Posted by: Lauren--NY | July 30, 2009

Goodnight, Uncle Walt

“Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press also must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. We must avoid, when possible, publicity circuses that make the right of a fair trial a right difficult to uphold. We must avoid unwanted intrusions upon people’s privacy. Liberty and, no less, one’s reputation in the community are terribly precious things, and they must not be dealt with lightly or endangered by capricious claims of special privilege. Above all else, however, the press itself must unwaveringly guard the First Amendment guarantees of a free press. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society. No true democracy, as we understand the term, can exist without it.” ~Walter Cronkite

I am not a journalist.

As a blogger, it’s incredibly important for me to say that and to continue to believe it. My blog contains opinion pieces based on fact, not simply the facts. I have no cause to lump myself with those who are performing that truly crucial, almost sacred duty Mr. Cronkite describes above—many of whom suffer exile, captivity and death to preserve global press freedom, to keep the public informed, thus fighting oppression and totalitarianism in the most effective way. That’s not to say that there’s no place for editorializing in journalism—far from it, just that the distinction should be made clear.

Walter Cronkite was, of course, the epitome of unbiased and reliable journalism, the gold standard. He calmly related the details, but he did so with a tiny, endearing touch of awe, at once both an authority figure and a peer—you rarely knew quite how he felt about a story, but you knew he felt. He grieved for the premature death of a young president, and he practically bounced with glee when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He boldly “put on [his] editor’s hat,” as he put it, because after the Tet Offensive his conscience told him that Vietnam was a bigger mistake than the public was being led to believe. Walter Cronkite wasn’t just an anchor, he was first and foremost a reporter, and he went into war zones and put himself on the line long after it was necessary for his career. He was the voice of reason and understanding for a weary, frightened nation when we needed him most, and remained so long after passing the torch to Dan Rather. I loved watching Dan Rather throughout my childhood and I have great respect for the man, but I know he isn’t Walter Cronkite. Somehow I always knew that, even though the first time I saw Mr. Cronkite was probably on “Sesame Street,” having been born much too late to watch him nightly. That said, there was something about that twinkle and that touch of awe I told you about before that set him apart and made him trustworthy, to the extent that even as a child I could sense it. There was something incredibly human about the way he spoke and the way he looked into the camera lens, the same something that lets eyes meet across a crowded room, the same something that wordlessly communicates that we are each fighting a great battle. The same something that makes you take a leap of faith, the same something that makes you have faith.

Mr. Cronkite had the same something that makes you go back to the original definition of a “romantic,” which had very little to do with what we today consider romantic love. It had to do with the way you lived your life and the concept of fighting for a cause—but it actually had quite little to do with why you were fighting; it had to do with how you fought. It essentially meant that you were willing to fall on a sword for your beliefs. Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire famously said, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.” Great journalists take this way of feeling and apply it to exact truth. Like Edward R. Murrow before him, Mr. Cronkite set the paramount example of how it’s done. That’s what his legacy should be.

Walter Cronkite’s fight for exact truth extended to the welfare of other journalists, long after the retirement he so soon regretted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he preferred taking an active role in the organizations with which he associated himself, and knew he lacked the time to do so with their organization, but he took an honorary membership because he believed so strongly in their cause. However, “there was nothing honorary about Cronkite’s involvement with CPJ. Not only was Cronkite America’s best-known journalist, he had led a group during the Vietnam War that gathered information about reporters and photographers who were missing in action. His involvement with CPJ suggested to U.S. journalists the seriousness of the new organization, and his name at the top of the letterhead had the potential of getting the attention of government officials around the world. It did.”

Mr. Cronkite wrote letters on behalf of imprisoned journalists over the years and was a quintessential reason why three British journalists charged with espionage in Argentina in 1982 were released after 77 days of confinement. He wrote a letter to secure visas for CPJ representatives to visit apartheid South Africa and pleaded on the behalf of journalists there for their safety and the freedom to do their jobs. He hosted fundraisers and attended their annual events. He was tireless, passionate and fearless—a true, classic Romantic.

I was much more crushed by his death than would be expected of someone of my age, but more young people have affection and respect for him than most in the older generation realize. I’m the type of person who gasps when I get hurt; it’s my natural reaction to pain, which I first realized many years ago when deeply slicing my finger in an attempt to cut a bagel (how’s that for an East Coast injury?). I had no idea that Mr. Cronkite was ill, and when I turned on CNN and saw the headline, I gasped out loud even though no one else was in the room.

I never really believed in immortality, and I never thought immortality was a good idea. To be honest, Mr. Cronkite lived much longer than I would normally wish on anybody. That said, it’s a horrifying moment when the last person on Earth you thought might actually live forever closes his eyes for the last time.

Goodnight, Uncle Walt.

Creative Commons License
The Grotto Blog by Lauren E. Moccio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.lauriebethsgrotto.com.

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Responses

  1. You have such a gift for writing. This is a beautifully crafted homage to Mr. Cronkite, Lauren!! May his blessed soul rest in peace.

    Also, may your blog keep growing in popularity as it should! You can write just as well as the best of ’em!

    Please keep us posted on your blog updates! We are some of your BIGGEST FANS! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Hugs and love to you & your family,
    Amy, Shug-Boog, and Ken


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