Last night PBS aired an American Masters on Walker Cronkite, the 20th Century newsman who became an icon without trying for it. He spent his career trying for one goal, and coming in earlier than the others, he may have been the last to seek this. He wanted to be a first-rate journalist.
My late husband, Jim Adshead, was of the same vintage, and was also in the broadcast news business when he returned from World War II. They were a fraternity, those men; seeking professionalism in their chosen career, and security rather than celebrity in their personal lives. That last is what set them apart from the next generation, who saw how famous one can get in the news business, and how much prestige. I would say that had not been the major concern of their elders. (And remember -- I must point this out -- I was 17 years younger than Jim, the exact age of Tom Brokaw. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein I'll deal with later.)
I wish Jim had been with me to watch American Masters last night, if only for the lively discussion we would have had of experiences and enthusiams he shared with Cronkite. We both remember when Walter Cronkite was just one of the reporters on television, hosting You Are There, a unique docudrama kind of show that played on Sunday afternoons in the '50s. Jim used to say that in those days there was a certain camaraderie among the early tv guys, and that as an anchorman in Wilmington he was also called on to present the weather forecast, which he did by drawing cartoons on the weather map to illustrate the atmospheric conditions. He would say, "You never knew when you might get picked up by the network and transferred. The way I looked at it, Cronkite was the New York guy and I was the Wilmington guy..."
Jim left the business for a job as a speaker for the Du Pont Company, the major employer of his city. He spent years traveling the country making speeches about Du Pont, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry," and ended up quite comfortably in the public relations department. But he always looked at Cronkite and his ilk as colleagues. Jim was a journalism major at Rutgers, in what would be the class of 1944, the class that was awarded its diplomas at the beginning of the school year so that the men could enlist to fight in the war. This is a much-honored class today, but by the time they had their big reunion in 1994, he was too ill to attend.
Walter Cronkite went on to define the job of anchorman and to symbolize the stability of the nation for at least a generation. Brave enough to cover Viet Nam and report it accurately, he became the scourge of the White House for a time, but he conducted himself with dignity no matter what happened to him, and he always embodied the best we could expect from our father figures. He embraced the Space Program wholeheartedly, always seeking something to love about America; America loved him for that. We had watched him almost lose his cool with grief when he realized Jack Kennedy indeed was dead, and almost lose it again with pride when an American astronaut put his foot on the moon. Through all this he was a consummate professional and simply did his job, no grandstanding. There are few if any who live their lives that way any more.
I promised to say something about Woodward and Bernstein, so I shall, but only a little at this point. Maybe another blogpost. They were young, aggressive reporters on the Washington Post while Cronkite was anchoring CBS News. They did a relentless job of investigating the many facets of the confusing story coming out of the Watergate break-in, and, with his nose for news, Cronkite followed their reportage. He had the guts and foresight to run a couple of news specials outlining the details they had printed, in order to clarify the story in the minds of the public. This gave greater credibility to the two, and probably changed American history. For their part, Woodward and Bernstein were among the best, and their style of dogged pursuit of the truth was aped by young reporters on the scent of lesser prey, defining once again the role of the newsman.
Recently in Fairhope I was involved in a local situation which the Mobile paper ran on the front page with rather devastating effect to a venerated institution, the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education. Month after month the Press-Register would run the story from the "other" side, and when I spoke the reporter and his editor I was told that it was their responsibility to reveal the whole story about the collapse of the school since it was nearing its downfall. No matter how often we at the school--I was on the board of managers--assured them there would be no such collapse they continued to run negative comments about us in numerous stories, some totally unrelated to the school. I finally said, "It's just a young reporter looking for his Watergate," meaning that the attempt was to bring us down rather than report the news. Much as I admire Woodward and Bernstein, their legacy in lesser hands is dubious. This type of reckless news reporting is more the rule than the exception today.
And they won't make 'em like Walter Cronkite again either. He is a figure of the past, a strong, wise writer reporting and illuminating our times. I take that last from the long-gone signoff to You Are There, also a fitting signoff for Uncle Walter himself. Oh, and good luck to Katie Couric, who will redefine the job once again. I think Jim Adshead would have watched with great interest.