The grand old man of television news, Walter Cronkite, died yesterday at the age of 92. Cronkite was a bit before my time, though I do remember watching him and remember when he was replaced by Dan Rather. As an anchorman, Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” who achieved a high degree of respect for his professionalism and his reportage. He remains the “go-to” newsclip when television today remembers the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, or the moon landing.
Over the course of his career he represented both the best and the worst of television journalism. His professionalism as a reporter was tempered by the humanity he showed as he reported in stunned sadness on the death of John Kennedy, and by the awe he evinced when reporting of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. But his humanity also became clear when he reported that the Viet Nam war was “unwinnable” after the Tet Offensive, despite the fact that the Tet Offensive was a military defeat for North Viet Nam. The most trusted man in America’s spinning of that story turned a clear American victory into a morally ambiguous defeat and went a long way towards turning the majority of public opinion against the Viet Nam war. Once the public was fully turned against the war, political support for it crumbled, and the war was destined to be lost. It is saying far too much to claim that Cronkite was responsible for this, but he played his role.
In comparison to those who followed him… the Rathers, Jennings, Brokaws, Courics…Cronkite stands as a model of objectivity and professional reporting, but it was Cronkite himself who paved the way for the idea of professional newscaster as professional newsmaker. He was by all reports a devoted family man, married for over 65 years, and a decent man. RIP.