Sunday, November 15, 2009

Remembering Walter

If you're old enough to still be reading a newspaper, you'll have noted that I didn't need to include a surname in the headline. But it was, after all, almost 30 years ago when Cronkite quit being a daily presence in our living rooms, and he is today primarily remembered by the younger among us as an ancient artifact of pre-Reality Televison.

Many of the encomiums penned about his honesty, credibility and transcendent professionalism might well be summed up as: "whatcha saw was whatcha got". What you saw was, as Alessandra Stanley put it so succinctly in the New York Times, an "air of authority, lightly worn and unquestioned".

As his production manager during the 60's, I always felt that at least part of the secret of his genuineness was the fact that he was born, raised, educated, and spent his early career in, the American heartland. He looked it, sounded it, and acted it, thereby discrediting news-media bashers of the time who were always ready to paste the "eastern establishment" label on network television newsmen, despite the very evident middle-America credentials of Cronkite and many of his counterparts who were the most highly visible presenters (and often the managing editors) of those programs.

Others have eulogized Walter far more skillfully and intimately than I, but I did want to point out that his being "the most trusted man in America" did not occur in a vacuum. Cronkite was fortunate enough to have brought his enormous skills, reporter's credentials and charisma to the CBS Evening News at a time when he would be surrounded and supported by a group of people who were journalistic true believers. Among them were producer-director Don Hewitt (later going on to his own fame as the creator of 60 Minutes) who had graduated from the Ed Murrow/Fred Friendly school of TV journalism and who was at the time CBS News's resident genius at producing and presenting compelling audio-visual information on the small screen. And there was Sanford Socolow who was to become Walter’s editorial eminence grise, and a phalanx of correspondents unparalleled at the time and unequaled since.

Dick Salant, president of CBS News during most of Walter's anchorage, was a gifted and protective chief executive widely admired inside and outside the organization. At the top of the heap sat CBS president Frank Stanton, diligent defender of the 1st Amendment, stickler for journalistic integrity, and a lightning rod for the political slings and arrows historically directed at those who presume to tell truth to power. Some of you will recall that CBS was admiringly known in those days as "the Tiffany network".

My thanks to President Obama for providing me with this spot-on closer: "[Walter] invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.

Fair winds to Fiddlers Green, Old Ironpants.

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This piece originally appeared in a slightly different version in the Cape Cod Times.

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