He’s in his late 80s, a little unsteady on the legs and, as he describes it, “as deaf as a damn post.” Former “CBS Evening News” anchor Walter Cronkite might be a lion in winter, but during a brief visit to Los Angeles earlier this week he showed that he’s still a lion.
Cronkite, who retired from the anchor chair in 1980, has had a quarter-century to watch broadcast news from the sidelines, and he doesn’t think the current generation of TV journalists is doing a bad job. Corporate broadcast owners, though, are another story, says Cronkite. He believes they are paying more attention to Wall Street than to the health of the democracy at a time when the nation’s dedication to education has wavered.
“We [as a nation] are not educated well enough to perform the necessary act of intelligently selecting our leaders,” Cronkite, 88, said during a day of speeches and interviews Tuesday at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he helped present the biannual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
Cronkite issued a call-to-arms for fellow journalists -- primarily broadcast -- to pressure “our employers, those who are more concerned with profits than they are with performance,” to replace the current roundups of celebrity profiles and personal health and finance pieces with “the news of the day.”
“If we fail at that,” Cronkite said, “our democracy, our republic, I think, is in serious danger.”
On campus, Cronkite met briefly with journalists, spoke at the awards luncheon, then sat for almost an hour of questions from an audience of 200 journalism students in the Annenberg Auditorium (a webcast of that session is available at https://ascweb.usc.edu/home.php).
Slowly over the past couple of decades, “Uncle Walter” has become “Grandpa Walter,” and he shined in that role during his session with the students. Most of the audience hadn’t been born when Cronkite retired -- an event that happened so long ago that his replacement, Dan Rather, has since stepped down from the anchor chair too. Still, Cronkite was greeted with near-reverence: a standing ovation as he entered the room, warm laughs at wry witticisms, and patience when he meandered and had to ask emcee Judy Muller -- a former colleague and now Annenberg instructor -- to remind him what the question was.
Cronkite’s resume encapsulates the heart of the American 20th century, beginning his career during the Great Depression, covering World War II in North Africa and Europe -- including the Normandy invasion and the postwar Nuremberg trials -- and extending through the Vietnam War and Watergate.
“It was inspirational to be with someone who’s been around for so many years and who is so prestigious in the field,” said Tala Jahangiri, 18, a freshman broadcasting major from Newport Beach. “It’s great to hear what he thinks about media and the news today.... it’s like a legend sitting in front of you, and we were, like, front row looking at him.”
Her friend Amy Strack, 18, a print major also from Newport Beach, was equally impressed. Cronkite’s talk, she said, led her to question her belief that print journalism is for journalists and broadcast journalism is for pretty faces.
“I’d always perceived broadcast as putting on the makeup,” Strack said. “Hearing all the stories about where he’s been and what he’s seen, it was inspiring.”
For much of the day, Cronkite sounded more like a political candidate pushing education issues than veteran newsman. He’s genuinely troubled by a society and government that he believes undervalues -- and underpays -- teachers, a theme he returned to several times.
Given the criticism Cronkite has leveled over the years, he was surprisingly supportive of current broadcast journalism, though he separates the talking heads of many cable shows from network journalists reporting for the evening news shows. In a brief interview, Cronkite said he fears the blogosphere, still in its “infancy,” could threaten the standing of mainstream media as a news source for consumers already confused by cable’s “opinion journalism.” It is the function of the educational system, he believes, to train people to understand the difference.
And he endorsed the traditional single-anchor format he helped pioneer over some of the alternatives, including multiple anchors in multiple cities, reportedly being considered by CBS news chief Leslie Moonves to make the evening news more palatable to younger viewers.
“I just hope they’re careful with it,” Cronkite said. “I hope they’re not bent on changing the format because they want to be more entertaining. We’ve got to be on guard constantly to eschew entertainment in the news. That’s not our function. If we undertake it ... we’re going to be cheating the public.”