Walter, I Hardly Knew You:
October 2009

by Ron Steinman

Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009, I am on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 58th Street in Midtown Manhattan on a pleasant day in late summer. Just out of a diner where I had lunch, walking toward me, I see a stream of well-dressed men and women, many of a certain age, all carrying what looks like an 8"x11" white program. The colleague I am with remarks that she recognizes a former CBS correspondent but that she cannot recall his name. Neither can I. Together we wonder where all the people are coming from. Then, as if on cue, we realize they had to have been at the memorial for Walter Cronkite which we later learned had concluded at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, a few blocks north.

Though I had been in TV news at NBC most of my working life, I had never met Walter Cronkite. As a young journalist, he did not inspire me to enter the profession. Oddly enough, it was not until several weeks after his death that I realized I had never seen his daily news show on CBS. I was too busy working at NBC. I had also never seen him covering special events, a significant part of my résumé in broadcasting. In other words, Walter Cronkite was not a direct part of my life as a TV journalist. My bosses at NBC News never told me to look and see how Walter Cronkite and CBS were covering a story so I might change the way I covered a story, especially in the field where the real action took place.

NBC had its style. CBS had its style. Unlike today where everything on the small screen looks alike, we, including ABC News, each had a distinct way we appeared and sounded on the air. It is important to remind today's audience that in the days before cable and non-stop news, there were only three TV networks, thus three major news divisions. Walter Cronkite was a presence, but it is worth repeating, he never influenced how we at a rival network covered a story, at least in my more than three decades at NBC News.

In the early days of my career I worked the national assignment desk and for the Huntley-Brinkley Report in Washington and New York. I was in a unit that produced documentaries. I covered space when space was new and exciting. I spent seven-and-a-half years overseas working in Saigon, Hong Kong and London. I had 11 years on the Today Show in Washington and New York as a senior producer. I produced special events as a manager and producer. Though Cronkite was usually on the other side of what I covered, he was there only as a fact, not as a factor. We never really crossed paths. I did not move in his rarified orbit. I was not his audience. So while I spent my time covering the news, I was not worrying about what CBS was doing, nor in particular what Walter (always Walter, not Cronkite and hardly ever Walter Cronkite) was up to.

Though my bosses at NBC News knew every minute what Walter was doing, my job was mostly to best CBS and ABC, especially when we were head-to-head on a story, which more often than not we were, especially if it was a major event. My concern was with what happened in the field at the heart of the story, not what took place on the set in the studio, unless, of course, I was serving as a line producer in a control room. The material my staff and I produced, especially when I ran foreign bureaus, had a direct bearing on the look and feel of whatever show we provided stories for. What took place in the studio and on the set would have had no meaning without what we and other staff at NBC News produced. Walter was never part of any equation that went into how I covered a story or how I directed those who worked for me to cover a story. I never heard anyone in charge say that we should do it the way Walter does it. I never heard anyone say we should copy CBS and so be more like Walter. And that was good because it allowed us to develop our own style, our own methods and our own approach to how we covered the world.

So, Walter, though I knew you were there, I hardly knew you. Yes, we were competitors, but our paths never crossed. I saw you occasionally on TV in small bites when you were doing your evening news show. When I produced special events, your face was on the screen opposite to what our man, whether Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Frank McGee, Ed Newman, Tom Brokaw or others, did while covering the same event. Perspective is important here because we will never again see the likes of you or anyone else who fronted news programs back when broadcast news had an important place in the nation's life. You and the other giants are gone. Those currently on the air, no matter who they work for, are pale imitations of the integrity and honesty you once stood for. Your influence, though strong in the eyes of many, and, yes, strong for me because of what you stood for, no longer has an effect as to how TV covers news. More is the pity.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks on SCRIBD.

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