Saturday Single No. 141

Originally posted July 18, 2009

I’m a newsman, a reporter. I always have been and always will be. I haven’t made my living in that trade for more than ten years now, but still, I am one. I didn’t have much of an audience for the hand-printed newspapers I put together when I was twelve or so, but even then I was a newsman (or newskid, if you will). As someone whose life is tied to the news – and that will always be the case, even if I never work another minute in the industry – there are those who have influenced me on my path.

Chief among those is DQ, my first real-world editor at the Monticello Times. DQ taught me almost everything I know about newspapering in a small town. Explicitly, through his instruction, and implicitly, through his behavior and demeanor, he showed me how to be what I eventually realized I’d always wanted to be: a reporter.

The fact that I wanted – and had always wanted – to be a reporter surprised me. Writing – one of the essential portions of reporting – had always been a chore: Until I got a typewriter and mastered it, my thoughts moved far too fast for my horrid handwriting to keep pace. And even with more and more modern tools, there still are days when writing is hard work. Add to that the tasks of first, going out and talking to strangers to learn what they know and think and second, finding a way to tell all of that to an audience, and reporting is a craft that can be complex and scary. And I’ve wondered from time to time where that impulse arose: Who or what in my youth made me – despite my dread of writing and my uneasiness as having to face strangers throughout the process – want to be a reporter?

I think I got my answer last evening, and that answer – as delayed as its realization might have been – was ultimately as unsurprising as the sunrise. My inspiration was Walter Cronkite, the grand man of television news who died yesterday at the age of ninety-two. From World War II through the Iranian hostage crisis of the later 1970s and early 1980s, Cronkite was first and foremost a reporter, even during the nineteen years when he was the anchor for the CBS Evening News.

That was evident last evening in many of the clips that CNN showed as it covered Cronkite’s death. Among the many on-air moments of his life that were shown last evening, we saw him discussing Vietnam with President John F. Kennedy in the backyard at (one assumes) the Kennedy retreat at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and talking about the D-Day invasion with retired general and one-time President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a jeep on the beaches of Normandy, France. We saw him at his anchor desk explaining the intricacies of the Watergate affair in late 1973, delving into a story that did not, at that time in its development, lend itself well to the visual medium that is television news. And we saw perhaps the two most famous moments of Cronkite’s long career: his exultation and relief in July 1969 when the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle found a safe landing spot on the moon and his controlled shock and grief in November 1963 as he told his viewers of Kennedy’s death in Dallas.

As I watched those clips – all of which I’d seen before and some of which I’d seen at the moment of broadcast – I realized that from the time I began to watch television news (and that was at a very young age, perhaps when I was ten), I always by choice watched CBS and Cronkite. (Cronkite was followed on CBS, of course, by Dan Rather, who was himself succeeded by Katie Couric. I don’t think much of Couric, but I still watch CBS; brand loyalty dies hard.) I realized as well that it was Cronkite who – without my ever coming close to realizing this before – gave me a model of what a newsman should be: As he reported and presented the news, he was calm, well-spoken (which means he also wrote well), courteous but persistent, interested in just about everything, and a good story-teller.

Cronkite’s passing is truly the end of an era, as has been said many times by many people on CNN and elsewhere in the brief hours since his death. I’ll let others deal with the historical implications and with the contrast of the news environment of, say, 1969 to that of 2009. My reaction is far more personal, and it’s far more intense than I would have expected.

I don’t know that I ever had heroes, even when I was a kid. I don’t think I ever thought of anyone as someone who could do no wrong, which is to me the definition of a hero. Over the years, however, from the time I was very young through my college years (and probably beyond), I did have role models, folks whose best attributes and actions seemed to me worthy of emulation: A couple of them were teachers, for the way they guided me and encouraged me; I’ve written once about Roger Lydeen and I may write about others in the future. Musically, as I’ve also said before, there were Al Hirt, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. As a sports fan, I looked up to Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings. And, as I noted above, I realized last evening – with some surprise and some tears – that Walter Cronkite was on that list as well.

I would imagine that Walter Cronkite shows up on a lot of folks’ similar lists, especially among those of us who consider ourselves newsmen and -women.

And here’s a song whose content has no relation to my topic but whose title fits. “I Got The News” by Steely Dan from Aja, is today’s Saturday Single:

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