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Cronkite, Out of Character

Joe Holley

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, I was sitting in a school library in Waco, Tex., trying to stay awake during study hall, when a shirt-sleeved Walter Cronkite glanced at a clock on the wall, removed his black-rimmed glasses and announced, with an obvious catch in his throat, that a young president was dead.

Since we had no TV in the library, I missed the actual announcement, but I've seen the tape countless times since then, and like so many aging baby boomers I still get a catch in my throat every time I see it. To see the personification of journalistic unflappability lose his composure, however briefly, only added to the wrenching poignancy of that horrible day.

Five years later, near the end of a difficult decade, Cronkite lost, not his composure, but his career-long commitment to journalistic disinterest. After the Tet offensive, he went to Vietnam and saw with his own eyes that what the politicians and the military brass had been telling the American people was manifestly untrue.

"It was an Orwellian trip -- Orwell had written of a Ministry of Truth in charge of Lying and a Ministry of Peace in charge of War -- and here was Cronkite flying to Saigon, where the American military command was surrounded by defeat and calling it victory," David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers that Be."

Cronkite was moved by the war and by what he had seen. He felt compelled to bear witness in a way he wasn't able to do as an "anchorman," a news reader sitting before a camera in a studio in New York. Halberstam picks up the story: "So for a man who cherished his objectivity above all, Walter Cronkite did something unique. He shed it, and became a personal journalist. He had already talked it over with his superiors in New York and they all knew the risk involved, that it was likely to be a severe blow to the reputation for impartiality that he and CBS had worked so hard to build, that it was advocacy journalism and thus a very different and dangerous role."

Cronkite broadcast a half-hour news special in which he said that the war didn't work, that more troops wouldn't make any difference, that we had to start thinking of withdrawal. Years later, he said that stand against the war was his proudest moment as a journalist.

"Cronkite's reporting did change the balance; it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman," Halberstam wrote. "In Washington, Lyndon Johnson watched and told his press secretary, George Christian, that it was a turning point, that if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run again."

Adrift these days in a roiling sea of 24-7 media bloviators, we have troubling imagining a communicator who so guarded his on-air feelings, opinions and emotions that he could have a profound and immediate influence on two occasions when he stepped out of character.

By Joe Holley  |  July 17, 2009; 5:07 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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Next: Looking Back at Cronkite


Good piece, Mr. Holley. I wish every news reporter and newspaper would have an Extreme Makeover, News Reporting Edition, and get back to the news facts, unbiased, warts and all. I have despaired of getting honest reporting. Maybe NPR and PBS and a few others tell the truth? Would ANY NEWS PERSON be so kind as to declare Iraq and Afghanistan a complete disaster now, PLEASE. War anywhere is big business. Why not just call it that. The military would all be out of work. Our military being in those countries is not keeping us more or less free. Hogwash.

Posted by: MissMay | July 18, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

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