‘Where were you the day President Kennedy was shot?’ As recently as 2011 this was a question that 95% of Americans born in 1955, or before, had an answer to. At that time, the USA was a nation divided, not only along state lines, but also in the hearts and minds of its people. Lives were lived in parallel, and little portended to broach the difference.
That is, until the events of that fateful November day in Dallas, Texas. Aghast, speechless – millions of people, of all walks of life, tuned in to transistor radios and switched on their televisions, in their workplaces, homes and schools. Yet, in remembering the message we oftentimes forget the messenger; one audience, one camera, one man to bring calm to the chaos: step up, Walter Cronkite.
Kennedy was the publicity president. Before him elections had been fought, won and lost in black-and-white, on covers of broadsheets. Yesterday’s happenings were tomorrow’s bulletins. You could have the biggest scoop in the world but without the necessary channels of communication, it became the biggest secret in the world. And CBS faced this problem. Taking thirty minutes to set up, Cronkite first took to the radio before continuing on camera. Measured and poised, little over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cronkite was the conscience of a nation – one of only three news coverage outlets to address 175 million shocked Americans. Amid speculation Cronkite held off, awaiting an official announcement of Kennedy’s condition. It came. He began to speak, fidgeted with his glasses, then a brief silence, a quiver of the lip and a cough: the President was dead. He gathered himself and carried on.
Cronkite’s report was the defining moment of broadcast journalism, a coming of age and, with it, a new era. No longer the polished product of an editorial meeting in Downtown Manhattan, news became a process. Information needed to be disseminated thick and fast. This is when current affairs became current: something that was, and is indeed happening at this very moment.
That is not, however, to say that news was more reliable in the early 1960s, but at least it was sincere. Without competition, without instant messaging and social media, news was news – it had no need to be anything else. Now, in the post-9/11 age, we have the apocalyptic ‘BREAKING NEWS’ slogan and the slick special effects to accompany it. News now has entertainment value that is all at once perverse, graphic and voyeuristic. What Cronkite knew and practiced was moderation; the need for a cool, calm and collected delivery.
The voice of a regular, levelheaded guy detailing the facts as they are, Cronkite didn’t have an Italian suit, a nicely chauffeured fringe or a teleprompter to fall back on. Instead, he relied on a journalistic integrity not too often seen nowadays. An anchor hungry for the story but not for the glory, he wanted people to be informed, not frightened out of their wits (a quick shout-out to Fox News). In a time of peril his sober yet compassionate diction was like a clasp of the hand, as if to say, “I’m with you and we’re walking this road together.” And really, there’s no trick to it, that’s all it takes – a little humanity. Let tragedies be tragedies and not an ideological hook upon which to hang an argument, nor an opportunity to one-up someone by crunching them in ratings.