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July 23, 2009

And Thatís The Way It Was

Michael Kurtianyk

Another legend passed recently: Walter Cronkite. I am not too young to remember him, nor am I too old to forget who he was. Growing up, he was a fixture on our television set at dinnertime.


My dad used to say that he believed what he had to say, and that I should also. Walter Cronkite was someone who could be trusted. He was the face of CBS News, and the face of the national news. We, as a nation, mourn the loss of an icon – an icon of an era long gone.


I just knew him from the television set growing up, maybe early 70s. My dad liked him a lot, and since he was interested, I was, too. He looked liked anyone’s grandfather to me – a gravelly voice, gray-white hair, moustache, and eyes that seared through the television set. He was considered “The Most Trusted Man in America.” If he said that gas prices were going up tomorrow, then indeed the prices would go up. I would have believed him if he’d said that I would grow up and some day move to Frederick County, Maryland.


I remember him saying: “And that’s the way it is” followed by that day’s date as he ended his broadcasts. I thought that was pretty cool. It was a classy move, because a repetitive statement that is anticipated and fulfilled brought finality to a family’s work day.


When he left, no one could replace him, but Dan Rather, to me, did a fine job as Mr. Cronkite’s successor. However, the 80s and 90s brought the advent of more news sources on cable television, and this dilution weakened evening network broadcast news.


Ted Turner started CNN on June 1, 1980. Remember the critics saying that there isn’t enough news to fill a 24-hour day? They said the same thing about ESPN (begun September 7, 1979), and look at how much ESPN has influenced television and sports through the decades.


In recent years, how we receive our news has caused a paradigm shift in the industry, much of it is due to the sociological shift in our culture. We’d wake up in the morning and read yesterday’s news in the newspaper. After the 9-5 job, we’d come home, eat dinner, and watch the local news at 6 P.M., and the national news at 6:30 P.M. Once Mr. Cronkite finished, we’d watch All in the Family – or some other show.


What about today? I read The Frederick News-Post each morning. However, with email alerts on my cell phone and email from the FNP, I get news in real time. I also receive breaking alerts from CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. Short headlines as they happen make me feel like I’m in touch daily with the news of the world. On television, I can see news 24 hours a day on multiple channels. On cable, I can choose to watch news on the BBC and other international broadcasters.


Thus, the role of an evening news anchor has changed. Many have turned to an ongoing series reporting, like the housing market or one’s health, in order to keep people coming back. Katie Couric, currently the CBS news anchor, has audio and video podcasts on ITunes, which are downloadable at no cost. I would have downloaded Walter Cronkite’s podcasts had they been available.


When Mr. Cronkite left nightly broadcasting on March 6, 1981, he left a lasting legacy. Who can forget his announcement of the JFK assassination? The landing on the moon? I’ve watched them on the Internet, and those two broadcasts, to me, are gripping television. He set the standard, and he was a class act until the end. Here is the text of his final sign-off:


“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of The CBS Evening News; for me, it's a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that. But those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman Doug Edwards preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers, and none of that will change. Furthermore, I'm not even going away! I'll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, Universe. Old anchormen, you see, don't fade away; they just keep coming back for more. And that's the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.”


He was a class act until the end. That’s the way he was.


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