By Bob Witten, Producer MSNBC
He's my hero and now he is gone.
My career in broadcast journalism was just getting started in 1962 when Walter Cronkite began anchoring the CBS Evening News. I was instantly drawn to him. His work set the standard for me, and of course, countless others broadcast reporters of the time. He had been recruited by the revered Edward R. Murrow. His newscast was truly "appointment viewing". I made sure that I was home, or at least near a TV at 630 every weeknight to catch his newscast. In 1968, I was running a little four man news team at WRSC radio in State College , Pennsylvania. It was a CBS affiliate, and we were all pretty jazzed at being part of "Cronkite's team". We had his picture on the newsroom wall, for God's sake!
I am a "pre-deregulation" newsman, one who was bound at the time, by FCC rules about objectivity and community service by broadcasters. As a result, I was impressed by how clear the division was on Cronkite's newscast among news, comment, editorial and opinion. I was shocked when he gave his views on Vietnam, and staggered by how powerful one single broadcast opinion could be. I remember how embarrassed he was after he described as "thugs", those who restrained then CBS Correspondent Dan Rather at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But, I also remember his bemused smile one afternoon at that same tumultuous convention. He was anchoring one of the barely-watched daytime sessions, and promised that Commentator Eric Sevareid would be along after the next commercial. The commercial ended...no Sevareid. Cronkite ad-libbed for a while and eventually Sevareid slid into the seat next to him. If my memory serves, the conversation went something like this: CRONKITE: "So, Eric, where were you?". SEVAREID: "Well, in fact, I was in the men's room, and I discovered something very important there". [This is where the bemused smile occurred] CRONKITE:" I'm almost afraid to ask, but what was that?". SEVAREID:"The gentleman standing next to me, said, Mr. Sevareid, I think you and I are the only two people in this building, who know exactly what we are doing at this moment. I think that sums up this convention rather tidily". Watching at home, I waited for Cronkite to break up, but true to form, he didn't.
I was fortunate to meet the late Ed Bliss, Cronkite's CBS Evening News editor, and got to know him pretty well. His attention to writing, grammar, spelling and fact-checking contributed mightily to Cronkite's reputation as "the Most Trusted man in America". Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote upon Cronkite's death, "Americans will never again trust journalists how they trusted him. And that is a healthy thing". With respect, I think Kurtz has got it all wrong. I would hope all journalists could be trusted as much as Cronkite.
I shook Cronkite's hand once, at a New York reception following his final Evening News broadcast. It was a horribly sad and tense affair, not the moment of introduction for which I had always hoped. He meant a lot to me and I wanted to tell him that, but that was not the time. So, my hero is dead. But his example will endure as long as we have free and independent news media.