By David Zurawik | email@example.com
Baltimore Sun reporter
11:17 PM EDT, July 17, 2009
Mr. Cronkite's longtime chief of staff, Marlene Adler, said Mr. Cronkite died at 7:42 p.m. at his Manhattan home surrounded by family. She said the cause of death was cerebral vascular disease.
Known for his avuncular camera presence and fierce commitment to fact-based journalism, Mr. Cronkite was the face and voice that most Americans turned to from 1962 to 1981, when the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite became TV's most influential news franchise.
The Missouri native was so fundamental to the concept of TV news that the word "anchorman" was coined to describe his role at the 1952 national political conventions.
Indicative of Mr. Cronkite's hold on the national audience, in 1968 after a commentary he delivered questioning America's ability to win the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If we've lost Cronkite, we've lost middle America."
"There will never be another figure in American history who will hold the position Walter held in our minds, our hearts and on the television," CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus said Friday. "We were blessed to have this man in our lives and words cannot describe how much he will be missed by those of us at CBS News and by all of America."
Mr. Cronkite was the "voice of certainty in an uncertain world" who will be truly missed, President Barack Obama said Friday.
There are many reasons why Mr. Cronkite came to hold such an esteemed place in American life. Several have more to do with moments of history and the rise of TV as society's central storyteller than they do with him.
As he acknowledged in a 1996 Baltimore Sun interview, he was to some extent just the right newscaster "sitting in the right desk at the right time."
But there are also good reasons for that perception of integrity and credibility that have everything to do with him. Mr. Cronkite was one of the most successful blends of person and persona in the history of the medium. Even as he became one of TV's first outsized celebrities, the anchor who also served as managing editor of network TV's first half-hour nightly newscast always stayed in touch with the get-it-right reporting roots he learned at the United Press International wire service, for which he covered World War II.
"He was by any measure a giant in the business," said Sandy Socolow, who was the CBS News Washington bureau chief during the Cronkite years. "He commanded a bigger audiences than any other major media professional in history. His attraction was trust in what he reported."
Remembering Mr. Cronkite's legendary work at the CBS anchor desk after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and as Neil Armstrong took humankind's first steps on the moon in 1969, Mr. Socolow said, "At the height of his celebrity, he was crowned the most trusted man in America basically because he delivered a newscast -- and occasional documentaries -- with an air of experience, knowledge and persona that calmed people when there was bad news to report, and elated the audience when the news was good."
"Radio and television newsrooms all over America are filled with reporters and producers, writers and editors who got into journalism for one reason: Walter Cronkite. ... He set standards that we in broadcast journalism still strive to meet today," said Rick Kaplan, executive producer for CBS News. "Walter Cronkite was, quite simply, the best."
Mr. Kaplan's sentiment resonates with Lee Thornton, who was hired by Mr. Cronkite to cover the White House for CBS News and was one of the first African-American correspondents to win that coveted beat.
"Does anybody past the age of the millennials not recognize that Cronkite's era in television news was one of the two or three greatest?" Ms. Thornton said. "That a newsman was widely considered to be and was called the most trusted man in America -- given the public perception of journalists today -- that's almost incomprehensible."
Ms. Thornton, who now heads the broadcast news program at the University of Maryland, College Park, said, "I show my classes video of Cronkite's famous appearance announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is in his shirt sleeves because he rushed onto the air, and, of course, he shows emotion -- very rare for him or anyone in that day. And it's very moving, even today."
Born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Mo., and raised in Houston, Mr. Cronkite became hooked on journalism in high school, where he served as editor of the student paper and stringer for the Houston Post, he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, A Reporter's Life.
During the Depression, he left the University of Texas before graduating and quickly worked his way through two newspaper jobs before trying his hand at radio news. It was at the Houston Post that he learned "the serious lessons of daily journalism," he said.
Mr. Cronkite went to work in radio more or less on a whim after seeing a classified ad in a Kansas City newspaper while visiting relatives there. Broadcasting under the name Walter Wilcox, he found more than a job at the Missouri radio station -- he met Mary Elizabeth "Betsy" Maxwell, the woman he would marry in 1940. They had three children and were married until her death in 2005, just short of their 65th anniversary.
