From The Archives: Cronkite, Live Via Satellite

The death of legendary CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite on Friday sent us scurrying for the archives — and we found a series of reports that he and producer John McDonough did for All Things Considered. We hear part of one of them — Cronkite remembering the first live satellite broadcast to Europe.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Today, America remembers Walter Cronkite a day after his death at age 92. He's the man who, for decades, brought us the news: the Kennedy assassination, the first moon walk, the war in Vietnam, inaugurations, conventions, anything it seemed that mattered. Walter Cronkite not only reported many of the 20th century's greatest events, sometimes he was part of them.

Forty-seven years ago next week, the first transatlantic television signal beamed up into space and down to Earth again on the newly launched Telstar satellite. For the first time, Europe and America were connected on live TV. And the first face Europe saw, Walter Cronkite's.

Tonight we bring you Cronkite, in his own words, describing that broadcast of July 23rd, 1962.

(Soundbite of archive recording)

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

Unidentified Man: I understand now that the French horn - the French antenna is starting to track the satellite and it should not be very long before they are in complete auto track and capable of receiving our signal.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchorman): Three American networks became partners with Canada and Eurovision for the first formal exchange of signals.

NBC provided facilities at 30 Rockefeller Plaza where I sat at a desk alongside that network's Chet Huntley with whom I normally competed for such breaking news stories. Fred Friendly of CBS was one of three producers.

As anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" for all of 13 weeks by then, I was assigned to open the program.

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

Are you seeing anything right now on those monitors? We noticed a moment ago up above your head?

Unidentified Man: Yeah. We have two monitors - three monitors actually.

Mr. CRONKITE: The technology was so new neither continent had any sure way of knowing exactly what the other was seeing. In the last seconds before linkup, my only contact was with the AT&T ground station in Andover, Maine.

Across the Atlantic, ground stations in Pleumeur-Bodou on France's Brittany Coast and Goonhilly Downs, England, waited to complete the link. I stared at the monitors and saw nothing. Despite several run throughs, I still had qualms that it might all be an electronic goose chase.

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

(Soundbite of static)

Unidentified Man: I have just received word, Mr. Cronkite, that the French are ready and the program can now start.

Mr. CRONKITE: Eurovision? Eurovision, we're now putting up our Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on the left side of our monitor, if you'll please put up your Eiffel Tower in Paris next to it.

Then, slightly ahead of schedule, Telstar rolled over the horizon on its 124th orbit at 18,000 miles per hour.

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

We're going to wait for your signal. If that's been completed, we'll go on that signal.

There were a few empty seconds, then the reassuring voice of an old friend and great broadcaster Richard Dimbleby of the BBC.

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

Mr. RICHARD DIMBLEBY (BBC broadcaster): Hello, Walter Cronkite. Hello, United States. On my television screen here in Brussels, they are both together as clear, so go America, go. Go America, go.

Mr. CRONKITE: Good evening, Europe. This is the North American continent live via AT&T Telstar July 23rd, 1962, 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time in the East, the New York skyline on the Atlantic Ocean. On the West, 3,000 miles away, San Francisco, 12 noon at the Golden Gate Bridge. Between these two oceans 180 million Americans have begun another week. We'll visit with some of them in a moment.

It was that rarest of all television moments, the kind that compels viewers to lean forward and stare in a primal wonder and amazement at their screens. The reality of live telecast to Europe seemed so unbelievable. It was as if we had to keep telling ourselves it was happening. The plain facts of...

(Soundbite of first live satellite broadcast to Europe)

Mr. CRONKITE: …electronic life (unintelligible) that Washington and the Kremlin are now no farther apart than the speed of light, at least, technically.

(Soundbite of bell)

But what goes on in the United Nations building in New York can be seen in Belgrade and in Paris and in Bonn. We in television are convinced that the ability to portray immediacy, to realize what's new, what's going on is the true significance of this new communications bridge...

Such a gust of global exchanges via satellite have long since lost their special sense of occasion and ceremony. They are a daily routine now as satellites take us to places we didn't know existed. We knew we were christening a technology that would change the world. Years later, it still is.

For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite, 22,000 miles out in space via Galaxy 4, Transponder 3.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Walter Cronkite from a report originally broadcast in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 2002.

