Walter Cronkite was the the most serious of serious journalists.
The former CBS anchorman cared not just about the next story but about the future of reporting in a country where was known for the better part of a half century as “the most trusted name in news.”
So it should come as little surprise that what worried Cronkite in the last years of his life was the collapse of journalistic quality and responsibility that came with the increasing dominance of newsgathering by a handful of media corporations.
“I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to be moving away from that,” Cronkite told me the last time we spoke about media issues.
The definitional American anchorman, who has died at age 92, recognized that Americans would always need diverse and competing media outlets, with the resources and the skills to examine issues from a variety of perspectives — and to challenge entrenched power.
Cronkite was, almost by definition, an “old-media” man. He covered World War II, the Nuremberg trials, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the space race and the first moon landing and Watergate in a career that his successor in the CBS anchor chair, Dan Rather, said was characterized by “a passion for reporting and journalism.”
Yet, as his 20th century gave way to our 21st, Cronkite made common cause with media reformers who objected to corporate monopolies and the dumbed-down discourse fostered by big media outlets that were more concerned with commerce and entertainment than with civics and democracy.
Speaking of the relationship between media and democracy, Cronkite told me several years ago: “The way that works is to have multiple owners, with the hope that the owners will have different viewpoints, and with the hope that the debate will help to air all sides, or at least most sides of the issues. But right now I think we’re moving away from that approach.”
The reporter, editor and anchorman from 1962 to 1981, whose name remained synonymous with American journalism to the day he died, fretted in particular about a 2003 move by the Federal Communications Commission to relax media ownership rules. After the commission approved proposals that would permit a single media company to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American households, and that would permit a single media company to own the daily newspaper, several television stations and up to eight radio stations in the same community, Cronkite said, “I think they made a mistake, I do indeed. It seems to me that the rule change was negotiated and promulgated with the goal of creating even larger monopolies in the news-gathering business.”