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Archive for Tuesday, July 21, 2009

News icon strove for excellence

July 21, 2009

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The last icon of the great days of journalism is gone. The man known to the nation as “Uncle Walter,” and the “most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, passed away Friday at the age of 92.

During his years as a radio correspondent and later CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite was part of the fabric of American life. There was no cable news back then. No 24-hour coverage. No online news and blogs. There was, fortunately, Walter Cronkite who shared the most important moments in our lives.

When Cronkite agreed to come out of retirement to cover John Glenn’s return to space in 1998 for CNN, he said he would not sit and reminisce about the glory days of Mercury and Apollo. If he was going to cover the story, he would research it properly and cover it fully.

It was then I had my first opportunity to work with Walter Cronkite. I was the lead public affairs officer for John Glenn’s flight (STS-95) working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Walter wanted to learn everything, and it was my job to provide the resources he needed as he prepared once again to sit behind an anchor desk during a historic space flight. He studied. He climbed over and through space shuttle mock-ups. He talked to astronauts, and trainers and employees he met across the center. And his coverage of that mission was flawless.

A few years later, I had the chance to work with him again and learned perhaps the most important lesson of my professional life. As part of an event celebrating five years of people living and working aboard the international space station, NASA wanted to do something truly special. We asked Walter if he would participate in the event and he agreed to talk with the crew. He was in a large, noisy conference hall with an audience of several hundred people when the call took place. The logistics involved in producing the event with Walter at one location, the space station crew on orbit and the production staff at the Johnson Space Center, were challenging. Add in the short delay in communications between questions and answers, and there were some technical glitches.

About an hour after the event my phone rang. It was Walter calling to say he hadn’t been satisfied with his performance and that he felt badly about the event not going perfectly. I sat in stunned silence. Was Walter Cronkite really apologizing to me? I had asked him to do the event and was struggling with how I was going to apologize to him for the technical issues.

And then I learned the lesson. His expectations of his own performance had never wavered. His goal always was to do the best job he could, never relying on his reputation to bridge the gap between expectation and performance. I learned the lesson well and try to apply it in everything I do both personally and professionally. It is the true standard of excellence for those who aspire to be world-class journalists and communicators.

A couple years later, sitting with him in his dressing room before he hosted a major public event, he shared stories of his life as a reporter. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to know Walter Cronkite and develop a relationship with him. I was in awe and it took me some time before I could call him Walter without feeling presumptuous, and yet here we were exchanging stories. As we talked, he said to me “the news used to be about telling people what they need to know. Now it’s about giving them what they want.”

Today what people need to know about Walter Cronkite is that he never lost his passion for reporting the truth and he never lost his commitment to excellence. Despite all the awards and accolades, he remained humble and accessible. His was a life well-lived and I am better for having known him.

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