Uncle Walter Was Too Old for Prime Time

The media may be celebrating Cronkite now, but Adam Hanft says it was they who pushed the veteran anchor out in a futile quest for the new and trendy.

STR New / Reuters

Walter Cronkite retired in 1981, ironically, a few months before the launch of MTV. His career was actually a victim of the youth culture, but that’s something we’re not reading much about today.

In fact, the sound of the media reporting on itself—a single-note rendered in different keys, from Gawker to CBS—has been consistent and stunningly unoriginal. The drumbeat: Uncle Walter represented an ancient era when we all watched the same programs; never again will we see a single broadcaster command that much trust; young people are glued to fake news instead of real news.

It would have been honest for the media to recognize that it leaves its old out to die in the jungle.

Lost, or at least overwhelmed in these teary encomiums is the wrinkly and craggy elephant in the room: 64-year-old Cronkite was pushed out of the anchor chair in 1981 for a younger and, yes, edgier Dan Rather. Although he had announced his planned retirement, it was clear to observers at the time—and confirmed by his book A Reporter’s Life—that Cronkite was urged into retirement by network brass who were afraid to lose piss-and-vinegar Rather to another network.

Hopeful cosmetics ads tell us reassuringly that age is only a number. That’s not true. Age is also a culture of self. Watch the old footage and you can see that Cronkite was spiritually old when he was young. He was Rushmore-stoic. The fact that he choked up when he announced Kennedy’s death is remembered in the same way that those of a certain era can vividly recall the only time they saw their father cry. Cronkite was never about Cronkite. Rather was always about Rather. (“Are you running for something?” President Nixon sarcastically asked Rather in their famous exchange. “No sir, are you?” Rather snapped back.)

It would have been honest for the media to recognize that it leaves its old out to die in the jungle. And since Cronkite got kicked out, ageism has gotten worse as the desperate network-news business, with fewer outlets, has tried everything to attract younger viewers. But nothing’s worked, Katie Couric included. In the last 20 years, despite every attempt to go younger and trendier, the network news has lost half its viewership and the average age is north of 60.

Talk to any TV reporter and they’ll tell you the same story. Cross the Botox line and you’re ready for industrial films. As the great New York Times editor Max Frankel wrote in the paper more than 10 years ago: “…with the conspicuous exception of the septuagenarian geniuses at 60 Minutes, old-timers have been virtually banished from the media business…Most reporters lose their legs by age 40 and most editors are retired before 65.”

NBC’s switch from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien is today’s entertainment version of the Rather swap. But while Cronkite of the Greatest Generation simply drifted away, Leno—a forever-young, motorcycle-riding boomer—wasn’t ready to go gentle into that good night of no more “good nights.”

The real reason we’ll never see another Uncle Walter has less to do with the Internet or cable, and everything to do with the fact that it takes a while to season into an uncle, and that age is the last, safe, public ism in America. And that’s the way it is, now.

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future and is founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy. Follow him at Twitter.com/hanft.