On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, Fordham honored a biographer of Walter Cronkite, the famed news anchor whose televised announcement of president’s death is seared into America’s collective memory.
At a Nov. 25 ceremony at the Lincoln Center campus that, by coincidence, fell on the anniversary of Kennedy’s funeral, Douglas Brinkley, Ph.D., was presented with the 2013 Ann M. Sperber Prize.
Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University, was lauded for the 864-page-longCronkite (Harper Collins, 2012), which delves into the life and career of the CBS newsman dubbed “the most trusted man in America.”
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, presented the award to Brinkley and invoked the saying, “God created man because he loves stories.”
“If that’s the case, God needs help retelling the stories and bringing them to life,” he said. “Because it is by the retelling of stories, never heard or forgotten, that the delight of God is found in our midst.”
Father McShane was joined in his praise by Sanford Socolow.
Socolow was the executive producer of The CBS Evening News from 1949 to 2000, which Cronkite anchored from 1962 to 1981. A member of the Sperber prize jury, Socolow recused himself from voting this year, as he is cited in the book.
He said that he learned “new details” about Cronkite’s circle, thanks to the stunning depth of Brinkley’s research. Brinkley’s book calls Cronkite’s critical role in breaking the JFK story reveals a “watershed” moment for Cronkite, establishing the newscaster’s reputation.
“Nobody recalls anything about the funeral or the assassination, or the murder of the assassin, without reference to Cronkite,” Socolow said. “Reading the chapter is as exciting as watching the events on television. [Brinkley] has really brought some life into the written word.”
Brinkley, who has written previously about Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Rosa Parks, said that when it comes to people like Cronkite, it’s worth the work it takes to track down ancillary figures in their lives.
“In the golden age of tv news—before cable news and the Internet—Cronkite was the commanding person of that era,” he said.
Brinkley said he wanted to write about Cronkite because, as a historian, he experienced events such as the moon landing, Watergate, and the end of the Vietnam War through television coverage.
Cronkite’s insistence that all facts be triple-checked, Brinkley said, was what gave him his gravitas.
“‘It’s my face hanging,’ he used to say. He could be tough. This was not just avuncular Uncle Walt,” Brinkley said.
Amazingly, Brinkley said, he couldn’t anyone in broadcasting who got tired of Walter Cronkite. Even when Cronkite retired, nobody said it was about time he hung it up.
He credited this to Cronkite’s unique way of speaking, which helped him “wear well” when he was invited into American’s livingrooms day in and day out.
“There are only so many voices that you miss. It was a cadence and a pacing that was just remarkable,” he said.
The Sperber award is given annually to an author of a biography or autobiography of a journalist or other media figure. The award was established by a gift from Liselotte Sperber, in memory of her daughter Ann M. Sperber, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of Edward R. Murrow, Murrow: His Life and Times (Fordham University Press, 1998).