"I'm delighted to see there's so many people who don't have $1,000 to honor Bob Strauss tonight." Hardly the "good evening" that we're so used to hearing from Walter Cronkite, but then again, this wasn't the CBS Evening News.
The occasion was the Third Annual Frank E. Gannett lecture, attended by 600 last night at the Capital Hilton, and the man who has become such a fixture in living rooms all over the country was there to discuss his own views on the future of journalism.
"American journalism has come of age," Cronkite said. "Vietnam and Watergate have made us more responsible and aggressive."
While denying an antibusiness bias in reporting, Cronkite articulated a balanced narrative on the state of the art. "We can't do justice to all the great questions of our day," Cronkite said. "We must compress to near the point of unintelligibility."
He advocated full-hour network news broadcasts, more shows like "Sunday Morning" and "McNeil Lehrer," a congressional mandate requiring presidential debates, and a return to local needs. "Familiarity shrinks as we get closer to home;" what a paradox," he sighed.
Cronkite voiced concern over the deleterious effect that recent Supreme Court decisions have had on First Amendment rights, and sounded almost philosophical in his plea that "free unregulated press is democracy's only alarm system against tyranny."
Defending the network's role in reporting election results early, Cronkite called it a "journalistic exercise" and said, "The people have a right to know what the politicians already do. The situation on the West Coast is not our problem," he added. "Maybe we should close all the polls simultaneously."
After he was finished with the speech, everyone applauded, and one couldn't help also clapping for all those thousands of times that he talked to us before, and all we did afterward was turn the channel.