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07.17.09

We All Followed His Script

I was inspired to get into broadcast journalism by Walter Cronkite. He taught me once I was there. And now I’m proud to share his lessons and carry his name forward to the next generation.

In an odd way Walter Cronkite bookends my professional life. Lots of people knew him far better: his colleagues at CBS all those years, his family and his small staff in his later years. But Walter—as he insisted that I call him—was there for me at the beginning of my professional life, there for me on the most important day, and still there now in the students I teach.

Shortly after 9/11 he called. He wanted to know if I was all right. He wanted to tell me that he saw me on CNN, and he thought I had done well. No call meant more to me, ever.

On the 22nd of November 1963, Walter invented the heart and soul of what a network anchor still is today. Not simply the reporter with facts to report or the editor who decides what to report and what can wait—that other part, the part where the anchor connects us to each other and to an event that really matters.

There he was, in shirtsleeves and those big black glasses telling us that our president had been shot and killed in Dallas.There I was, just 15 years old in Hopkins, Minnesota, in shock and enthralled. My president was dead, but this Cronkite guy was at the center of the biggest moment ever, reporting immediately about a guy named Oswald and a cop named Tippit. He was careful and calm and clearly sad and I looked at my mom and said, “that’s the job I want.” I never thought about it again. I knew.

Today I am the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University. I teach in the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. My students see pictures of him every day. It concerns me that they don’t really understand why he mattered, why journalism and television are different because of his presence and work. It’s been three decades since Mr. Cronkite anchored the Evening News. They weren’t even born when he last signed off “that’s the way it was.” I try to show them.

Over the years Walter helped me understand Vietnam and I use his work to help my students understand war reporting in that time. His work also taught me that there are times when the anchor, having reported the story, has a special responsibility to the audience. In his case it was after the Tet Offensive, when talked of a stalemate in Vietnam and suggested rethinking the mission in the way an honorable country should. I tried to practice that with the same discipline he did, and I teach that too. He taught me that there are times—men landing on the moon, for one—where the anchor can be excited, can marvel just the way a normal person does. I teach that lesson to my students as well. We are not machines, Walter was not a machine.

Shortly after 9/11 he called. He wanted to know if I was all right. He wanted to tell me that he saw me on CNN, and he thought I had done well. “This is your Kennedy” he said that day. “This is how people will think of you.” No call meant more to me, ever.

As often happens when people live a long time, Walter saw age as a blessing and a curse. There were too many times he struggled to complete a thought he had started and that frustrated and angered him, and I think scared him some too. If I was there, as I sometimes was, I would remind him that on his worst day he was still 10 times the anchor the rest of us could dream of being. He wrote the book, we just followed his script.

He loved being Cronkite. He loved that everywhere he went people admired his work. But he loved more that he was able to do the work. He loved that he was there, that he helped us through November 1963 and through the Vietnam, and Watergate and men on the moon and the rocky road to get there. He loved being a reporter. As much as anyone I’ve ever known he cherished the honor of having the box seat for the great events of our lives, cherished being the one to tell the great stories. He didn’t teach me that love directly, but back in November of ‘63 he inspired me to find it and I believe I did. And I try to teach that too.

Aaron Brown is the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University. Previously he worked as an anchor and a reporter at ABC News and CNN.