Walter Cronkite: An Anchor Who Earned a Nation's Trust

Friday, July 17, 2009; 8:37 PM

"AND THAT'S the way it is . . .," Walter Cronkite would say at the end of his nightly broadcasts, and then he'd declaim the day, month and year, thus confidently filing another 24-hour chapter in its proper place in the national chronicles. Not too many television newscasters could get away with that kind of definitive sign-off, today or ever, and Mr. Cronkite himself didn't use it on the rare occasions when he closed out the evening news with a statement that reflected his own opinion. But if the Nielsen ratings are to be believed, much of America was quite content to let Mr. Cronkite be the arbiter of what news was worth watching, day in and day out, for two decades.

There was no blogging then, in a period that stretched from John F. Kennedy to the start of the Reagan administration, and not a lot of complaining about "the media." The country had a few premier anchormen, and they were well respected for the most part. But what was it about Walter Cronkite in particular? Members of the YouTube generation might want to look up the video clips. They show Mr. Cronkite -- that steady, gravitas-loaded voice, the tone always respectful of his subjects and his viewers -- telling the country of the deaths of John F. Kennedy, of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson. In many ways, some indefinable, he simply seemed the right person to carry such tidings. In some broadcasts, he glories in American triumphs in outer space. In others he reports on the nation's tragedies -- racial conflict, recession, war. And when, one evening in 1968, he said he could see nothing ahead in Vietnam but "stalemate," it hit the country's consciousness with far more impact than just a TV commentator voicing his opinion.

Mr. Cronkite was not a particularly telegenic fellow, nor did he attempt any theatrical touches to liven up the news. He looked like what he was: a serious, solid newsman, a veteran of the demanding wire service business who had seen more than his share of war, disaster and politics, had covered it all well, and could be trusted to give you a fair account. Mr. Cronkite took over the evening news at CBS in 1962, and the following year it was expanded from 15 minutes to a half-hour. He trailed the popular NBC team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the ratings for some years but eventually ascended to the top and stayed there until his retirement in 1981. He had to leave at 65 because it was CBS policy; otherwise he could have gone on for many more years, and in a way he did so anyway. He did more work on TV specials, functioned as a sort of elder statesman for his trade, and lent his name and efforts to many good causes. He remained a respected and admired figure until his death yesterday at the age of 92.

Walter Cronkite's secret was that a huge number of Americans just trusted him. That's the way it was -- and probably never will be again.

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