By 1942, Mr. Cronkite was in Europe covering the war for UPI. A first-person report he wrote of one raid over Dresden, Germany, was long a staple of university journalism education by nature of its inclusion in the Treasury of Great Reporting anthology.
In 1950, he joined CBS, working for its TV station in Washington anchoring a 6 p.m. newscast. Two years later, he was covering national political conventions and getting noticed for his strong on-screen presence.
But network TV was in its infancy then, and neither the founder of CBS, William Paley, nor his news executives yet foresaw the archetype that Mr. Cronkite would become and the fortunes he would make for the company. His next job in 1954 took him to New York as host of The Morning Show, a perennial loser for CBS to this day compared with NBC's Today show.
One of his duties on that show was to "chat" with a puppet named Charlemagne about the news of the day.
Typical of the seriousness with which Mr. Cronkite always seemed to take himself and his work, he described the puppet talk as "one of the highlights" of the show.
"A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter," he said. "I was and I am proud of it."
It was Mr. Cronkite's good fortune to find his way to the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News in 1962 just as network TV was coming of age as the dominant media force in American life. He was already established as a nightly presence in 1963 when he was suddenly thrust into the position of helping to lead the nation through its first mass ritual of televised mourning after President Kennedy's death.
Mr. Socolow, who was one of Mr. Cronkite's most trusted lieutenants during the glory years of the newscasts, said Mr. Cronkite was a purist when it came to presenting viewers with facts and information rather than opinion.
"He anchored all those years without once tipping his hand on the CBS Evening News about where he personally stood on important questions of the day," Mr. Socolow said. "His famous Vietnam essay was delivered in a distinctive way on a prime-time documentary, not on the Evening News, which was sacrosanct to him as an important vehicle in our democratic society."
In person, Mr. Cronkite could come off as formal, stiff and even somewhat self-important. But those who worked with and knew him said he had a sense of humor and uncommon kindness.
"He could be surprisingly down to earth," Ms. Thornton said, remembering her days as a young reporter among the legends of CBS. "I remember that he once answered the door at a CBS party at someone's house and ushered me in, saying, 'There you are. Let me buy you a drink.' Of course, they weren't selling drinks. It was just a charming bit, and it put me at my ease."
For all the credibility and riches he brought CBS, it treated him rather poorly when he stepped down in 1981 at age 65 from the anchor desk with one final "... and that's the way it is." The network gave him a lavish office and put him on the board of directors. But in the halls of CBS News, the regime headed by Mr. Cronkite's successor, Dan Rather, treated him "like a leper."
It was worse when hotel magnate Laurence Tisch took over CBS in 1986 and started a vicious round of downsizing. He forced Mr. Cronkite off the board altogether in 1990.
"I was terribly disappointed, obviously, and still am," he said of his treatment at the hands of CBS. He said he had hoped for a role covering big stories: "But that's not what they wanted," he said in the 1996 Baltimore Sun interview.
But Mr. Cronkite still had another act in him. He took some of the money CBS threw at him to stay off its airwaves and in 1993 started a production company with his son, Chip, and a former CBS colleague, Jonathan Ward. They quickly became a key supplier of programming for the Discovery Channels, based in Maryland. Their franchises included: Walter Cronkite Reports, Understanding Science and the acclaimed Great Books series.
In that interview 13 years ago, when most newspapers were ignoring the Internet, the then-79-year-old Mr. Cronkite was excitedly expounding on his plans for cyberspace.
"The Internet and programming on demand and all the rest of the new high-tech stuff are all bound to depend on pictures and words, and thus, except perhaps with the respect to the means of delivery, they will resemble the television of my time," said the man whom many Americans affectionately referred to as Uncle Walter. "And what great stories we reporters in the new media are going to have to tell."
Mr. Cronkite, who won a Peabody, three Emmy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is survived by his three children: daughters Nancy Elizabeth and Mary Kathleen, and son Walter Leland III (Chip). Funeral arrangements are uncertain, but CBS has scheduled a prime-time special, That's the Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite, for 7 p.m. Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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