Cronkite and Journalism

Today is Walter Cronkite's funeral. I can't help but think that it's a passing of a journalism torch, which in a way he inherited from Edward R. Murrow, who recruited him to CBS. But who has the torch now?

According to the Cronkite Wikipedia entry, it was his role at the 1952 Democratic and Republican National Conventions which caused the term "anchor" to be coined. In 1960 he was the lead broadcaster for the coverage of that year's Winter Olympics, the first time it was televised in the US. But his legacy started a few months before I was born, when he became the CBS Evening News anchorman in April, 1962.

A couple months later, he was a part of history which actually prompted me to write this post. In fact, his burial will mark the 47th anniversary of the first satellite broadcast. He sat in the NBC studio at Rockerfeller Plaza with NBC's Chet Huntley as his image was sent live over Telstar to Brussels, where the BBC's Richard Dimblebee was able to see him and send his picture back to the US.

Cronkite used to be a contributor to NPR and All Things Considered re-aired "Cronkite, Live Via Satellite", a piece he did commemorating the 40th anniversary of that event.

I do remember when Cronkite did his last broadcast in 1981, but only really knew him as the person whom people would just assume would be around forever, giving us the news in the straight manner for which he was famous. He was a craftsman, even down to the detail of training himself to speak at 124 words per minute so he could be clearly understood (most Americans average around 165 words per minute).

After his retirement, Dan Rather had huge shoes to fill. However, I never felt he had the gravitas or instinct of his predecessor, and it seems there wasn't anything to make him stand out from Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. In recent years, I feel the emphasis has switched away from individual anchors or reporters and towards news organizations. In addition, citizen journalism has greatly changed the news landscape, and with near-instantaneous availability of breaking news, there's even more pressure to be there first, or at least not too much after.

What Cronkite represented was a depth of research and understanding, both which feel like luxuries in today's media environment. I think Newsweek was smart to change the focus of their print magazine to emphasize those luxuries; I find myself taking more time over the issues than I did before the switch.

So where is the journalism torch? For me, while there are people who are very good at their areas of journalism, be it in television, print, radio, or even blogging, no one has been able to match Cronkite's legacy. Just like at Arlington National Cemetary, I think that torch will be an eternal flame in Kansas City, MO, right where Walter Cronkite's remains will be buried.