Walter Jr. – the only child of Walter, a dentist, and Helen, a homemaker – was born on November 4, 1916, in Saint Joseph, Missouri. That’s where the family lived until moving to Houston, Texas when Walter was 10-years-old. Walter was very lucky, because soon after moving, he read an article in Boy’s Life magazine which chronicled the adventures and assignments of reporters working around the world. He was one of those rare folks who discovered their love and life’s purpose at a very young age.
He began to work on his high school newspaper as well as the yearbook. After graduating, Walter enrolled at the University of Texas, where he would study political science, economics and journalism in pursuit of becoming a reporter – his dream career. His college career lasted only two years. He left school to work for the Houston Post, moved onto sports reporting in Oklahoma City and eventually was hired by United Press International (UPI).
He was one of several reporters assigned to the European theater to cover World War II (WWII). Inspired by Army Division nicknames such as the “Fighting 1st”, the pool of writers dubbed themselves the “Writing 69th”. Walter covered significant events of the war, including the bombing of Germany and D-Day. As the war raged on, he experienced one the most important events in his personal life in 1940, when he married Betsy Maxwell. After the war, Walter would cover the Nuremberg war trials.
Entering the 1950’s, both his heart and career were in full bloom. He was offered a job with CBS television, which he initially turned down. After all, true journalists worked in print and radio. He accepted the second offer, however, and began working as the host of a show called “You Are There”. Soon he would be named host of the Morning Show on CBS. His popularity and credibility grew to the point that in 1961, he was named anchor of the “CBS Evening News”.
At that time, the evening news was a mere 15 minutes in length – barely enough to deliver the day’s headlines. Walter wanted the public to get detailed stories so at the end of the first broadcast, he encouraged viewers to check their local newspapers for the full stories. Network management put an end to that practice on the very first night. Fortunately, the show expanded to 30 minutes in September of 1963.
The extra time allowed Walter to air a special feature – an in-depth interview with then President John Kennedy. Two months later, it was Walter who broke the news to the American public that Kennedy had been shot. Days later he made the very poignant announcement that Kennedy had died. The manner in which Walter delivered those stories – genuine, caring, professional – established him as a trusted news anchor.
The decade of the sixties was tumultuous including social unrest, the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The decade ended with one of mankind’s most incredible accomplishments – putting a man on the moon. Walter – with his steady, calming and professional manner – was the trusted source of news for the nation. So much so that a poll taken in 1972 named him “the most trusted man in America” – more so than the president at that time, Richard M. Nixon.
During an interview conducted by Walter, Egypt’s Anwar El-Sadat stated that he would go to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin if invited. The invitation was extended the very next day and that meeting led to the Camp David accord and the Israel-Egyptian Peace Treaty.
Walter Cronkite’s iconic sign-off – “and that’s the way it is” – was taken at face value by the nation. If Cronkite reported it – that’s really the way it was. Walter’s influence, trust and journalistic accomplishments – he won virtually every award the industry offered – set the standard for journalism for the nation and the world. These results came about because Walter Cronkite was a fearless brand.
Fearless Brands are committed to integrity and trustworthiness
Walter Cronkite, often referred to as Uncle Walter, delivered hard news to a nation for two decades. He wasn’t the most educated or the best-looking newsman, but he was perhaps the most diligent. Cronkite was committed to delivering accurate news, refusing to report stories until they were validated and vetted. Cronkite, the main influence at CBS News, chose to err on the side of valid news rather than being first to break a story.
Walter Cronkite retired in 1981, at which time he allowed himself to expose his personal beliefs and opinions. He never allowed his strong liberal leaning to affect his reporting. Integrity would not allow that. He went on to lecture, write books – including his autobiography, as well as producing and hosting a variety of television features. Betsy, his wife of forty-five years, died of cancer in 2005. Cronkite himself, would die in 2009 at the age of 92.
Walter Cronkite’s legacy continues. Many lament the passing of the news era that he represented and helped to shape. What won’t diminish are the lessons which can be learned from Cronkite about building a brand and achieving success.
Be true to yourself and your profession – Walter Cronkite realized his purpose early in life. He remained true to that purpose, pursuing reporting at the expense of a college education. That move was right for Cronkite – he was true to himself. He began his career with a commitment to journalism as well. Cronkite refused to allow his personal beliefs to affect his job of reporting accurate news. It was his integrity and commitment to fair reporting which established him as the most trusted man in America.
Seek the complete story – In Cronkite’s own words – “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.” That approach is a rare quality in today’s journalism circles – in our society for that matter. As I discussed in an earlier post – Want to know that you’re right? Prove yourself wrong!, we can’t be certain of our stance if we don’t learn the entire story. A key to being a fearless brand is having conviction of self. Learn everything you can about a topic to ensure that you are known as a valid and trusted resource.
Fuel your passion – After he retired, Cronkite began to openly pursue causes he believed in. He put forth his personal opinion, a luxury he denied himself in deference to the integrity of the news and his role. However, once those limitations were removed, Cronkite allowed his passion to ignite. As a newsman, his passion was limited to his role of reporter. He never allowed his broader passion to diminish and die. On the contrary, he kept that passion in check until the time was right. Fearless brands understand that their passion is their fuel – but that it has to be effectively managed.
Walter Cronkite was the embodiment of true journalism – factual, genuine, fair and accurate reporting. Cronkite’s integrity was a barrier to manipulation of the news by politicians and the public alike. It’s those characteristics which make him a fearless brand. Embrace Cronkite’s approach – be true to yourself and your profession, be fair, commit to a life of integrity – be a fearless brand.