Walter Cronkite, the Last Newsman

Remembering the Way It Was

TV news anchors, and any other journalists who aspire to be trusted in the way that Walter Cronkite was trusted as a deliverer of the news, would do well to remember one of the moments that solidified that trust: the moment, forty years ago today, when we put a man on the moon. As footage of Apollo 11 touching down flashed onscreen, and as Neil Armstrong confirmed that, indeed, “the eagle has landed,” the man charged with shepherding 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 took the world seriously. 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 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 Cronkite who did the inviting. He made the news an event rather than merely a business, a ritual joined in by a community bound together by the day’s doings, and by the shared conviction that keeping informed of those doings is the duty we pay to democracy. He took for granted that the way it is is worth knowing.

Many of those same obituaries have declared that Cronkite’s passing also marks the passage of the era that made him—and vice versa. 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 our memories of what has come before. And there’s nothing to say that the targets of our nostalgia 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 to connectivity and to honesty.

Though we live in a time whose sheer volume of news, and channels for it, has splintered the omnibus audience—a time that is quickly transforming the evening newscast, Cronkite’s medium and in many ways his invention, into a living relic—what this weekend’s nostalgia has proved is that Cronkite’s audience was broad not merely because it was captive. We responded not only to “the news,” but to Cronkite himself as its deliverer—to his seriousness, to his integrity, to his unabashed love of the world and its doings. To a mixture that left no room for irony. Forty years ago today, 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.