Speechless about Cronkite

by Jim Longworth

I grew up in a time when network TV news was presented in 15 minutes.

That all changed in September of 1963 when CBS expanded its format and Walter Cronkite became America’s first anchorman of a nightly, 30-minute newscast. Still, I recall that my parents preferred “The Huntley-Brinkley columnist Report” on NBC. So did most people. For many, that changed after Cronkite’s accurate yet emotional reporting of the Kennedy assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. But Cronkite didn’t overtake NBC in the ratings until 1968, and after that, he never looked back.

The turning point came after Cronkite returned from a visit to Vietnam for a firsthand look at the war. In an unprecedented move, the anchorman went on air and denounced the war as unwinnable, setting in motion the downfall of one president, the rise of another and the eventual end to our involvement in Southeast Asia. In that respect, I guess I owe my life to Walter Cronkite, because by the time my lottery number came up to report for duty, Nixon had begun a de-escalation of troop deployments. Had it not been for Walter’s courage and conviction, and his willingness to speak out against the war, I might have spent time in a rice paddy and come back in a body bag.

In the mid-1970s I was lucky enough to snag a job as a studio camera operator at WFMY-TV in Greensboro, where I never grew tired of looking at photographs of CBS personalities which adorned the cinderblock walls leading to the news studio. One of those photos was of Cronkite. I dreamed about meeting him someday, but for that moment in time, I had to be content with just watching one or both of his nightly feeds in our production control room.

After a year or so working behind the scenes at WFMY, I was tapped by news director Rabun Matthews to work in front of the camera. Matthews had just come from CBS where he was Cronkite’s head writer, and could be seen every evening seated off to one side of Uncle Walter on that massive newsroom set. Rabun knew everyone in the business, so it was common for his buddies, like Charles Kuralt, to drop by our newsroom for a visit. But like Ted Knight on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I always hoped that Mr. Cronkite would materialize, just so that I could see him in person instead of just settling for a glimpse of his image hanging in our hallway. It was not to be. At least not for awhile. A few years later I found myself doing freelance reporting for newcomers CNN and ESPN, covering people and events throughout the Southeast, including in Washington DC. But sometimes I was also pressed into service by more established networks on days when even their considerable resources were stretched thin. One such day was Jan. 20, 1981. That was the day President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, and moments later 53 American hostages were released by Iran. I was assigned to cover collateral activities at the State Department, such as when Hollywood stars like Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers showed up for a pre-inau-

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