Friday, July 17, 2009

Cronkite: too much adulation for my taste

Coming from the world of journalism, I have a couple Cronkite stories, too. In a minute.

UPDATE: Hit pause, please. A day later, I have just watched the Saturday evening CBS news with Katie Couric, a nice and tender portrayal of Walter Cronkite and his career. The half-hour ended, and what then came on our local CBS4? An infomercial for a workout program! How TV has fallen. Wait -- When was it called a wasteland? It was in 1961! One year before Cronkite became the anchor! Television was not only a wasteland but a vast wasteland. Read it at this link to America's greatest speeches. END UPDATE.

As I write, MSNBC is on with one soaring remembrance after another. Now switching to CBS4 – CBS doesn’t have an always-on cable news outlet like NBC or Fox, so it’s regular programming, no Walter. And now to CNN and what do I find? – the infinitely annoying voice of the late Billy May, and that channel is OFF right away. (Once I figure out why the wireless mouse doesn’t make it happen …)

Fox is doing Apollo 11 and maybe hasn’t heard or doesn’t have its derisive point of view straight yet.

Back to CNN and clips of Cronkite and great events he voiced. Here he is with the Watergate in the background, but CBS didn’t break any important revelation on the biggest ordinary criminality to happen in the White House.

Now somebody on CNN is talking about Cronkite and the way he kept all the things he worked with, the press passes, the notes, the background files, the AP Stories – ah – my cue to tell a Walter Cronkite story.

It was November 1977. I was the new No. 2 guy in the Tel Aviv bureau of the AP. Menachem Begin had become prime minister, the first from the right wing of Israeli politics in the country’s 29-year history. And there was a big surprise. The president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, announced he was coming to Jerusalem to negotiate with the Israelis. Amazing. And how did it become known? Walter Cronkite interviewed Begin and Sadat separately about prospects for peace in the Middle East, and Sadat, talking live with Cronkite, said he was going to travel to Israel.

And when would that happen? In two days. Man, talk about excitement in the little world of news reporting in Israel. Nowadays we would learn this on the internet immediately. Then it was sent around the world as a bulletin on the AP wires. People in news offices all over got a yell from the copy boys, jumped up and read it off the tickers.

The biggest story of decades in the Middle East was about to descend on us. By the time the bosses in New York called, we knew the event would be in Jerusalem. At the Jerusalem Theater. None of us had ever seen it.

A day later we were working non-stop in the Jerusalem Theater setting up news and photo offices in dressing rooms and hallways, cables snaking all over the place. Telephones were being installed wherever needed – a miracle in a country where people waited years to get a single line at home.

Sadat was due the next day. About then Walter Cronkite walked into the cramped dressing room where the AP was assembling an editing/writing station with two telexes, a teletype machine with the AP newswire running at the usual speed of 66 words a minute with a two-copy carbon roll, and space for the portable typewriters that were the instruments we played. Not to forget 3-4 precious phones. Cell phones were a decade away. These things had dials on them. Rotary.

I heard a familiar voice over my shoulder. “Can I see the AP wire? What’s going on?” Walter Cronkite’s voice asked. And there he was. Wanting to read the wire and see what was going on in the world, especially what related to the big event about to descend on us.

We exchanged a few sentences. I said he should have given us more warning of the event that had become known on his broadcast, and then we could have put an AP ticker in all the rooms. We both were too busy to spend more time. That’s the extent of my personal interaction with Walter Cronkite.

Three years earlier I was still in New York waiting for an overseas assignment and volunteering as a co-editor of the Wire Service Guild union’s monthly paper. My co-editor, who came from UPI (where I also had worked a little before catching on with the AP), had interviewed Cronkite about his years at UPI, and the two of us collaborated to run the long interview in two issues of the paper. It was a lot of fun to read. If I remember right, he started or had one of his early jobs in Kansas City in the late ‘30s. One of the great centers of the blues.

Anyway, that’s as close as I got to Walter Cronkite

A good point on CNN from a Cronkite colleague, Morley Safer. Asked if there could be a Cronkite today, he said it might be possible. You’d need “someone who’s not a poseur.” Meaning someone who actually gets out and covers the news rather than just reading it.

Later there’s film on CNN of Cronkite wearing a steel helmet in Vietnam after Hue. One of the places where the United States didn’t win and didn’t lose before finally giving up. Partly thanks to Cronkite’s willingness to voice his doubts on air. This was a great step, but in my hindsight (as a Vietnam combat vet as well as a student of international relations and a 20-year foreign correspondent including three wars in the Middle East), why did it take so long to sink in? Cronkite uttered his judgment during the Tet offensive. Which happened in early 1968. It was seven long and bloody years before the war finally ended. This still haunts me about our war in Iraq, and the one in Afghanistan. We’ll decide to get out … and it will take a couple decades. And that’s the way it is.

We always need better explanations than we get.

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