17 July 2009

Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

If you notice, I have a photograph of Walter Cronkite and me about halfway down this page on the right side. That was a huge moment in my life as a journalist. Absolutely huge. I'm very proud of that picture. So let me tell you a little about that photo and the power Mr. Cronkite held over normally jaded, bored, and "oh-so-sophisticated journalists," like me.

The picture was taken several years back when I was working at one of the Los Angeles stations. I pulled the morning shift and the on-air day was over for me. I forget what I had covered. But I was back in the station, the morning shows were over and I was done.

One of the anchors was supposed to go interview Mr. Cronkite but she apparently had other, better, more important and anchorly things to do. In short, she had already left for the day.

The Assistant News Director shouted across the newsroom, "Hey Marti, are you busy? Can we get you to do us a favor?"

"Not particularly busy," I said. "What's up?"

I had already overstayed the shift and was about to slide out the door, but as a freelancer, I was always ready to suck up a little.

"Would you mind going over to UCLA to interview Walter Cronkite?" she queried.

"Would I? WOULD I?" I jumped up and started literally racing around in circles, too excited to know what direction to go with this. Did I look alright? Was my hair okay? Did I have on an okay suit? And most importantly, where was my personal camera? (At home under a pile of reading material.)

Immediately after buying a disposable camera, I raced off to UCLA as fast as I could. I didn't know how to get there before, but I mapquested and had the desk guys on the phone directing me. I was determined.

I was a little bit late, but none of the ceremonies had started. Mr. Cronkite was wandering the hall and hugging Judy Muller, who was apparently an old friend of his and receiving an honor that day. I was so excited that I could have spit.

Unfortunately, it was not "as billed," in that it was not an interview. It was a media availability, which means that about 6 of us were supposed to ask one question each. UCLA was video-taping it and didn't seem to have a reporter.

Because I was so thrilled to meet "Uncle Walter," who had been the most trusted man in America for years, I made a total fool of myself. But who cared? I got to meet him.

He was very kind and gracious to a reporter falling all over herself and bumbling with excitement. In his 90's already, he was a little hard of hearing, but beyond that bit of limitation, he was clear as a bell. I pushed a little and asked about four questions. (You knew that was going to happen, right?) He told me afterward that it was obvious who the students were and who had been a working journalist for awhile. He was a definite charmer and I walked away feeling, well, charmed.

I also got the photograph. I sent him a copy and he signed it. I framed it. It's a treasured memento. And now it almost seems appropriate, with everything that is happening in journalism currently, that he passes. Those of us to whom the torch passed and then dimmed don't really want him seeing our failings. He shouldn't have to see what's going on. It seems almost respectful that he fades from our sight.

But not from memory.

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