Walter Cronkite Tribute Doesn't Tell the Whole Story

The Times marked the death of longtime CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite in a front-page obituary Saturday by Douglas Martin: "Walter Cronkite, 92, Dies; Trusted Voice of TV News." Cronkite retired in 1981 after 19 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Martin delivered the expected tributes to his "unflappable delivery" and "distinctively avuncular" and his position to many as Uncle Walter, "respected, liked and listened to. With his trimmed mustache and calm manner, he even bore a resemblance to another trusted American fixture, another Walter - Walt Disney." But Martin missed the rest of thestory when he declared Cronkite a man "uncomfortable expressing opinion."

On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Cronkite briefly lost his composure in announcing that the president had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Taking off his black-framed glasses and blinking back tears, he registered the emotions of millions.

It was an uncharacteristically personal note from a newsman who was uncomfortable expressing opinion.

"I am a news presenter, a news broadcaster, an anchorman, a managing editor - not a commentator or analyst," he said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in 1973. "I feel no compulsion to be a pundit."

But when he did pronounce judgment, the impact was large.

Martin replayed two of Cronkite's liberal lunges: His famous 1968 declaration that Vietnam was a "stalemate," and two long reports on Watergate in October 1972 which helped crystallize the scandal in the public mind.

But Martin failed to add that Cronkite lost his discomfort with expressing opinion (if it ever existed) upon his retirement. Cronkite continued to speak up after his retirement as anchorman, and his liberalism was documented by the Media Research Center, including this quote, in which he invited a liberal audience to shout the truths of liberalism:

"I know liberalism isn't dead in this country. It simply has, temporarily we hope, lost its voice....We know that unilateral action in Grenada and Tripoli was wrong. We know that 'Star Wars' means uncontrollable escalation of the arms race. We know that the real threat to democracy is the half of the nation in poverty. We know that no one should tell a woman she has to bear an unwanted child....Gawd Almighty, we've got to shout these truths in which we believe from the housetops. Like that scene in the movie 'Network,' we've got to throw open our windows and shout these truths to the streets and the heavens. And I bet we'll find more windows are thrown open to join the chorus than we'd ever dreamed possible." - Cronkite, at a November People for the American Way banquet. Quoted in the December 5, 1988Newsweek.

And this quote from his syndicated column debut, Cronkite actually admitted that most reporters are liberal - and that it's a good thing:

"I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum. More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier side of our cities - the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated. We reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful. If that is what makes us liberals, so be it, just as long as in reporting the news we adhere to the first ideals of good journalism - that news reports must be fair, accurate and unbiased." - Cronkite in his debut as a syndicated columnist, August 6, 2003.