AND THAT'S THE WAY IT WAS
When I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, there was a man who came to my house during dinner time each night to tell my mother and father and me what was going on in the world.
His name was Walter Cronkite.
Walter Cronkite was the anchor person of the CBS Evening News, and he was rightly regarded as “the most trusted man in America.”
Each evening when my father would come home from his office, he would take a seat in our living room in his favorite chair directly across from our TV set.
Our TV set looked like a washing machine with antlers. It was a big brown box that had a little window in the center. Directly below the window were two dials. One dial turned the TV on and off and controlled the volume. The other dial was used to set the channel. In those pre-cable TV days, we could only get four channels: Channel 3 (CBS), Channel 5 (NBC), Channel 13 (ABC), and Channel 10 (the “education” channel).
On top of the box were two metal antennas that were called “rabbit ears” even though they were neither furry nor floppy. And attached to the tip of the “rabbit ears” were tiny pieces of aluminum foil. For some reason they helped us get a clearer reception on the very tiny window screen at the front of the TV box.
As a child, I spent many hours sitting in front of this TV set watching the world in miniature and black and white.
I saw Elvis and later the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. I watched Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo and Gilligan’s Island, which I am convinced caused my IQ to drop dramatically.
But every weeknight at 6:00 p.m. I would join my father to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the CBS Evening News.
Walter resembled another TV personality named Walt, specifically Walt Disney. But while Walt Disney introduced me to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Walter Cronkite introduced me to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Unlike Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite was not an entertainer. He was a journalist. And unlike a lot of current broadcast journalists, he never engaged in “happy talk.” He didn’t tell jokes or laugh or deliver the “lighter side” of the news. He was all business. Each night he sat at a desk, looked directly into the camera, and told my mother and father and me what was happening in Washington and in New York, and sometimes in faraway places such as London and Paris and, all too often in the late 1960s, Vietnam.
He would also appear on our TV screens during significant national events. On a July day in 1969, he narrated an event that took place 238,000 miles from the earth … when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
And during what I remember as the longest weekend of my life – a terrible weekend in November of 1963 – he told me first that President Kennedy had been shot. And then he told me the President had died, and then for the rest of the weekend he narrated the President’s funeral and ultimate burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Unlike the current broadcast journalists you see on cable networks such as Fox News or MSNBC, Walter Cronkite never made a snide remark about the President of the United States or members of Congress of any other public figures. He simply reported the news and gave us all the credit for being smart enough to reach our own conclusions about the events he covered.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Walter Cronkite over the past few days as I read and heard about what happened to Brian Williams, the longtime anchor person of NBC Nightly News.
I like Brian Williams, and until a few days ago, I regarded him as the Walter Cronkite of my generation. I trusted him. I had no reason not to. And then I heard the news that for years he’s been telling me a story about himself that is simply not true. I actually heard him tell the story a few times over the years and I believed him. And now he’s admitted that he made it up, or to use his words, “conflated” it.
I can’t figure out why he did it. My only explanation is a sad one. We live in a celebrity culture in which news broadcasters want to be newsmakers or entertainers. Whether it’s Sean Hannity on the right or Rachel Maddow on the left, the new generation of broadcast journalists want to do more than deliver the news. They want to tell us the “truth” about the news and how we should feel about it. Unlike Walter Cronkite, they don’t trust us to make our own judgments.
And sadly, many broadcast journalists want to be entertainers.
Brian Williams tried to be an entertainer, and I fell for it. I watched him crack jokes with David Letterman or “slow jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon, and I confess I enjoyed it.
But Walter Cronkite never appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show or cracked jokes with Johnny Carson on the tonight show. He did not try to be an entertainer or a commentator or a celebrity. He just shared with me the news each weeknight at 6:00 p.m.
And he never lied.
And that’s the way it was.