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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Andy Martin remembers Walter Cronkite and yesterday's media

Walter Cronkite's passing prompts a reflection and reminiscence by the dean of Illinois' media and communications
Andy Martin
Executive Editor

“Factually Correct, Not
Politically Correct”


Walter Cronkite's passing reminds us how much our own news media have changed since the 1960's

Andy Martin began in a world that was remarkably similar to Walter Cronkite's formative years; with his 42 years of news and information gathering experience, Andy connects Cronkite's world to our own modern media

(NEW YORK)(July 18, 2009) At the bottom of most of our columns we usually refer to me as the "dean" of Illinois media and communications. Watching the coverage of Walter Cronkite's death was enough to make me feel older, and once again remember the 1960's.

NBC News offered me a job 42 years ago. Ultimately I turned the position down. I spent part of 1967 and 1968 in Viet-Nam as part of fly-on-the-wall efforts to create a back channel in Washington (see for pictures). In 1968 I became an FCC-approved TV station owner. "Video tape" was two inches wide. It all seems so long ago.

News then. News now. Cronkite's news-gathering world has long since passed. But today we still crave the authenticity and experience that Cronkite offered his audience. Here are my thoughts about then and now.

Despite the fact I am closing in on a half century of broadcasting experience, and therefore entitled to be called a "dean" (or perhaps something more sinister), I did not come into my own until the Internet era. And so in the age of today's blow-dried mannequins, I approach commentary and communications just as energetically as the most fresh-faced college graduate.

Cronkite started out when video "news" traveled slowly, by film and propeller airplane, and was displayed in move theaters. Transatlantic telephone service was still a new medium in World War II. When I arrived in Viet-Nam in 1967, "news" was little changed from the Second World War.

We look back and think of Viet-Nam as the "first television war." In some ways it ways; in others not. When you left Saigon or DaNang you were in another world. The war was real. You were alone.

Camera crews in Viet-Nam still used film; that film had to go to Hong Kong or the West Coast for processing. Associated Press and United Press International sent still pictures by wire; and newspaper stories left Saigon by wire. But TV film could not be transmitted directly from Saigon to New York.

Network correspondents and cameramen went into the field; days later their material would pop up on the evening news. Then Walter Cronkite went to Viet-Nam during the later stages of the Tet Offensive in 1968. He wanted to "see for himself." When he arrived, the news cycle moved with him. Unlike an ordinary correspondent, Cronkite's remarks were transmitted through extraordinary efforts to get the material out
Change had come to the battlefield.

Today we routinely expect instant coverage of every event. We are quite surprised when live coverage is unavailable, as it was last month after the Iranian election.

Has "instant" news changed the nature of our information? Indeed it has.

Cronkite was called the "most trusted man in America" because his judgment had been forged on remote battlefields, where independent knowledge and enterprise were essential. That was how he became a "newsman." People trusted his judgment because his judgment was real.

Today, college graduates in "media" programs expect to start in Podunk markets; they will work themselves up the media food chain to New York or LA or Chicago due primarily to their personal appearance and not their news-gathering expertise. These "talking heads" have never been alone on a battlefield. They have never been cut off from their world while they sought to gather information. They have satellite uplinks and sat phones.

By comparison, the judgments and opinions formed by people such as Cronkite, who were forced to develop independent expertise, were vastly different than the judgments formed today by "reporters" who are merely passive observers of news events.

We no longer have the same trust in media. Cronkite was different. People relied on him because he new what he was talking about. He had experience. There is something about being shot at and dodging mortar rounds while you are out there in the middle of hell-on-earth gathering information that changes you. You develop a desire to get the facts right. Today news gathering is a more antiseptic enterprise.

There was one special aspect Cronkite's journalism that no one mentioned in all the coverage of his death yesterday. He was the consummate "outsider." No president ever called Walter Cronkite a crony. "Uncle Walter" was distant and remote from Washington and the political machinations of Washington.

ABC was recently criticized for setting up shop to do "news" about "health care" from the White House. That's what passes for "news" in Obama's Washington. Previously, NBC News also received criticism for allowing Brian Williams to appear as a tool of the Obama administration.

No one ever accused Walter Cronkite of being a tool of anyone, least of all a tool of any politician. Cronkite's gravitas was in part a manifestation of the fact that he kept himself at a distance from politicians, and reported the news independently of DC influence brokers.

The bottom line? Cronkite was a great man. He was independent; he garnered his experience on the battlefield, not in the make-up room. His character was molded by the real world, not in a media hothouse.

Perhaps Cronkite's world was also an easier one for us. There were three networks to choose from, and that was that. One or two dominant newspapers. Today there are dozens of networks. Newspapers are vanishing. I don't know when I last tuned to a network "evening news" broadcast: twenty years ago? Thirty? Newspapers? Don't ask.

Today news comes at us from all directions, not just one source. now draws on information from our resources around the world; we assemble columns and occasionally breaking news from our own independent perspective. But I never felt so alive as when I was out in the field, alone, cut off from the world and forced to rely on my own instincts to search for the truth and find the facts. I was doing that in Viet-Nam 42 years ago, in Iraq six years ago and in Hawai'i ten months ago. I'm still on the same mission. If you don't believe me, just ask Barack Obama. He knows how hard I search. For the facts.

The modern "news" environment is more challenging for the viewer, listener, reader. Everyone must be more alert, observant and critical. The "wheat" is often overwhelmed by the "chaff."

Each of us has become our own "managing editor," filtering in what is credible and filtering out information that that lacks authenticity. It's not easy work.

The job that Walter Cronkite used to do for us every night, we now have to do for ourselves.

And that's the way it is. Good night.

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Andy Martin is a legendary Chicago muckraker, author, Internet columnist, radio talk show host, broadcaster and media critic. He has over forty years of broadcasting background in radio and television and is the dean of Illinois media and communications. He is currently promoting his best-selling book, Obama: The Man Behind The Mask and producing the new Internet movie “Obama: The Hawai’i years.” Andy is the Executive Editor and publisher of

Martin comments on regional, national and world events with more than four decades of experience. He holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Illinois College of Law and is a former adjunct professor of law at the City University of New York. He is an announced candidate for Barack Obama’s former U. S. Senate seat.


His columns are also posted at;
[NOTE: We frequently correct typographical errors and additions/subtractions on our blogs, where you can find the latest edition of this release.]

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