Walter Cronkite (1916-2009): Remembering His Legacy

179_walter-cronkitenewsWalter Cronkite was one of the most recognizable and trusted journalists of the last 60 years. No other figure prompted as many young people to pursue journalism as a profession. And very few journalists provided as much mentoring to others as Mr. Cronkite. “Like many other aspiring journalists,” said Gordon Joseloff, “I grew up watching Walter and idolizing him. I was watching when he told us John Kennedy had died, when he said the conflict in Vietnam could no longer be won, and when man walked on the moon.”

When millions of Americans heard: “Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” hundreds started to dream of launching a career in broadcasting.

Bob Schieffer, who anchored the Saturday edition of the CBS Evening News from 1973 to 1996 said, “Walter used to talk to the reporters, he’d call you out on the beat – ‘what’s going on, why did they say this, why did they do 179_bob-schiefferthat.’ But, on those days when Walter would call you after the broadcast and say, ‘good job on that tonight,’ you really felt good about it because that was the highest compliment you could get.”

179_danratherDan Rather, who succeeded his mentor as the anchor of the CBS Evening News (1981-2005), said of his mentor in a report to NewsBusters: “Walter’s instructions to us in the field were always, you know, ‘Tell it straight without fear or favoritism. Pull no punches. Say it like it is, insofar as is humanly possible. Keep your own prejudices and biases and feelings and emotions out of it.’” Mr. Rather described his mentor as a person “who took the news seriously, but he didn’t take himself all that seriously.”

179_katie-couricKatie Couric, a journalist who moved from NBC to CBS and became the first solo female anchor of a major US-TV network, also recalls Walter Cronkite as her mentor. Ms. Couric saw him as a standard setter, who could balance objectivity with compassion and emotion. “I admired his honor, integrity and decency, and his spirit lives on in a very palpable way in the hallways of CBS.”

“His legacy is extraordinary,” she recently said in an interview show. “I get so inspired when I re-read something he wrote. When I got the job at CBS he took me out to dinner and told me about some of his greatest thrills as a journalist. And in every story he emphasized how important it was to be fair and objective. When he talked about President Kennedy’s funeral he got teary and I started to cry. But he also beamed with joy when he talked about the first space capsule. His voice was full of the enthusiasm of a child. I took to heart one of his most important perspectives on the news: ‘Get it first, but get it right.’”

The American public knew Mr. Cronkite for his objectivity, seriousness, and fact-based reporting, but less known was his playful nature outside of the newsroom. As reported in The New York Observer, Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, told an anecdote about Mr. Cronkite’s sense of humor. “A new reporter had arrived while we were at Cape Canaveral,” said Mr. Hewitt, “and Walter said to him, ‘If you just keep looking at that rocket there on that green patch at the end of the runway there, you’ll see it blast off. Just don’t take your eyes off it.’ The guy sat there for six hours waiting for it to go off. It was a lighthouse.”

Mr. Cronkite also demonstrated that being a journalist did not mean withholding opinions. He believed, for example, that “America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” He also noted the limits of a mentoring relationship when he said about Dan Rather: “He and I just aren’t especially chummy.” He also was concerned about leading a balanced life and said “I think somebody ought to do a survey as to how many great, important men have quit to spend time with their families who spent any more time with their family.”

Mr. Cronkite had a passion for sailing and New Orleans jazz. The New York Times reported that Mr. Cronkite liked to exchange off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and “whimsically competed with his friend Johnny Carson to see who could take the most vacation time without getting fired.” (Source: New York Observer)

Partly because of his significant influence as a mentor, Arizona State University (ASU) established The Walter Cronkite Mentorship Program at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This program pairs students in the graduate program with experienced journalists.

Mr. Cronkite was clearly the most trusted journalist of all time. While I didn’t know him personally he taught me a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten and that I use continuously, and for which I owe him a debt of gratitude.

179_reyatsfstateDuring my graduate student days at San Francisco State University (then called San Francisco State College), I was, like students all across the US, actively involved in protesting the American war in Vietnam. My generation of anti-Vietnam war protestors owes him a significant debt. The efforts to end the US involvement in Vietnam through the mobilization of the largest anti-war movement in the history of the United States met with limited success.

But on February 27, 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson watched Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News comment that the Vietnam war was not winnable and an end must be negotiated, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” President Johnson is reported to have responded by saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Several weeks later President Johnson stunned a nation-wide TV audience when he announced he would not seek reelection.

The mentoring lesson I learned from Mr. Cronkite was that significant and lasting change can only come about from trust. It is seldom achieved through protest or aggression. I have carried that learning on in my work as a peer assistant, coach, mentor, employee, and CEO, as well as in my personal life with my family and friends.

“And that’s the way it is.”

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