We lost one of America’s greats yesterday, Walter Cronkite died at the age of 93. I grew up, getting my “news” from Mr. Cronkite along with millions of other Americans. We all believed what he said and we trusted that what he said was the “truth” and not just “opinion”.
Walter Cronkite brought us some of the most amazing news stories of the 20th Century and he did so with the utmost integrity. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, news about the Vietnam War and of course the first Moon landing. He said once and I’m paraphrasing, that amongst all the turmoil and problems of the 1960’s, the Space Program and in particular that first landing on the Moon showed America’s true spirit and resiliency. He personified that – he gave us hope for the future.
I think anyone who remembers getting their news from Cronkite, longs for those days when the news was the news and not an endless stream of pundits’ opinions. We’ve lost our trust in journalism and journalistic integrity. And with social media and “citizen journalism” I not sure we’ll ever get that trust back.
I had the privilege of meeting and photographing Walter Cronkite in 1986. I was shooting a story for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine about Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. I was given contact info for Walter Cronkite and called him up and asked him if I could photograph him for the article. Mr. Cronkite spent his summers in Martha’s Vineyard and was a well known figure there especially among the “sailing set”, so it was thought that a photo of him would make a nice addition to the story . We set up a date and a time for the photograph. Being a professional, I always confirm any appointments the day before. So the day before our shoot was scheduled, I called the telephone number that I had, to confirm. This was well before the days of cell phones and emails and even before computers became such a big part of our lives. Throughout the day, I kept calling the number that I had from whatever pay phone was available but I kept getting a ringing phone – no answer and no message machine. The day came and went and so did the next day – the day I was supposed to photograph him. I missed our appointment because I never connected to get details of where to meet him. I felt betrayed by “the most trusted man in America” that somehow he had forgotten our appointment. And then something hit me that night – perhaps when I rewrote my notes with all my contacts and phone numbers for the shoot – I had not written his phone number down correctly. So I took a shot and called directory information to see if by some slim chance Walter Cronkite was listed. Much to my surprise he was listed! The next day I called him, profusely apologizing, embarrassed and humiliated and told him how I had incorrectly written his phone number down when I was rewriting my notes and that it never occurred to me to check the telephone directory to see if his number was listed. I assumed that someone like him who was so high profile would have an unlisted telephone number.
He was incredibly gracious, yet he did warn me about making “assumptions” and I have never forgotten that lesson. And he gave me a second chance and set up another day for the shoot.
The day of the shoot was a glorious day on Martha’s Vineyard and Mr. Cronkite suggested that I photograph him on his sailboat. His mother was also on board and I remember her as being quite a character. I have fond memories from that afternoon. I took my photos but he didn’t head back to shore to drop me off – he loved to sail and it was a perfect day for it so we continued to sail throughout the rest of the afternoon.
I cried last night when I heard the news of his death. I cried because he’s gone and also because we’ve lost our trust in journalists and the news media in general. But like Cronkite, I’m hopeful for the future. Thank you Mr. Cronkite for your integrity, professionalism and your personal words of wisdom for me that wonderful day so many years ago. “And that’s the way it is”.