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Cronkite Unplugged

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I know a legendary CBS news producer who worked with Walter Cronkite for many years. He speaks about the anchor with clear affection and admiration. One story the producer tells, as I remember, took place when he traveled with Cronkite to Vietnam and had trouble nailing a story that the anchor expected. As the producer fondly recalls, Cronkite, who was a large man, was so furious during their story conference that he started to hurl a chair at him.

Cronkite didn't actually throw it -- but not because he thought better of it. No, it was because Cronkite lost his balance as he held the chair over his head.

The producer acknowledged that this incident was relatively minor in the canon of working with Cronkite, the former CBS Evening News anchor whose funeral is in New York today. As the obits noted, Cronkite was viewed as "the most trusted man in America." Through tumultuous times, America's beloved 'Uncle Walter" was a comforting nightly presence in living rooms across the nation. He helped America get safely through tragedy (the John F. Kennedy assassination) and triumph (the first walk on the moon).

But missing from the laudatory "Appreciations" was any real sense of Cronkite as the serious journalist, competitive and tough, who understand that accurately reporting the news was the most important job around.

True, Cronkite was "the nation's anchor," but getting all the points of a story right was what mattered. And beating everyone else was expected. The public trust was a serious responsibility -- and he never took it lightly.

One colleague had told my producer friend that once, when he failed to get a story, Cronkite ripped the shirt off his back -- literally. As I envisioned it, Cronkite was so furious that a story was eluding them, that he reached out and grabbed this man's shirt, to pull him closer, and the shirt ripped down the back and came off entirely.

Cronkite's drive to get it right did not fade after he retired. Years later, he appeared on a big CNN panel following the failed impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. A friend of mine, who worked at the network, described Cronkite as a benign presence on the set.

But, it seems, Cronkite felt the program focused too much on old details instead of discussing what Clinton could still accomplish in office. So, at some point, Cronkite just got up and left the studio. Out in the hallway, he yelled at a CNN power-broker who had worked with him at CBS. My friend said that he had never heard anyone disemboweled so effectively -- and he would never have believed the esteemed news anchor could say such words. But the focus of the panel was changed.

Hearing these stories, and many more, I realized Cronkite was a newsman who understood how important, how vital, the job of news reporting was. This was not a casual gig.

As Mr. Dooley noted, journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted -- and in those days, on the "CBS Evening News," solid reporting could do just this. That broadcast reverberated across the nation -- and could lead to many needed changes.

These tales of Cronkite's passion for his work never made me think less of him. Rather, his furious drive to get the story right sounded inspiring. After all, that's the basis of all great journalists -- the story is the most important thing.

The business of news has changed radically since Cronkite left the CBS anchor chair. The gold standard set by the CBS News division, and the potency of all mainstream news outlets, is diminished. So much about journalism is in terrible flux -- but certain points remain constant. For Cronkite, and those who worked with him, getting the story right was worth fighting for. And for serious journalists today, "That's the way it is" -- still.