RIP, Walter Cronkite

One of the best things I’ve been asked to do at Pomona College so far was getting to introduce Walter Cronkite before his commencement address a few years ago. He was extraordinarily kind and gentle when I met him, beginning to slow down a bit perhaps, but still brave enough to take on the Bush administration in a speech that caused at least a couple of irate parents to storm out of the ceremony. This was the introduction I gave him then; I still think every bit of it (and then some) was deserved.

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President Oxtoby, friends, colleagues, and graduating seniors:

I want to begin today with two admittedly polemical statements: first, that the institution most singularly influential in the history of the late-twentieth century United States is television, and second, that the individual most singularly influential in the history of that medium is Walter Cronkite.

Mr. Cronkite began his career in journalism as a campus correspondent at The Houston Post during high school and his freshman year at the University of Texas. He also worked as a sports announcer for a local radio station in Oklahoma City and joined the United Press in 1937. Mr. Cronkite became a correspondent to CBS News in July 1950, and became the anchor of the CBS Evening News on April 16, 1962. When, on March 6, 1981, he stepped down as anchorman and managing editor after nearly 19 years in that role, Mr. Cronkite became a Special Correspondent for CBS News, which he remains to this day.

What that listing of dates and jobs doesn’t tell you, however, is what Mr. Cronkite accomplished during his distinguished career on-screen: He brought an exacting sense of professional standards to broadcast journalism, insisting that reporting be “fast, accurate, and unbiased.” That said, he was also unafraid to add an editorial perspective when necessary, to take a principled position and stand by it. As such, Mr. Cronkite is thought of by many today as the man who brought an end to the Vietnam War. On February 27, 1968, CBS aired a special broadcast, “Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite,” at the close of which he added the following statement:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion… it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” As legend has it, President Johnson, who was watching the broadcast, then turned off his set and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Mr. Cronkite could always be counted upon to speak for middle America; in 1972, a national poll was conducted in which voters were questioned about their levels of trust for various politicians (including Nixon, McGovern, and “the average senator”). Walter Cronkite, the write-in candidate, bested them all, and came thereafter to be known as “the most trusted man in America.”

Mr. Cronkite has received innumerable other awards and honors, from his peers in the fields of journalism and broadcasting, from universities and colleges, from national organizations. But perhaps no other honor is quite so telling as this: so synonymous with broadcast journalism has Mr. Cronkite become world-wide, that he has entered two languages as a common noun; in both Sweden and Holland, news anchors are known as “cronkiters.”

Mr. President, on behalf of the Board of Trustees and the Faculty of Pomona College, it is my great pleasure to present to you Walter Cronkite, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

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