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Walter Cronkite Inspired Many of Us to Pursue Journalism

Department Chair Tony Fellow Reflects on Life and Death of a Media Legend

July 21, 2009

By Tony Fellow

(Editor's note: Walter Cronkite died July 17 at the age of 92)

Walter Cronkite — known as the “most trusted man in America” — during an appearance at Cal State Fullerton’s Front & Center gala.

Americans love heroes. However, there are but few genuine heroes. CBS commentator Eric Severid once said when asked to comment on the death of Edward R. Murrow, “he was a genuine hero. He created my career.”

For those of us who pursued journalism careers in the 1970s and 1980s, Walter Cronkite was our hero. Was it his diction? Was it his honesty? Was it the way he led his life? It was just so easy to understand why then-Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern considered asking Cronkite, named “America’s most honest person” at the time, to be his vice presidential running mate.

Cronkite visited Cal State Fullerton many times after his retirement. He was the featured twice at the university’s Front & Center Gala (in 1998 and in 2001). At one of these events, he called our Music Department “America’s hidden jewel.” However, the Department of Communications felt closest to Cronkite. Hundreds of students and faculty would pack the student union even on Friday afternoons to catch a glimpse of one of the most famous men in broadcast history.

He would entertain questions about past and current events, presidents he covered and the current state of journalism. One student asked him to assess the numerous presidents he met during his career. “Jimmy Carter was the smartest person to occupy the presidency,” he answered one student. He then explained to students about Carter’s training as a nuclear physicist and alluded to the size of his brain.

Students threw him questions about Watergate. Cronkite was the first anchor to make the Watergate issue intelligible to the American people, and he did it during a 22-minute segment, unheard of in broadcast journalism, on his “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.”

“It was a big kiss from Walter Cronkite,” Bob Woodward of the Washington Post said later. Until then, no other newsperson had taken so much interest in the scandal, besides the Post. However, for the first time CBS management interfered with his broadcast, asking if he went a little too far in explaining the issue.

Cronkite also contributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968. The anchor visited Vietnam after the Tet offensive and came away believing that America’s intervention in that country had led to a stalemate. He urged the government to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. President Johnson knew he had lost Middle America.

Cronkite told America about the death of President John Kennedy, which he considered one of the biggest stories of his career, and Apollo XI’s space mission, staying on the air 27-hours. And when the Eagle settled gently on the Moon’s surface, all Cronkite could say was, “Oh, boy! Whew! Boy!”

His name is synonymous with reporting that separates reporting from advocacy. That may be his lasting legacy. In Sweden, for example, news anchors are called Kronkiters. In Holland, they are called Cronkiters. He acknowledged his power as a CBS anchor in his book “A Reporter’s Life.”

“The anchors do have tremendous power. Never in the history of journalism have single voices reached so many people on a daily basis. They can include or exclude an item, almost on a whim, in their broadcasts. By their presence at an event, they accentuate — perhaps even, on occasion, distort — its importance.”

Cronkite is the standard by which those of us who lived through his reporting years judge today’s newsmen and women. And very few pass the Cronkite test.

At Murrow’s death, Severid said we may never see the likes of such a man again. We did in Cronkite. Though never one of “Murrow’s boys,” Cronkite’s career and the life he led is an inspiration to those who pursue the good fight. It’s doubtful we will ever see the likes of such a man, especially in broadcast journalism, again. And those of us who knew his work are the better for it.

Tony Fellow is chair and professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton and anchors its cable television show, “World Press.” He writes about Walter Cronkite in his book “American Media History.” Fellow spent 10 years as a reporter and editor for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, a career that he attributes to Cronkite.

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