Sunday, July 26, 2009

That's the way it was...

Most of us tend to remember where we were and exactly what we were doing when news broke that would change the world as we knew it.

I well remember preparing for work as the tragic events of 9/11 were unfolding…and the near-impossible-to-comprehend enormity of what had happened in lower Manhattan. I was standing in front of the mirror shaving. On the TV, Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" was speaking to Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski regarding the military implications of what had by then been determined to be a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Miklaszewski paused a moment and described a severe jolt he had just felt. There quickly came the revelation of more of the unthinkable that was unfolding on that bright, sunny September morning. Another terrorist-hijacked airliner had just slammed into the Pentagon…

I likewise remember another day, also lovely in terms of weather. It was early afternoon on November 22, 1963. I was a first-year college student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was relaxing between classes at the student union building. A television set was on in the lounge, tuned to the daytime drama “As the World Turns.” The network was CBS.

My eyes were elsewhere, but my ear was caught by the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite, the network’s evening news anchor, announcing that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, as his motorcade slowly rolled through downtown Dallas, Texas.

The first bulletins coming in from Dallas were read by Cronkite over the CBS News Bulletin slide. Before long, though, there were pictures, with Cronkite at his desk in the CBS Newsroom in New York. Our young, vibrant President had been shot, in the back seat of his open topped car, next to his glamorous and publicly-adored wife Jacqueline. For so many, the Presidency of JFK represented a time of promise for America. “This could not be happening” was the sentiment echoed as more and more of us gathered around that black and white TV, and Walter Cronkite, in measured tones, informed us that, yes it was.

Cronkite enjoyed the reputation of being the most trusted man in America. Such was the gravitas then of a network evening news anchor of Cronkite’s stripe. Originally a print journalist, a United Press wire service reporter, Walter Cronkite was recruited by another heavyweight, Edward R. Murrow, who brought distinction to CBS in his reporting from London during the German blitz of World War Two, and in everything he did for the network subsequently.

Indeed the team that Murrow assembled at CBS, which included the solid, dignified, and consummately credible likes of Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Douglas Edwards, and the ever-classy Robert Trout, were additional reasons that the JFK assassination coverage on CBS was, for me, truly iconic.

This was not to minimize the credibility of NBC or ABC, the only other network news providers back then, but CBS News in that era just seemed to me the pinnacle, the gold standard. And the personification of that status was the avuncular presence, each evening at dinner time, of Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News. When “Uncle Walter” delivered the day’s news, whether good or bad, you knew you were in good hands. The adjectives that come immediately to mind are solid, genuine…and human.

But back to that November afternoon in 1963…What I will forever find even more compelling than the initial Cronkite voice-over bulletin announcing the shooting… was seeing him, about an hour later, momentarily take off his thick dark rimmed glasses, and announce the confirmation of the reports that Kennedy had been pronounced dead, giving the time in both Central and Eastern zones. There was that brief wave of emotion in his voice and persona, as he regained his composure and told us that Vice President Johnson had left Parkland Hospital and would presumably soon be taking the oath of office to become the next President.

But going beyond this trusted anchor’s solid presence in delivering such news, you’d have to understand something more about television news in that era, to grasp just how impactful this reporting was.

I don’t think the term “up close and personal” was in common use back then, but if it were, this would be its touchstone…its practical definition.

For on that black and white screen, there was no clutter of crawls, flashing graphics, or other moving "stuff" that would later define the media. There was Walter Cronkite in shirtsleeves, with a microphone in front of him. That was it - nothing to distract the senses from the message. Well, to be entirely accurate, there was some additional movement in the picture, that of newsroom staff working behind him in the cramped, unglamorous CBS Newsroom.
But when the camera closed in on Cronkite as he delivered that confirmation of what we feared, it was as up close and personal as one could ever imagine.

There was a definite purity about that. We didn’t know it at the time, because, after all, what could it be compared to? Other than radio, of course.

As the tragedy unfolded over the ensuing days, black and white film footage was incorporated, as well as reports from newsmen on the scene, witnesses, law enforcement officials, and so forth. And of course, there was the shooting, right there in the Dallas police station, by a man named Jack Ruby, of purported Presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

But it was all tied together by our much admired – and trusted – CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and his team.

