trying harder.

Walter Cronkite was old-fashioned in another way too. He remained loyal to CBS. Undoubtedly he could have left, anchored someone else's news, beaten all the competition. But that wasn't him. 

Javan Kienzle, a superb copy editor recently kicked to the curb by the Gannettoids destroying the Detroit Free Press, put it this way: "How can we ever again even hope to approach what the real newsmen did? How can we ever again hope to be what journalism is supposed to be? The pretty boys and cutesy girls who 'report' the news are like Dolly the Sheep — they've been cloned, but all the original juice is gone, the institutional knowledge is gone, the passion is gone."

Gannett laid Kienzle and other copy editors off because they said they could not afford them. On the front page of the Sunday paper, in an important graphic about Martha Reeves' finances, the word "neither" was left out of a key sentence about her debts.

The same day, word came that Gannett had made a larger than expected profit of $70 million in the second quarter. The executives congratulated themselves on "cutting costs." Not to be outdone, this week, the Ann Arbor News is closing, permanently.

And that's the way it is.


Unbelievably stupid:
I still can't believe this actually happened. To quote directly from the story in The Detroit News: "Two hearses jammed with stuffed animals left in memory of Michael Jackson were given a two-car police escort Friday to the toys' burial at Woodlawn Cemetery ... at the cemetery, the toys were unloaded ... placed into clear plastic bags and then inside donated vaults.

"The cemetery donated the equivalent of three graves for the vaults." So burial space was wasted, police time and money was tied up, so that stuffed animals which had nothing to do with Michael Jackson could be buried in memory of a dead and very messed-up entertainer.

Think about it: Jackson never saw, touched, owned or knew about these toys. He had nothing to do with them. But they were given a magnificent funeral in a graveyard that holds the remains of many of the greatest figures in Detroit history.

I always thought the Roman Catholic practice of carrying around saints' bones was sort of nuts. But this makes that look as logical as a laser beam. After all, the bones did once belong to the saints, if you believe there are saints. 

What did the local media make of this stuffed animal lunacy? The only thing they appeared to question was whether police time and money should have been tied up escorting them to their "burial." Though eyebrows were raised, the answer is unquestionably yes. Why, ever since the funeral, there hasn't been a single crime committed by a stuffed animal in Detroit. So now beat it.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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