The Last of the Newsmen

Walter Cronkite and the way it was

TV news anchors, and any other journalists who aspire to be trusted in the way that Walter Cronkite was trusted, would do well to remember one of the moments that solidified Cronkite’s status in journalism’s echelons: the moment, forty years ago today, when we put a man on the moon. As footage of Apollo 11 making its lunar touchdown flashed onscreen, and as Neil Armstrong confirmed that, indeed, “the eagle had landed,” the news anchor charged with guiding the nation through the history it was making let out a long guffaw—half amused, half amazed. “Oooooh…oh, boy,” Cronkite whooped, shaking his head and rubbing his hands in giddiness and, really, glee. “Wally, say something,” he said to his co-host, the astronaut Wally Schirra. “I’m speechless.”

This was Cronkite’s brand of news: at once epic and intimate, at once grandfatherly and childlike—not only familiar, but familial. It was sincere. It leveled with you, and treated you not as a Nielsen stat, or as a consumer, or as a user, but as a person—one whose life was as bound to the day’s events, just as epically and just as intimately, as Cronkite’s was. It respected the news, and the viewer along with it. No holograms necessary.

The New York Times, in an appreciation of Cronkite this weekend, considered the roots of the authority that the anchor once named “the most trusted man in America” embodied. “His job was to appear unfazed, unchanged by the events he described,” the editorial goes. “But from time to time—reporting President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, reporting from Vietnam, reporting that first step on the moon—he made it clear that the news of the day had changed not only us but him.” It was in those moments that “he seemed his most authoritative.”

Indeed. Cronkite was a celebrity and a brand and an entertainer, to be sure, but he wasn’t, finally, the product of image consultants or PR synergies. He was a newsman—during an era when the word was not only still used, but still respected—and his particular gift was to place as much emphasis on the second syllable of that word as the first: to treat the news not merely as a commodity, or as a diversion, or as an irony, but as a function of humanity. Which is to say, as an extension of ourselves.

Many of Cronkite’s obituaries this weekend have paid homage to the fact that Americans invited him, through their TV sets, into their homes and their lives. Really, though, it was the other way around: it was Cronkite who did the inviting. He made the news an event rather than merely a business, a ritual joined in by a community connected not merely by the day’s doings, but also by the shared conviction that keeping informed of those doings is the duty we pay to democracy. Cronkite took for granted that the way it is is worth knowing.

Many of those same weekend obituaries have declared that Cronkite’s passing also marks the passing of the era that made him, and vice versa. But that is true only if we allow it to be. While nostalgia for the past tends to stagnate the present, it can also propel, driving us forward guided by the collective memory of what has come before. And there’s nothing to say that the subjects of the nostalgia expressed this weekend—the authenticity Cronkite represented, the community and in many ways the communion that the nation found within it—cannot be replicated in the coming era. News’s digital age, after all, lends itself not only to connectivity, but to honesty.

That age, of course, also multiplies the sheer volume of news produced every day and splinters the audience available for it, transforming the evening newscast—Cronkite’s medium and in many ways his invention—into a living relic. Still, what this weekend’s nostalgia has proved is that Cronkite’s audience was large not merely because it was captive. We responded not merely to “the news,” but to Cronkite himself as its deliverer—to his seriousness, to his integrity, to his unabashed love of the world and the human events that shape it. To a mixture, in short, that left no room for irony. Forty years ago, Cronkite watched, with us, as men landed on the moon. And the jumble of his joy—awed, humbled, and appropriately inarticulate—spoke for itself.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.