Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor, steering committee member, dies at 92

Page Number: 
19

From the Summer 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.

Walter Cronkite, who died on July 17 at the age of 92, was not just the archetypal American news anchor. He was also a ready advocate for journalists, a First Amendment proponent who lent his name and “star power” to the Reporters Committee for more than 35 years with his seat on the steering committee.

“The Reporters Committee must not falter,” Cronkite wrote in a 1993 letter to then-chairman John Henry, responding to a plea for help in a financially troubled year for the organization. “It has proved far too valuable in the never-ending fight to preserve the right to report, print and broadcast.”

Cronkite was midway through his storied reign in 1973 when he agreed to join the steering committee.

The Reporters Committee had only been in existence for three years. It was the product of a March 1970 gathering of journalists who worried that an ongoing spate of subpoenas for reporters’ sources and confidential material nationwide would undermine the efficacy of newsgathering. The committee, according to co-founder and longtime legal reporter Fred Graham, was a “self-selected and self-appointed (representative) of the reporters of the nation.” It needed credibility within the establishment media industry, Graham said, and “what better indication that we indeed did represent reporters, than to have Walter Cronkite on the steering committee?”

Jack Landau, another co-founder of the group, invited Cronkite to join in a 1973 letter: “Reporters all over the country consider you a leading spokesman for First Amendment interests,” he told Cronkite.

The anchor replied within weeks, “I am greatly honored that your committee should believe that I can be of help in your extremely valuable work.”

Cronkite remained on the steering committee until he died. At the Reporters Committee’s 1995 gala in New York, he presented a lifetime achievement award to political cartoonist Herb Block, who was, Henry recalled, “very touched” by Cronkite’s tribute.

It was important to Cronkite to support his colleagues in news, Graham said. “Walter Cronkite was very much a creature of traditional reporting journalism — you know, the UPI background, the start in print, the foreign correspondent service, that was his background,” Graham said. “And it was natural for him to want to help out in the formation of a group by reporters, to protect reporters.”

Cronkite grew up in Texas and had latched onto journalism by college, leaving school early to take a job with the Houston Post, according to CBS. As a war correspondent for United Press, he covered World War II history unfolding, from the invasion of Normandy to the Nuremberg Trials. By the 1960s, according to the network, he had made his way to CBS and begun to settle into the role that would turn him from a television news fixture into a 20th century icon.

Whether delivering the news of President Kennedy’s death, or rooting on the Apollo XI mission to the moon, Cronkite was to millions of viewers, for decades, simply the voice of American news. He declared his 1981 retirement from the anchor’s seat, in his final moments on the air, “but a transition, a passing of the baton.”

“Old anchormen, you see, don’t fade away; they just keep coming back for more,” he said.

Certainly Cronkite’s commitment to journalists did not fade. On the public stage, he gave his name to the Arizona State University’s journalism school; privately, Graham said, he remained committed to boosting his colleagues. Graham, who worked with Cronkite at CBS in the 1970s, recalled asking him to write a blurb for the jacket sleeve of Graham’s 1990 book “Happy Talk,” which was critical of CBS. Not only did Cronkite agree; when the publisher’s deadline was bumped up, Cronkite set aside time during a weekend of sailing so that he could get the blurb done in time. “That was just a very loyal thing for him to do,” Graham said.

Even with his fame and apparent ease in the public eye, Cronkite did have a shy side, Graham added. The most trusted man in America didn’t always seem comfortable sharing typical news-of-the-day chatter with other journalists, Graham recalled: “He would fall back on sea stories from his past,” which could make for awkward lunchtime conversation. Graham worried about him several years ago when Cronkite agreed to tape an interview for a Court TV special and arrived seeming to be “mentally slowing down.”

But shyness and age be damned; Cronkite was not to be underestimated. “It was amazing. When the red light went on in the camera, Walter came on like gangbusters. He gave a flawless interview, with interesting insights, lively and fast without hesitation,” Graham said. “He had lived his life in front of a camera.”