walter cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Ask many reporters about their fascination, and quite often they will bring up the same interest.

The history -- and how their industry has documented it -- figures prominently in the interests of many in the field. In most cases, it was the fascination with the field that led them to the industry.

It's something of a pastime for this reporter to look at various newspapers, past and present. Microfilms of past editions at the library shaped some of the fascination, while Youtube has opened the video scrapbooks to coverage of events in the past.

It also reminds yours truly how much the approach has changed, particularly with network news.

In a different age, a newscaster was considered "the most trusted man in America."

That distinction went to the great Walter Cronkite, who anchored the “CBS Evening News” from 1962-81. Cronkite, as with most from his generation, started in the print media, as did David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and others from that era.

He was one of the “Murrow Boys,” a title given to Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Ferriday native Howard K. Smith and others who covered World War II with Edward R Murrow. CBS had already enjoyed a reputation as the “Tiffany’s of News Networks,” but Cronkite brought the news division to new heights.

It wasn’t a moneymaking venture at the time. In fact, the financial brass at CBS often chastised founder William S. Paley about the overruns in the news division. “I don't care ... I have Lucille Ball and Jack Benny to make money for me,” he said.

For Cronkite, it was all about the "no nonsense" approach. He signed off each newscast with the phrase "That's the way it is" -- and very few doubted him.

The journalistic approach known as the "Five Ws" -- who, what, when, where, why -- served as the cornerstone for Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley at NBC and virtually everyone in the electronic and print media.

The iconic approach to the JFK assassination in November 1963 marked Cronkite's defining moment. He was careful throughout the flurry of bulletins to not announce Kennedy died from the bullet wounds until the official word came from the White House. Even in the process of delivering the official announcement, he paused for a second to gather his emotions and went back to the work at hand -- no drama, no commentary, no focus on himself.

In the aftermath, he and colleagues did not go on a rampage of blame and speculation as to who or what was behind the shooting. They knew the job was to report -- not to commentate and distort.

He exhibited that approach even in a rare commentary in early 1968 when he said the Vietnam War reached a stalemate and urged a withdrawal of American troops from southeast Asia.

The factual statements had such an impact that it prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to back off plans to seek re-election that year. "If I've lost the trust of Cronkite, I've lost the nation," LBJ said.

It's a far different landscape today, as we saw last week in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Tune in to MSNBC and commentators proclaimed that allegations against him deemed him unfit and unworthy for the nomination.

On the other end of the spectrum, Fox News proclaimed he was pure and the one of the best nominees in decades for a spot on the highest court in the land.

In the end, many Americans do not get the full truth from either side. The divisive nature of politics has become a cash cow for talk radio and TV.

There's a valid reason Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow are among the highest paid news commentators in the industry. They both thrive on division, which keeps Americans angry and ensures they will continue to listen.

Many Americans will forever proclaim Limbaugh is correct, many others will say Maddow has the facts straight. In the end, however, it's often hard to determine who to believe.

The era of commentary over facts stemmed from the Watergate era, and it has gone steadily downhill since. Social media has taken it to new lows, enough so that it has caused rifts among families.

It also has divided a nation.

Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley and others from a different era focused on the facts, not speculation. Sure, Americans disagreed, but at the end of the day they still shared the same principles for the common good of the nation.

To paraphrase Cronkite's signoff for 19 years, "That's the way it was." It's certainly not that way today -- and for that, our nation is far worse off today.

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