Most child-rearing experts tell you that families should eat dinner together every night. Now, my mother and father were great role models in every way, but did fail that dinner test (at least on weekdays). But it was my fault. As a young teenager, I insisted that I had to eat dinner on a TV tray in the living room, embedded in front of the 15-minute CBS evening news broadcast to watch Walter Cronkite.
I admired Cronkite from the start. Like many Americans, I stayed with his broadcast over the years, through the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s until his retirement in March of 1981. During my professional career, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many broadcast journalists, but Cronkite wasn’t one of them.
That changed recently. It took about five decades, but I finally got to meet Walter Cronkite in February.
It came about like this: Since leaving the anchor chair, Cronkite hasn’t hesitated to speak out on the issues of the day that concern him. He’s a strong advocate for church-state separation and was an early endorser of "First Freedom First," the joint religious freedom project sponsored by Americans United and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation.
When the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation, told me that Cronkite had agreed to take part in a First Freedom First event in San Jose, Calif., sponsored by the Commonwealth Club, I was delighted.
Younger folks might have a hard time grasping the iconic status accorded to Cronkite and his famous "And that’s the way it is" sign-off. Folks closer my age don’t. Every night he was with us, reporting on the struggle for racial justice, the Vietnam War, the race to the moon, the Cuban missile crisis and so much more. These events were utterly fascinating, even if they sometimes seemed far removed from my normal life growing up in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pa. For years, Americans routinely told pollsters that they considered Cronkite the "most trusted man in America."
Welton, Walter and I had a chance to chat for about a half hour in an anteroom before the event began. Cronkite talked about his love of sailing and developments in the news business. However, he seemed even more interested in asking questions than in answering them.
As one example, he quizzed Welton and me on the role Mitt Romney’s Mormonism could play in voter interest in the upcoming presidential campaign; he wondered whether there were parallels with America’s struggle with electing John F. Kennedy as our first Roman Catholic head of state.
My son Nick, now working at nearby Google, came over to see the event. He got to meet Cronkite and was impressed by his grace and good humor. Nick, of course, was too young to have ever seen Cronkite anchor a news broadcast. He knows about him as a seminal figure in broadcast journalism and through stories I’ve told over the years about the role CBS’s nightly news broadcast played in the days before 24-hour cable news, talk radio and the Internet.
There were a few other things Cronkite taught me about the news, mainly, that it is all right to have some emotional connection to what you were reporting. Who can forget his effort to fight back tears when reporting that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas? That clip remains one of the most powerful images of television history.
After Cronkite spent years covering the Vietnam War each evening, chronicling both the loss of life in Southeast Asia and the turmoil in the United States, he eventually stated publicly that it had been a blunder. President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly told allies when he heard this, "If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country."
Fair or not, I continue to look at news through a lens shaped by Walter Cronkite. Make no mistake, there are many fine reporters working in television and radio today. But I also believe that the pressure to fill news channels and talk radio around the clock has led to the rise of figures like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others who are more adept at generating heat than light. These folks can surely bloviate — they just can’t elucidate.
What do we gain when a figure like Ann Coulter — who, as far as I can tell, has no experience in any actual field of knowledge — is consulted as an "expert" on cable news? What is the point of balancing opinions if one view is calm and reasonable and the other strident and harsh?
Broadcast journalism has come a long way since that 15-minute broadcast flickering at me in black-and-white while I gulped down dinner. In that daily update, Walter Cronkite set a gold standard that is still there for anyone professional enough to strive for it.
I’m thankful for that. And I’m thankful he’s issued a strong endorsement of our First Freedom First project. (If you haven’t signed your name to the First Freedom First petition, please do so today at www.firstfreedomfirst.org.)
• • •
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.