He died yesterday at age 92. Cronkite and producer John McDonough filed a number of reports like the one you just heard. You can hear them all at npr.org.

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Walter Cronkite, The Nation's Narrator, Dies At 92

Walter Cronkite in the 1960s

Broadcast journalist and CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite in the 1960s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And That's The Way It Was

Hear Walter Cronkite Examine Pivotal Moments in History

Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchor who famously became the most trusted man in America, died Friday at the age of 92.

For nearly two decades, tens of millions of Americans tuned in to Cronkite to learn "that's the way it is" every night during a rancorous age. Although Cronkite left the anchor's desk at CBS Evening News more than a generation ago, he was still known by many as "Uncle Walter" — the ultimate reliable source, the nation's narrator and the standard by which all other TV news anchors are judged.

The Kennedy Assassination

Nineteen months into the job, Cronkite was confronted with the horrific news of President Kennedy's assassination. He rushed to air and calmly led viewers through the tragedy with simple declarative sentences:

"From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."

Cronkite briefly choked up on camera as he took off his reading glasses to check the time.

"It was a very effective moment, and it's been rerun a thousand times," said longtime friend Andy Rooney of CBS. "If Walter had had his choice, he would have suppressed those tears because he hated to reveal himself as an emotional person."

The Secret Is Credibility

Yet ultimately, Cronkite's composure and mastery throughout the day and those that followed inspired a sense of awe that persists even today.

"It's the old joke — you know, the secret in this broadcast business of broadcast news is credibility. If you can fake that, you've got it made. But Walter didn't have to fake it," said retired CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton.

As a young reporter for the United Press wire service, Cronkite covered the combat of World War II up close and was later hired by Edward R Murrow for CBS.

In 1962, he became anchor of CBS Evening News and oversaw its expansion to become the nation's first half-hour nightly newscast. Cronkite loved perfecting what he called "the magic" — the six minutes a night he was on the air delivering the news — and he was endlessly polishing his copy and timing his delivery for what became the nation's top-rated newscast.

Television was newly dominant at the time, and there were few competing distractions. Yet Rooney says network executives often pushed for softer stories, as they brought entertainment values to their news divisions.

"But Walter didn't care," Rooney said. "He was absolutely in favor of giving the American people what they needed to know, not what they wanted to hear."

'Inescapable Conclusion' On Vietnam

From the outset, Cronkite put his own editorial stamp on coverage. Fenton says Cronkite privately had been a strong supporter of American involvement in Vietnam.

"It was only after that famous trip he made to Vietnam and he saw the reality on the ground and heard what was really going on that he came to what was for him the inescapable conclusion," he said.

During a February 1968 broadcast, Cronkite said, "To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

Unlike the punditry that dominates today's nighttime cable news shows, Cronkite's nightly newscasts were so measured that it made his words after the Tet offensive all the more powerful.

When President Lyndon Johnson saw that newscast, he turned to his press secretary, George Christian, and famously said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."

The Moon Landing And Watergate

But there was good news back then, too, and Cronkite took great joy in delivering it.

"Armstrong is on the moon. Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon this July 20th, 1969," Cronkite told the nation as Armstrong delivered his historic line: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Cronkite devoted hours to the space program, but he made news again when he devoted 14 minutes of his newscast in October 1972 to a single topic — Watergate — even though President Nixon would breeze to re-election a few weeks later.

"But the episode grew steadily more sinister — no longer a caper, but the Watergate affair escalating finally into charges of a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history," Cronkite said during the Oct. 27 show.

CBS wasn't breaking news here, but Cronkite had assembled a team of reporters to explain the affair fully to a much larger public and ensure the matter couldn't be dismissed.

Cronkite once described his approach to his job on NPR's Diane Rehm Show:

"The ethics of a responsible journalist is to put his or her biases, his or her prejudices aside in an attempt to be really fair to all sides at all times," he said. "And my pride is that I think I did that fairly well during my years."

Cronkite retired from CBS Evening News in 1981. But he expected to hold a senior role at the network during the Dan Rather era and was hurt to learn there was no room. He later did some work for NPR, Discovery Channel and the History Channel, and he devoted more time to sailing.

He re-emerged as the voice of CBS News in September 2006, if only to introduce Katie Couric when she took over as anchor. More than a generation later, Walter Cronkite's rumbling voice still echoes.

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