Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Monday's Post:

A man dies and they celebrate his life. That's probably the way it ought to be. We come into this world, make choices, have some success, make sacrifices, laugh a little, love a little, cry a little and when we're done we're called home; in many ways it is a time to rejoice.

Walter Cronkite was called home. He finished his work. And now his work is left for others to begin, for great men exist that there may be great men.

Mr. Cronkite died on Friday. He was 92 years of age.

I first met Mr. Cronkite in Vietnam in 1968. He was there on his quintessential visit that led him to declare to a nationwide audience that the war could not be won. The disclosure led President Lyndon Johnson to say to staffers that if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost the nation.

I was a CBS affiliate reporter assigned to Vietnam in January and February of 1968. My cameraman and I were headquartered in the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon and from there we would hitch rides with military units to interview and tell the story of local servicemen and women fighting and serving in the various theatres of battle throughout the country.

One night after several days in the field we came back to the hotel in Saigon to ship our film back to the states through the courier pouches of our network, CBS. We were having dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant; a couple of tables away sat Walter and his producer Ernie Leiser.

I waited until they finished dinner and I hesitatingly walked over to Mr. Cronkite’s table to introduce myself. Walter was gracious, courteous, inquisitive and offered help in the filing of our stories.

He thought for a moment and said to me, “didn’t you recently do a story we ran on CBS news about a train wreck and explosion in Indiana.”

I said yes. I was thrilled. He, Mr. Cronkite, remembered.

Go ahead two years and circumstances found me reporting for the CBS Owned and Operated Station in New York. Walter’s office was in the same building.

I would see and talk to him in the hallway and occasionally we’d ask him for a comment or interview on journalism or the passing of a colleague. He was always accommodating.

Eventually we both left CBS.

About three years ago I was working on an independent documentary about the Nuremberg war crime trials. I called Walter’s office to request an interview with him since he was a UPI pool reporter covering the trials in 1945. Through his secretary he agreed to the interview.

A few days later I arrived at his office at the CBS headquarters in New York, Walter got out of his chair, shuffled over to me for his step was then frail, put both arms on my shoulders as he stood in front of me and said: “Old friend, how long has it been and how are you?”

Great men exist and I was fortunate to know one and admire one.

“That’s the way it is.”



Watching all the fine tributes to Walter and seeing the clips of old newscasts and events, I am saddened at what daily television news has become.

There will never be another anchorman like Walter who commands the attention and respect that he did. He was trusted because he was willing to be vulnerable, to be the common man, to laugh at himself and to hold to the highest standards of journalistic integrity for all to see.

So many of today's television news readers are publicly opinionated, professionally rude to their guests or interview subjects by interrupting, shouting and giving short shrift to complicated and convoluted subjects and especially not listening.

We are missing today the simplicity of content. We are missing today the courtesy of contextual explanation. We are missing today the time devoted to clarity and understanding. We are missing today the reportorial grace in both tragic and beneficial human events; the elegance of life and its noble accomplishments and we are missing the adherence to personal and professional integrity.

Yes, I am saddened, but I am also optimistic that we can bring those qualities back. It starts by believing we can and then doing it.

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