Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goodbye, "Uncle Walter"

"That's the Way It Is."

For 19 years, that familiar phrase was heard in millions of homes across the United States on a weekly basis. The words ended the evening newscast of the man called the "Most Trusted Man in America," Walter Cronkite. From 1962-1981, "Uncle Walter" gave a concise telling of the days events in a voice that was a combination of authority, objectiveness, and trust.

This weekend, that voice was stilled forever... Dead of complications from Dementia at 92.

I doubt Cronkite's death will have much media impact as, say, Michael Jackson's death and the carnival surrounding it. While Jackson was a very good entertainer, Cronkite offered more substance... informing us of the major stories of the day and sometimes even impacting the stories himself.

Two big examples of that include his 1968 comment on the Vietnam War, where he said the best we could hope for was to leave the conflict with honor. President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said afterwords, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." It was a major factor in LBJ's decision not to run for re-election in 1968.

Another example was Cronkite's interview in the late 1970's with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Cronkite asked Sadat what he thought would be a "throwaway" question, or a question that most people knew the answer to and wasn't of any real substance. That question was would Sadat be willing to visit Israel? Sadat surprised a lot of people, including Cronkite when he said "Yes". That set the wheels in motion to what became known as the Camp David Accords in 1979, the first peace treaty between Israel and one of her neighboring countries.

Despite reporting on the events of the day (and sometimes playing an incidental part of them), Cronkite always kept his opinions and biases in check. Sure, he would offer up the occasional commentary on his newscast, but he kept it at the end of the newscast, never during. And he made sure people knew it was simply his opinion and not any official stand. Reporters from CNN, Fox News, and the major networks could stand to learn a thing or two from that objectivity.

That attention to objectivity, and detail, might have saved Dan Rather's job. When he reported on the memo about George W. Bush not reporting for the National Guard as ordered, he relied on his producer and didn't check the facts of the story himself. Had it been Cronkite who was going to air such a politically-charged story, he would have made darn sure to check the facts himself... after all, it was his butt on the line. Rather got lazy. That, combined with the fact he had come out a few years before as a die-hard supporter of the Democrat party, put the idea in many minds that the story was a "hatchet job", sparked by political bias. It cost Rather his credibility, and eventually his job.

Not to say "Uncle Walter" didn't have his political beliefs. He was very much a die-hard Liberal, even going so far as to advocate a limited "world government". But during his time behind the anchor desk at CBS, he kept his politics in check, and didn't publicly express those opinions until well after he left CBS. In fact, he was a registered Independent so his detractors couldn't accuse him of bias one way or the other... But the greatest testament to his objectivity was the criticism from the Left that he was biased towards the Right, and vice versa.

Nowadays, with inundation of instant news via the Internet, cable and satellite news, and the plethora of screaming talking heads like Chris Mathews, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olberman, I doubt we'll ever see someone as "fair and balanced" as Walter Cronkite delivering our news... in a non-biased, apolitical, objective fashion.

And that's truly something to mourn.

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