Walter Cronkite: 40 Years After Signing Off CBS News And Why We Have Reasons To Miss Him

American journalist and TV news broadcaster Walter Cronkite anchors the news desk for the ‘CBS Evening News,’ 1981. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

On March 6th, it was 40 years ago that Walter Cronkite, or as he was fondly called by many in the land “Uncle Walter”, signed off for the final time on the CBS Evening News. Our nation rarely notes such anniversaries about journalists, but given the ill-treatment that reporters often face in these recent years it merits calling forth the memory of Cronkite on this occasion.

Readers to my blog know Caffeinated Politics doesn’t need to be reminded of Cronkite, as here we have never forgotten. The tagline on the banner reads “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” It was a concise and truthful summation from the most trusted man in America. As we think back to his legacy and his professional regard for news and reporting there are many ways to see the wisdom he left us.

Cronkite knew the immense pile of information that makes for news each day, and the very limited amount of time an anchor can report on the nation and world. That is why he knew his newscast was only able to skim the headlines and for the public to get a more complete view of the world they needed, as he said, to read their morning newspaper.  His idea was sound when he first said it, and it is just as accurate today.  Newspapers should play an integral part in a citizen’s daily life. 

He was a curious man, and when it comes to reporters the best ones are those who ask the questions and probe the topics that the viewers or readers at home are asking and wishing to know more about. We all have become very aware of, and fascinated by, the various computer gadgets and viewing pleasures to be found on the news networks at election time. We now take for granted the computer touchscreens, ‘magic walls’, and even well-produced holograms that in 2020 explained a caucus setting as actual reporters stood around looking at the clear table-top in front of them where the display took place.  It was fun, light-hearted, and futuristic.  But I just know Cronkite would have found it not only interesting–but like his home audience wanted to know–how was it happening.

He would have asked the questions about the computer program much like the ones I fondly recall him asking about regarding the Lunar Rover vehicle on the moon and how it operated. He was, after all, the reporter who made the space program and the glorious moon landing understandable and the type of news coverage that those of us who witnessed it still recall with smiles galore. I recall vividly Cronkite reporting that story and making it so real that even a  boy could understand. In timem Cronkite would be as memorable a figure to me from that time as Neil Armstrong. As a young boy, it was Cronkite who made the biggest and best adventure possible. He also needs to be thanked for bringing science into our homes.

The biggest change that we face since the years when Cronkite delivered the evening news regards our losing a sense of commonality as citizens. With his reporting, we were informed about the news of the day.  No matter where we lived, or what we thought, we had a point of reference as a nation when discussing the news.  To some extent, the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times can still make the same type of claim today.  For it is these papers that now often set the topic for discussion on radio, or by the pundits on the evening cable news shows.  But with the sharply divided electorate who wishes to get their television news from the perspective of partisan sources it breaks down the need of the nation for commonalities concerning the who, what, where, when, and why of a story. We do not start from the same foundation as a country when dissecting the news. Our politics underscores that truth.

The common point of reference is important for a democracy to have and when it is lost it becomes most obvious as to why it mattered in the first place. With 22 minutes of news each weeknight Cronkite gave us the beginning point on understanding the major news events of the day. When too many in the nation get morphed and tortured segments of news folded in among the all-news networks attempt to play for ratings, rather than provide for objective reporting, we all can see how much we lost with Cronkite’s final statement to his viewers.

“That’s the way it is.”