Saturday, July 18, 2009
Remembering Walter Cronkite
As a student in London in the early 1970s, I worked part time at the CBS News bureau, then located on the Old Brompton Road, just opposite Harrod's department store.
Being there was a high-test introduction to professional journalism and the focus of the bureau's activities was always the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. "Walter," as he was known to his friends (and "Mister" Cronkite to the rest of us), defined everything we did in the bureau.
If a story had "legs" (i.e., it had enough potential to be considered for the Evening News), it had to be brought to the attention of the show's producers, who were known around the bureau as "Cronkiters."
In those pre-video, pre-digital days, the visual hallmark of the program (we didn't call it a "show") was film and lots of it. The London bureau had its own lab. Film was shipped in from all around the world including from Vietnam where the war was still raging in all its intensity.
I remember the first time I saw an edit, where the producer chose among four or five possible "standups" where the reporter delivered his closing message to the camera. In my innocence, I was astonished that it was done repeatedly until the right tone and cadence was captured on film. It seemed like a show-biz artifice to my naive eyes, when in fact, it was just a form of professionalism.
My job was as the Brits would say, "general dog's body," which meant answering phones, making sure that the teletypes machines didn't run out of paper, going out to Heathrow airport in my ancient Triumph Herald to send film to New York or pick up film from Jo'burg, waking up the irascible bureau chief Phil Lewis to tell him that the wire services were reporting a major mine disaster in Ukraine ("You idiot! You woke me up for that?") which taught me the difference between a general disaster and one that Mr. Cronkite might find important...
I spoke to Walter Cronkite only once. He called looking for the senior correspondent Charles Collingwood. I said he was out of the office and probably at his club. He asked me to find him and have him call New York right away.
After I took the message, Mr. Cronkite asked me who I was. I told him I was a Canadian grad student at the London School of Economics, working the overnight shift. He asked me what I was studying (European history). He mentioned that wouldn't be a bad way to get into journalism, if that's what I wanted. He wished me good luck. His voice had that timbre even over 3000 miles of undersea cable (those were the pre-satellite days).
What CBS News had in general and what the London bureau personified was that sense of civic mission and informational obligation. Walter Cronkite was the embodiment of that. I found those same qualities only a few times later in life - for a few years at CBC Radio and again at NPR (where Walter Cronkite produced some wonderful essays combining journalism and history).
Elitist? Yes. Of undoubted value? Absolutely? Did CBS, CBC Radio and NPR troll for ratings? They didn't have to. The audience sought them out because the news had a purpose beyond delivering dividends to shareholders.