By Elizabeth Jensen
It’s been close to three decades since Walter Cronkite had a regular presence in the homes of the nation, long enough that an entire generation never knew him except in history class clips.
So at a time when straightforward journalism is under siege financially and technologically, his memorial service in New York on Sept. 9 served alternately as a platform for a wistful reminiscence of a golden era and exhortation to return to the values he once embodied.
Cronkite’s “stature and influence will never be duplicated,” CBS News President Sean McManus said in opening the more-than-two-hour service honoring the late “CBS Evening News” anchor, who died July 17 at age 92.
But President Barack Obama, who closed the event, which was held at Lincoln Center, urged the hundreds of gathered media members — Cronkite’s CBS colleagues, anchors and executives from ABC News, NBC News and CNN and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, among others — to try anyway.
Cronkite, the President said, believed “that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theater or spectacle.” Today, he said, that has been replaced too often “with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should — and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation.”
The President admitted he never knew Cronkite, but said he was nonetheless sure that the anchor, were he active today, would be able to “cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance.”
“If we choose to live up to Walter’s example,” he concluded, “if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I’m convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one — and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead.”
Cronkite anchored the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 until Dan Rather took over in 1981. “Face the Nation” anchor Bob Schieffer called him “the most curious man I have ever met.” Former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw remembered him as “the godfather who showed us the way to be good journalists.” And the current executive producer of the “CBS Evening News,” Rick Kaplan, recalled that “Walter knew nothing is more important to a democracy than an informed public, and he took that responsibility very seriously. We still do.”
The rich life his status as the “most trusted man in America” gave him entrée to was evident from those who honored him from the stage, from astronaut Buzz Aldrin — who missed Cronkite’s “Oh boy” when men landed on the moon because he was one of the men — to singer Jimmy Buffett and “Grateful Dead” percussionist Mickey Hart, who taught Cronkite how to drum.
Cronkite’s human side wasn’t given short shrift. President Bill Clinton met him on Martha’s Vineyard long after the anchor had stepped down. He praised Cronkite’s “inquiring mind” but also his “caring heart,” recalling a kind invitation to go sailing in the “tumultuous summer” of 1998, when Clinton and his family were dealing with the fallout from the Monica Lewinsky affair. Cronkite, he said, “was important in all our lives, a great citizen and a profoundly good human being.”
Andy Rooney, Cronkite’s friend of more than six decades who broke down when trying to eulogize him at his July funeral, appeared in a video tribute although he was in attendance.
After poking gentle fun at his friend’s penchant for accepting awards and honors in his post-“Evening News” years, the “60 Minutes” commentator concluded: “If it can be said that anybody in our business was a force for good in the world, Walter Cronkite was that person.”