The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

July 25, 2009

Larry Smith: Cronkite set standards for journalists


For baby boomers and the generation who came before us, the passing of Walter Cronkite marks the end of an era.

Cronkite, who lived 92 busy years, died Friday. As a reporter and television news anchor, he set a standard in journalism many of us still try to achieve today.

He started as a wire service reporter, putting himself in harm’s way during World War II to be sure the American public back home knew the facts of a particular situation, not just the version handed out by official spokesmen.

He believed journalists should inform, not necessarily entertain, the public. That often meant digging deep into issues and learning through personal experience. He was a television personality without makeup or an expensive haircut.

When television news was still toddling along, he became a familiar face. Recruited by Edward R. Murrow — another journalistic icon for whom the truth was the ultimate goal — Cronkite established himself on CBS as the source for information.

That was during the time when there were only three networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — and all used veteran print journalists in their news operations. David Brinkley at NBC and Howard K. Smith at ABC all put value in good reporting.

But it was Cronkite who became the one everyone looked to for information and illumination.

Even the youngest of us boomers can remember him behind the anchor desk, reading the news.

When John F. President Kennedy was assassinated, Cronkite led his network’s coverage for hours. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon — a date 40 years ago Monday — Cronkite reacted like a a school boy, almost giddy with excitement.

Cronkite’s influence extended all the way into the White House. In 1968, after a reporting trip to Vietnam where he stayed with troops who saw battle, Cronkite added a personal observation at the end of a television special. In a rare expression of his own views, he said he thought the best policy for the United States would be to get out of Vietnam.

When President Lyndon Johnson heard that, he reportedly said if Cronkite thought that way, the administration had lost the support of middle America.

The real legacy Cronkite leaves for today’s journalists — including those of us here at the Commercial-News — is that facts stand up better than fluff. He wanted to see things for himself, to talk to the people involved and not be content with information filtered through public officials or public relations personnel. He believed people should be told what they needed to know, not just what they wanted to hear.

He wanted Americans to know the truth so they could make up their own minds. That can sometimes be a difficult task, but one we try to attain in every story. That will be Cronkite’s real contribution to his craft, that journalists never should stop digging for the facts.

Cronkite signed off every newscast with the same phrase, one that reassured viewers they were informed. “And that’s the way it is …”, he would say before he wished America a good evening.

We knew it would be a good evening, After all, Cronkite had just told us so.

Larry Smith is editor of the commercial-News. Contact him at lsmith@dancomnews.com.