While this remembrance is about Mr. Cronkite, it is, I feel, entirely right to mention the superbly poised and appropriately executed anchoring provided by Cronkite’s colleague Charles Collingwood who relieved Mr. Cronkite as the broadcast continued.

This would presumably have been to allow Cronkite to start preparing his 30-minute evening newscast. I’m reminded in viewing the kinescope recordings of the live coverage of that afternoon how very iconic it all was. The setting remained that cramped CBS newsroom. Collingwood did not stumble or flail or miss a beat, amidst the staccato in-rush of new information from Dallas. When the venerable Robert Trout – who almost twenty years earlier had announced to the CBS radio audience that World War Two had ended – came over to describe the scene outside in midtown Manhattan, in terms of public reaction, Collingwood simply moved the single desk microphone over in front of his colleague.

If you view this footage through our 21st century media attuned sensibilities, it looks curiously quaint…and technically rather crude. But the expression that keeps coming back is “up close…and – very – personal.”

Whether it was Cronkite or Collingwood in front of the camera, we were there as some rather troubling history was being made…and our attention was where it belonged: on the news, as delivered by trusted – and trustworthy – anchor/reporters.

The 1960s would continue as a turbulent decade. The increasing U.S. involvement in Viet Nam…the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Junior… the Civil Rights and anti-Viet Nam war struggles and violence in our cities…And the 70’s would not be much of an improvement, with Viet Nam becoming a deadly quagmire, as well as the revelations of Watergate leading up to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

But if one had to swallow the bitter pills of these years’ troubling events it was somehow reassuring to have the news delivered each evening by Walter Cronkite.

Indeed, it was enlightening to find out much later that in certain European countries, the act of anchoring a newscast had taken on the term Cronkiting (or Kronkiting).

It was not long after the Kennedy assassination that I got to meet Mr. Cronkite. The year was 1964. Lyndon Baines Johnson was President…our involvement in Southeast Asia was on the rise, the civil rights movement in the Southern states was escalating, and LBJ would be facing a hard fought Presidential election, with Republican Barry Goldwater as his main opponent. But within his own Democratic party, the nomination was not entirely wrapped up. George Corley Wallace, the feisty governor of the state of Alabama, an avowed opponent of school desegregation in his state, and a populist whose anti Federal bureaucracy stands were winning him significant blue collar support outside Alabama, had mounted a campaign for the Presidency.

Wallace’s showings were strong in my then home state of Maryland. And Cronkite felt the Maryland Democratic Primary to be of national import. He was to anchor CBS’s live coverage, from the Southern Hotel in Baltimore. I was hired in a minor role on the CBS production team for that night’s broadcast. I can’t say I remember all that much about the experience, other than it being very fast-paced; but what I do remember was, at the end of that long continuous coverage…it must have been about 2 AM…Cronkite came into the hotel’s bar where we were all unwinding…and sat down briefly with us production functionaries to chat. I could not begin to tell you what we spoke about. It was enough to be in the presence of this great anchor I so admired, and to realize he was not above having a beer at the end of a very long broadcast with low level support people.

That was the sort of thing that made a young man with broadcasting stars in his eyes…glow in the dark.

It’s no secret, television news has changed…a lot…since then, certainly advancing technically. I suppose it can be said that Walter Cronkite and that more intimate, personal, and uncluttered presentation were a product of an earlier era in mass communications. The media now seem acutely aware of the many forms of competition…and the shorter attention spans of consumers of the product...and it shows.

In McLuhanesque terms of the media being the message, we might say the message has changed. The networks’ evening newscasts, once their flagships – and our prime access to the day’s news (beyond newspapers, of course) now struggle against a plethora of other electronic media. So much of the "product" seems disdainful of in-depth coverage.

Or else, the hard news, to which Cronkite and his colleagues were so devoted to covering, gets diluted by so much life-style and "demographics-driven" fluff and clutter.

Or perhaps the mass media are simply recognizing – and reflecting – a new zeitgeist of instant gratification, instant messaging, texting, tweeting…and short attention spans.

I strongly doubt we’ll ever again see the likes of Walter Cronkite. But, to paraphrase his trademark sign-off, that’s the way it was…and I’m glad I was around for it.

©2009 Steve Ember