Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite (revised, spelling corrected)

Walter Cronkite, the legendary American newsman, has died at age 92. He officially retired from "The CBS Evening News" in 1980. His distinguished career in television was played out in a different media world than the one we know inhabit.

There were but three major television networks. There were no cable channels. Special effects were nonexistent on the news. Readers of the news did not have to have great good looks or big hair.

Yes, it was still television. Stories were usually only two minutes long; they jumped from one to another; they were interrupted by commercials having no conceptual connection with the news--what Neil Postman called the "And now this..." sensibility that makes incoherence a way of media existence. Yet compared to the hyperactivity of contemporary television--which literally makes me nauseous when I am accidentally exposed it terrors--television was rather calm, and Walter Cronkite possessed an avuncular gravitas. He was not histrionic; he was not an entertainer. Moreover, the language of the news was more thickly articulated; it had a richer vocabulary, and made more allusions to high culture. This is noted in Thomas Shachtman's book, The Inarticulate Society. Language has suffered horribly since then...

In the evening of November 21, 1968, I was in my small bedroom watching the evening news by myself. I was eleven years old. Adults filled the living room and kitchen of our small rented house in Anchorage, Alaska, as they had all day; but I was alone. My eyes were red from weeping. Mr. Cronkite ended the news that day by saying, "Labor leader, Harold Groothuis, and five others were killed at Point Barrow, Alaska today when their small plane crashed after take off." He may have also said, "They were part of government commission investigating claims of labor abuse among Alaska Native workers." That is true, but I do not remember if he mentioned it. (I was told my a reader of this blog that the videos are available. There is an abstract of the story on line, but it did not mention my father by name. I think the actual story did.) He looked a bit sad, and said, as he did at the end of every news broadcast, "And that's the way it is, November 21, 1968." I later told my Mom, "Mom, Walter Cronkite mentioned Dad on TV." It was the first and last time.

In many ways, I miss Walter Cronkite.

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