It didn’t take me all of two and a half hours sitting at Walter Cronkite’s memorial service Wednesday to learn that my career is somewhat muted by the fact I never met the journalistic icon.
I, like so many of my generation, were drawn to journalism by the likes of Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley. When I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be an astronaut and walk the moon like Cmdr. Buzz Aldrin, who, by the way, was on hand to eulogize Mr. Cronkite, I wanted to be a journalist.
The service may be one of the great moments of my 30 years as a newsman. When I wasn’t laughing at stories like the time Mr. Cronkite refused to have his picture taken with the Big Three’s anchors — Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw — because that meant leaving his seat at the bar and walking away from his drink, I was shedding a tear for our loss. The service was a euphoric blend of happy memories and poignant testimonies to “the Most Trusted Man in America.”
Make no mistake about it, those who knew Walter Cronkite, loved him. They respected him and they followed his example of pure, driven journalism that put a premium on accuracy, fairness and brevity.
“Just give the people the news. Be accurate and fair. That’s what they want,” he must have said enough times to chant it in his sleep.
That’s an amazing statement that still has a place within today’s context of high-speed, technologically driven delivery systems.
In President Barack Obama’s tribute to the CBS News anchor, he told the crowd about the time Mr. Cronkite, as a young reporter, lost his job because he dared pick up the phone to verify a fire at a local department store instead of rushing on the air to tell it. Obama suggested, rightfully so I believe, that even with the supernova brightness of technology and the light speed by which information is disseminated, that Mr. Cronkite would still do the journalistic right thing and take the time to verify the information, get it right and then report it.
Listening to the likes to Bob Schieffer, Andy Rooney, Katie Couric, Nick Clooney, Sir Howard Stringer and Brokaw tell their stories about Mr. Cronkite, I was comforted by the notion that the way I was taught to be a journalist, and how I now teach my students, is straight from the Cronkite book – people need to know what happened. Above all else, accuracy and fairness must exist. Journalism is a noble calling and you must honor it with these commitments, lest you lose the trust of the public and undermine your credibility.
As Obama said, Mr. Cronkite was the “most trusted man in American” not because it was a marketing tool or a gimmick to get viewers to tune into CBS News. It was a title bestowed upon him by the people who matter the most – the American public.
His work is legendary and his commitment to journalistic excellence is second to none, so my respect for him didn’t need to grow as a result of this service. But, what did happen is I renewed my spirit and reaffirmed my respect for what it is I do – journalism. I have the great fortune of sharing this profession with Mr. Cronkite.
He set the bar for which we all reach and in the final analysis, that may be his greatest gift to journalism — that we aspire to be as honorable and trusted as Mr. Cronkite.
I may never have met him, but that seems less important to me today because of what he meant to American journalism and his beloved public.
I think you can trust me on this.