Friday, July 17, 2009

Uncle Walter is Dead

What an irony, Walter Cronkite dying in the middle of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of man's first trip to the surface of the moon - because our journey into space seemed to be his personal mission.

Those of you who are too young to remember his era can't appreciate how central he was to broadcast news in the late 60s and early 70s. No one today matches his combination of reporting skill and accuracy and straight speaking. It is not an exaggeration to say that we viewed him as "Uncle Walter". I certainly did.

I remember him most for three things:

A program series "The Twentieth Century" that he hosted and narrated. (The title was a bit ambitous, since it ended in 1966 and really only covered about 1/3 of the century - the part where we had newsreel footage.) It was like The History Channel, only without the alien psychics in Bermuda triangle shorts touching a Tesla coil on an ice road. I learned a tremendous amount of history from that program.

Coverage of the entire NASA program. Because CBS was the dominant station (meaning the only one with a good signal) in town for years, they were what we watched in the elementary school gym when launches were broadcast live. He made sure he knew what was going on, and explained it to us as he understood it. That made him both the consummate reporter and a great model for teaching.

I hadn't thought of that until just now. He taught us the news. And what I just wrote is how I approach teaching: articulating what I needed to know or see to understand something.

Speaking out on the facts that argued for ending our involvement in Vietnam. With opinion so rampant on cable "news" channels today (to the point where CNN stopped doing news at all and put it all on Headline News, only to interrupt that with hours of non-factual blather so you often don't find any news there either) it may be hard for any of you to imagine the impact on the nation when an objective newsman stated that we needed to get out of Vietnam. Sadly, more than half of the troops killed in Vietnam died after that point in time.

But I will also remember him for speaking at commencement, even though no one remembers what anyone says at graduation. And I will never, NEVER, forget the way he covered the assassination of JFK and the subsequent funeral. Partly because he not only knew what to say, but when to shut up. He was willing to let the images speak for themselves, not like the idiots who talked over a person singing their heart out - literally - at the Michael Jackson funeral, or put their logos and "crawl" over part of the content they were trying to show.

Cronkite could watch the funeral or a rocket launch or the moon landing and moon walk with us, without narrating it like it was a prize fight. That will be missed most of all.

CBS Coverage of Cronkite's Death

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