Happy birthday, Walter Cronkite (a bit late)

November 12, 2008

Missed this one.  But contrary to what most of my journalism profs said, I think news is news so long as people don’t know it.

Walter Cronkite - undated photo via Mediabistro

Walter Cronkite - undated photo via Mediabistro

Walter Cronkite turned 92 on election day, November 4.

Astounding.  He’s still active in news, though heaven knows CBS doesn’t use him as they should (where was he on election night?).

I’ve been interested to see the prominence he gets, now, in history accounts of the Vietnam war.  At the same time, it’s painful that we have students whose parents didn’t grow up with Cronkite on the air.  They’re a generation removed from knowing what they missed.

My one brief Cronkite story:  Late one afternoon I was preparing for a hearing at the Senate Labor Committee for the next morning, preparations that had been slowed by a fair deal of breaking news around Reagan’s Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, whose potential links to crime organizations had been hidden from the committee during his nomination hearings (Donovan was acquitted of wrongdoing in a later trial).  Chaos might be the best way to describe the events, especially in the news area.   A lot of misinformation was passed around, about what were the position and concerns of Labor Committee Chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch (my boss), what was the position of the White House, what was the evidence and what wasn’t the evidence on Donovan, etc.

I turned on the television to catch Cronkite’s broadcast.  About five minutes in, the phone rang.  It was Rita Braver, then a CBS producer, and she really gave me the third degree about some minor point on the Donovan story — a minor point, but one that had been reported incorrectly by others (I forget now what the issue was).  I had known Braver, chiefly on the phone, for some time.  I found her extremely careful with the facts, which was comfortable considering where she sat in CBS’s ranks; the stuff she worked on was on the evening news regularly.  We talked for a few minutes, and then rather abruptly she yelled “Hang on!”  and put me on hold.  The newscast I was watching went to a commercial break, and as sometimes happened, the camera pulled away, and Cronkite on the air reached for the telephone on his desk.  The commercial came on simultaneously with the voice on the phone:  “This is Walter Cronkite.  Mr. Darrell, I have a question about this report I’m holding.  I think Rita has spoken with you about it.”  We talked about the issue for just about a minute, he thanked me.  As the show came out of the break, Cronkite read the news about Ray Donovan that day, with Hatch’s views.  He got it right, of course.

Do most people realize how intensely most news operations work to get even the small stuff right?

It was really odd watching Cronkite reach for the phone, and then hear him on my phone.

Other Cronkite news:

“Old iron pants” Cronkite

February 10, 2008

I noted a documentary on Texas water problems, narrated by Walter Cronkite. Okay, no kid in college today remembers Cronkite on the news every night; it’s likely that most of our high school students could not identify him in any way.

Walter Cronkite with NASA manned-flight capsules

Walter Cronkite anchoring coverage of a NASA manned space flight, for CBS News (Gemini Mission series?); CBS News Photo via NASA

Cronkite was the most respected man in news through the 1960s and 1970s. Recruited to CBS during World War II, Cronkite is famous for his sign-off — “And that’s the way it is . . .” — well remembered for his announcement of the death of President Kennedy, remembered among newsmen and space aficianadoes for his coverage of NASA’s glory days, and remembered for his post-Tet Offensive judgment announced in an on-air editorial that the American public had not been getting the facts about the Vietnam conflict, and that the U.S. could not “win” such a war. Because Cronkite’s credibility was so great, his turn on the view of the winability of Vietnam carried a lot of public opinion with him. When Cronkite’s views on the war turned against it, America turned against it.

So, it would be nice if students had a passing familiarity with the Cronkite story.

When I found Cronkite narrating a Texas Parks and Wildlife documentary, at 91, it pleased me.

But, looking for a short bio to link to for the post, I found this 1996 interview with Cronkite, introduced by a biographical sketch, including this piece of information:

Most recently, Cronkite, affectionately nicknamed “Old Iron Pants” for his unflappability under pressure, has recorded the many significant events of his distinguished career in his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life (Knopf, 1996).

What? How does “Iron Pants” relate to unflappability?

It doesn’t. Someone has cleaned up the story for public consumption. But the original story isn’t all that profane or racy, either.

During the political conventions of the late 1950s and 1960s, the three commercial networks, later joined by PBS, would camp out at the convention halls. Someone would anchor the broadcast for the network — Huntley and Brinkley for NBC, the current news anchor for ABC, and Cronkite for CBS — and the coverage frequently would take a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then go through the entire prime time hours (hey — it was late summer during rerun season; who cared?).

The anchor booths often were suspended capsules up in the rafters of the convention center; bathrooms were a long way from the anchor booths. Huntley or Brinkley, as a team, could take a break and take a stroll to relieve himself while his partner carried on. ABC sometimes brought in one of the roving reporters from the floor, or a guest anchor, to give their anchor some time out of the booth.

Cronkite soldiered on alone. He was called “Old Iron Pants” because he seemed to have no need to take a break to relieve himself.

This story was old by the time I covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1976. One network reporter swore that, during the 1972 conventions, a group of reporters counted the coffees and waters going into Cronkite to see if he was doing some sort of fluidless sprint — he matched the other anchors drop for drop of consumption. So, in 1976, the rumor was that Cronkite had to have a private bathroom built into the anchor booth somewhere.

No one could find it.

One reporter for a New York station swore he’d met Cronkite in a restroom, but no one believed him. No one else in the room at the time could say they had also met Cronkite — no corroboration, no credibility.

And so the legend of “Old Iron Pants” grew, bolstered by stories from old reporters unfettered by Snopes.com. Cronkite’s on-air brilliance, and ability to cover hours of conventions at a stride, were made possible by a bladder of legendary strength, if you listened to the old reporters wax on about the issue. “Old Iron Pants” is a nickname that has nothing whatever to do with reportorial ability, talent or luck. It instead refers to the ability of Cronkite to stay in the game while everyone else had to make a visit to the, uh, clubhouse.

This biography says Cronkite was “unflappable?” No, that doesn’t begin to tell the real story. Cronkite was stalwart, a rock unmoved by waters, gauging the political tides while unaffected (on-air) by his own.

At least, that’s the way I got the story. Anybody got a citation to something more reliable, and different?

As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” Let’s tell the whole truth.


Immediate update: Good grief! “Affectionately named ‘Old Iron Pants’ for his unflappability under pressure” may appear more often than “Cronkite” on Google. Is this another case where the polite, euphemistic explanation has supplanted the more raw, more sensible real explanation?

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