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Walter Cronkite, America's 'Most Trusted Man,' Dead


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The most trusted man in America has died. That's a factually verifiable lead. Walter Cronkite, the face of CBS News in its greatest days and the definitive anchorman, died last night at his apartment in New York. He was 92.

He saw Americans through assassinations, wars and moon shots. For nearly two decades, tens of millions of Americans tuned in to watch him deliver the nightly news with his famous signoff: That's the way it is. NPR's David Folkenflik has this appreciation.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: It's been more than a generation since Walter Cronkite left the anchor's desk of "The CBS Evening News," and at the time of his death he was still known by many as Uncle Walter, the ultimate reliable source, the nation's narrator, and the standard by which all other TV news anchors are judged.

Take the horrific news he confronted just 19 months into the job. Cronkite rushed to air and calmly led viewers through terrible tragedy with simple declarative sentences.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (CBS News Anchor): From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.

FOLKENFLIK: Cronkite choked up on camera ever so briefly as he took off his reading glasses to check the time.

Mr. ANDY ROONEY ("60 Minutes"): It was a very effective moment, and it's been rerun a thousand times.

FOLKENFLIK: Longtime Cronkite friend Andy Rooney of CBS.

Mr. ROONEY: If Walter had had his choice, he would have suppressed those tears because he hated to reveal himself as an emotional person.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet ultimately Cronkite's composure and mastery throughout the day and those that followed inspire no little awe even now. Retired CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton.

Mr. TOM FENTON (CBS News): The old joke, the secret in this business of broadcast news is credibility. If you can fake that, you've got it made. But Walter didn't have to fake it.

FOLKENFLIK: As a young reporter for the United Press wire service, Cronkite covered the combat of World War II up close and was later hired by Edward R. Murrow for CBS.

He became anchor of "The CBS Evening News" in 1962, and it expanded to a half hour. Cronkite loved perfecting what he called the magic, the six minutes a night that he was visible on the air delivering the news, endlessly polishing his copy and timing his delivery for what became the company's top-rated newscast.

Television was newly dominant, and there were few competing distractions back then, yet Andy Rooney says network executives often pushed for softer stories as they brought entertainment values to their news divisions.

Mr. ROONEY: But Walter didn't care. He was absolutely in favor of giving the American people what they needed to know, not what they wanted to hear.

FOLKENFLIK: From the outset, Cronkite put his own editorial stamp on coverage. Tom Fenton says Cronkite had privately had been a strong supporter of American involvement in Vietnam.

Mr. FENTON: It was only after that famous trip that he made to Vietnam, and he saw the reality on the ground and heard what was really going on, that he came to what for him the inescapable conclusion.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. CRONKITE: 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Unlike the punditry that dominates today's nighttime cable news shows, Cronkite's nightly newscasts were so measured that the contrast made this editorial in February, 1968, after the Tet offensive, all the more powerful.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. CRONKITE: But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate not as victims but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.

FOLKENFLIK: President Lyndon Johnson instantly got it. When he saw that newscast, he turned to his press secretary, George Christian, and said, quote, If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country.

But there was good news too, and Cronkite took great joy in delivering it.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. CRONKITE: Armstrong is on the moon. Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon, on this July 20th, 1969.

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

FOLKENFLIK: Cronkite devoted hours to the space program but made news again when he devoted 14 minutes of his newscast in October, 1972, to a single topic — Watergate — even though President Nixon would breeze to re-election a few weeks later.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. CRONKITE: But the episode grew steadily more sinister, no longer a caper, but the Watergate affair escalating finally into charges of a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history.

FOLKENFLIK: CBS wasn't breaking news here, but Cronkite had assembled a team of reporters to explain the affair fully to a much larger public and to ensure the matter couldn't be dismissed. Cronkite once described his approach on NPR's DIANE REHM SHOW.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. CRONKITE: The ethic of a responsible journalist is to put his or her biases, his or her prejudices aside in an attempt to really be fair to all sides at all times, and my pride is that I think I did that fairly well during my years.

FOLKENFLIK: Cronkite retired in 1981, but he expected to hold a senior role at the network during the Dan Rather era and was hurt to learn there was no room. He did some work for Discovery, NPR and the History Channel, devoted more time to sailing, and re-emerged as the voice of CBS News, if only to introduce Katie Couric when she took over as anchor. More than a generation later, Walter Cronkite's rumbling voice still echoes. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

SIMON: And if you go to our Web site,, you can hear some of the essays that Walter Cronkite did for NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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