Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

Walter Cronkite was a giant in the field of TV journalism. I remember him on the news, but not well – he belongs to a slightly older generation. Still, if one merely watches films and news docs, it's hard to miss some of his seminal moments. He tried to exercise his power responsibly, call things fairly and inform the citizenry. Later on, executives decided that TV news should be expected to turn a profit rather than being a public service that also earned prestige for the network. Nostalgia can blind us to the many flaws of past eras, but most of the TV journalists today don't come close to measuring up to Cronkite, most of all because they don't share his view of the news as a public service and trust. Cronkite approached his job the way it should be done, and we're the poorer for his passing.

The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times all have coverage on Cronkite, including obituaries, appreciations, photo galleries and some video.

A LA Times blog also features about a dozen pieces of print work by or on Walter Cronkite (h/t Roy Edroso). Some of it's pretty fascinating. Here's his account of accompanying a bombing run over Germany in 1943 and being attacked by German planes. His piece on Rommel's ordered suicide is also striking. In one of the video segments below, he describes covering the Nuremberg Trials. In 1962, he described the inherent challenges of TV news:

"A major problem is that TV is a pictorial medium and we must find what we can to illustrate hard news," Cronkite said. "We are trying to use the remote interview technique that Ed Murrow developed in 'Small World' -- when it's called for. Do an interview filming the subject and talking to him via telephone."

That's very perceptive. In one of the segments below, he talks about how being a wire reporter taught him to be clear, quick, and as objective as possible. The sheer magnitude and seriousness of what he covered during WWII surely must have shaped his approach as well.

CBS will be running a special on Cronkite on Sunday night, but plenty of video is already available.

The Kennedy Assassination (h/t Questiongirl):

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassination:

One of his Vietnam segments:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Currently, I can't find full, uncut footage of his February 27th, 1968 editorial on Vietnam, and that's quite frustrating. This segment and some further down do feature clips, though:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Here's the full text:

Walter Cronkite - Feb 27, 1968, the beginning of the end

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure.

The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff.

On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.

But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

In this segment, Cronkite reflects on the editorial. I've already seen some pretty ugly attacks on Cronkite, irrationally blaming him for "losing" Vietnam – as if opinion could change the realities of the actual war, and even though Nixon kept America there, and it wasn't until Ford that we left. Meanwhile, as polling data show, public sentiment had significantly turned against the war before Cronkite spoke. Cronkite didn't personally change public opinion, although he might have validated one view and made it more respectable. It's not as if Lyndon Baines Johnson wasn't hearing something similar from at least some of his advisors.

Here's Cronkite and Neil Armstrong looking back on the moon landing:

Watch CBS Videos Online

The entire program The Epic Journey, roughly 50 minutes long, is online. It's hosted by Cronkite and looks back on the whole moon landing. Some of the original broadcast can be seen here. It's mostly footage on the moon, with Cronkite occasionally heard narrating. It was recently the 40th anniversary of that event, and it remains a truly astounding feat.

Here's CBS initial piece on Cronkite:

Watch CBS Videos Online

They have a section for him, and their main story links other print pieces, video segments and a photo gallery.

Here's MSNBC's piece:

I found this discussion with Daniel Schorr interesting:

The Newseum has a short clip of Cronkite that can't be embedded, it seems, but is worth watching (via Greenwald). In it, he says:

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation.

And that's the way it is.

Pieces on Cronkite are still coming in, so I'll update this post later. But here's a first round:

Brilliant at Breakfast
Brad Blog
They Gave Us a Republic
Crooks and Liars
Glenn Greenwald

Update 7/21/09: The CBS special was mainly their Cronkite 90th birthday program with some new segments. Some of it was neat, but I found other parts hard to stomach. Morley Safer, Andy Rooney and George Clooney were good, but I found Diane Sawyer insipid and Brian Williams insufferable. The first three focused on how Cronkite approached his job and why he was good, while the latter two were doing more of a celebrity fluff piece.

With Williams, it was especially galling given his network's enabling of a Pentagon propaganda campaign and his numerous attempts to dismiss or outright ignore the story - even when coverage of it won a Pulitzer. Then there's his love of Rush Limbaugh – okay, the guy's got some talent as a talk radio host. However, he's also a chronic liar, a racist and a hyper-partisan, cruel, virulent demagogue. How exactly can a real journalist like that? Edward R. Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy, he didn't take him out to lunch. Oh well, at least Jon Stewart smacked Williams around a bit, and Colbert had a funny tribute.

Meanwhile, Democracy Now had a good segment on Cronkite, and Fresh Air ran two good pieces, including an interview with Cronkite where he criticized his own tag line. They offer a better portrait of the man.

Update 7/22/09: Media Bloodhound examines the virtual blackout on Cronkite's views on Iraq.


PerfectMomentProject said...

Must trusted is a cliche, perhaps, but honestly, Walter Cronkite was the second most important man in my life.

Walter Cronkite reinforced the lessons my father gave me.

And then in so many ways, he became the man who helped shape my life into the extraordinary journey that it's been.

Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The shitbag excuses we now have for teevee "journalists" should be ashamed to even say Cronkite's name, the fucking craven ass-licking suck-ups to power. Listening to scumbags like Chuck Todd makes me physically sick.

Cirze said...

Best obit of Uncle Walter that I've read!

Covers all the bases.

Nice reporting.


Comrade Kevin said...

I wonder if we can ever recapture his spirit again. It is sorely lacking these days.