The Cronkite Chronicles
And that's the way it was
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, December 27, 1996

The News, of course, is a construct. Even on a personal basis, the passing along of information, from first hand on down to the friend who got it from a friend who got it from a friend whose cousin got it straight from the horse's mouth -- no, really -- is colored by selection, by the choice of words and ordering of facts. It's appropriate that the unit measurement of news is called a story, for it is the job of the newswriter to herd facts and figures into a coherent narrative, to sift from the evidence a scenario.

Indeed, apart from such locally tangible bulletins as might regard the weather or traffic (watch out for that hurricane, stay off the 405) or, heaven forfend, a murder down our block, most of what constitutes the news has the essential quality of fiction. Bosnia, Rwanda, the West Bank, the Oval Office -- I feel safe in saying that only a relative few of you (my Los Angelic fellows) know them as more than words or pictures, whatever the real and horrible history being made there; they remain for most of us imagined, which is not to say imaginary, places, no less nor more remote than Huck's Mississippi or Bloom's Dublin, than West Egg, the Old Curiosity Shop or the House of Seven Gables. The big world beyond comes to us stamped in newsprint, screened in halftone, through the magnetic pulse of a speaker or the fusillade of electrons crashing against a television screen. It is all, as it were, mediated.

Though it has been for some time a commonplace of media criticism (pro and am) that the modern TV newscast -- with its performing graphics and enforced jollity and affected rage and content not unrelated to the success of Hard Copy and American Journal -- has traded journalistic rigor for show-biz suasion, the fact is that the news has long been entertainment. Your medieval troubadours and your broadside balladeers set it to music; the newspaper, which has been around in something like its present aspect at least a couple of centuries, is a popular ritual form of relaxation; public radio newsmagazines cull current events into a kind of variety show, scheduled to play as accompaniment to morning coffee or to chaperone the evening drive home. Pumped from a zillion organs day after day, the news forms a backdrop to the drama of our less-than-newsworthy lives, coloring them with whatever proportion of tragedy and triumph, faith and futility constitutes the moment's geist -- and perhaps, though not necessarily, affecting the way we strut our remaining time upon the stage.

There is no news without someone goes and gets it, and even before the advent of the millionaire Super-anchors, the public made celebrities of the press. Twain, Hemingway, Halliburton, Broun, Bat Masterson, Damon Runyon, Janet Flanner, John Reed, Ernie Pyle, the unscalable Edward R. Murrow (Ben Shahn drew him as St. George slaying the dragon McCarthy), and latterly the likes of Didion, Wolfe, Thompson and Woodstein, among many others, became as interesting to their audience as the stories they reported, were in a sense inextricable from those stories. Sometimes were the story. It was a show all along, the news, and it's little wonder the reporter has been a stock hero (and, as often, antihero) of the page, stage, and screen. Cunning, dogged, as heedless of convention as of danger, piratical and poetical, situationally unethical, the agent of our vicarious daring and practical education, by job-definition at the edge of things, the newshound is perhaps the last pioneer of the 20th century. S/he confronts history as raw event -- unfiltered, uncut and unmediated.

Television, firing up in the late '40s, created a new cadre of news performers, and the first of them had the advantage of having worked in print and radio and having been seasoned on the one hand by grunt fieldwork and on the other by the happenstance of their interesting times. Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Second World War. And of course they had the luck to be working in a new medium -- whatever they did set the precedent, and television meant instance eminence. (John Cameron Swayze, NBC's news anchor from 1949 to 1956, was in later days the guarantee, by his mere trusty presence, that the Timex watch was indeed still ticking.) The most iconic if not the most august of this company was certainly Walter Cronkite, who wore an air of mustachioed, middle-aged distinction by the time he was 30 and whose famous galumphing cadences and well-bred, corn-fed bearing have come to represent the Platonic ideal of Anchorman. As much a celebrity as any he ever chronicled, Cronkite has lately telescoped his times and life, from newsboy to colossus, into a compulsively watchable eight-part, eight-hour television memoir. And it feels rushed, at that.

Co-produced by the man himself, through his own Cronkite Ward Company (it supplies the Learning Channel with the Great Books and Understanding series), Cronkite Remembers is both an expanded version of an identically titled show that aired last May on CBS, for which network he remains a "special correspondent," and a companion piece to his just-published A Reporter's Life; it is at once a history of Cronkite, of the country and the media -- which as you might imagine tie together rather neatly -- and it is as far as I know (not far) the first video autobiography ever produced. (At any rate, there can't be many, and certainly none of this scope or length.) It's hard to imagine a likelier candidate for the form: His business, after all, is the very stuff of history, and few humans can have logged as much camera time as Walter Cronkite, a ore or less continuous presence on CBS for three decades, and a participant, if sometimes only by dint of presentation, in most every signal event of his very long time. (At 80, he's been a newsman for 65 years.) The archives are lousy with him. And that's not counting the home movies.

His has clearly been an exceptionally full life, the contemplation of which might make lesser men feel barely extant. No mediated news for this medium. There he is, and there, and there, as intrepid as any reporter you might invent: in a Flying Fortress over Germany; at the Battle of the Bulge; descending by glider, under enemy fire, into the Netherlands; at Nuremberg; living in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War; riding in an elevator with Joseph McCarthy (drunk, wouldn't you know it); rambling around the White House with Truman; driving a Normandy beach with Ike; on the lawn at Hyannis Port with JFK; at a nuclear test; at the trial of Adolph Eichmann; and on patrol in Vietnam, from where he returned to assert, "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion." (LBJ is supposed to have said then, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." It did not, however, end the war.)

That declaration (Cronkite claims with a sort of chagrin) was for him a first and uncharacteristic editorial outburst. Though the tone of Cronkite Remembers is personal, folksy and frequently self-mocking, his preferred mode of reportorial address has been the plain transmission of fact. (Neutrality: it's another construct.) He steered by his critics: "If you get shot at from both sides of the road you probably are doing a pretty good job of staying in the middle." And apart from an evident regard for human rights, his political self does remain throughout the series (at least the six hours I've been able to see), as throughout his career, intentionally inscrutable -- he'll mention the presidents he liked personally, but you can't make out which ones he voted for.

This much, at least, is clear. That he's keener than keen on the "free flow of information." ("There's considerable danger to democracy." Cronkite says of the Gulf War, "when in the guise of military censorship authority engages in political censorship.") That he's half ham and three-quarters business. And that the newsboy still lives inside the colossus -- watching a rocket leave the cape, he exults, "Looks like a good flight ... aaaaw, go, baby!"

How can you not trust that man?

Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1996 and 2011