NEW YORK — President Obama on Wednesday exhorted the media to live up to the example set by the late Walter Cronkite, praising the pioneering CBS anchor for embodying the credo that "journalism is more than just a profession; it is a public good vital to our democracy."
Speaking at a memorial for Cronkite, who died July 17 at 92, the president lauded the newsman for "his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theater or spectacle."
"He didn't believe in dumbing down," Obama told a packed hall at Lincoln Center, hours before he was set to make his case for healthcare reform in a high-stakes address to a joint session of Congress. "He trusted us."
Noting the toll that financial pressures have taken on journalism, he bemoaned the proliferation of "instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed."
" 'What happened today?' is replaced with 'Who won today?' " Obama said. "The public debate cheapens . . . and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation."
The president said that the kind of journalism Cronkite stood for would survive only "if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again."
Obama's tribute capped a 2 1/2 -hour affectionate remembrance of Cronkite, who anchored "CBS Evening News" for nearly two decades. The famed anchor known as "the most trusted man in America" was eulogized by former President Clinton, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and NBC emeritus anchor Tom Brokaw, among others.
Along with offering testaments to Cronkite's journalistic achievements, speaker after speaker praised his simple decency and generosity of spirit.
Clinton, who got to know Cronkite as a fellow vacationer on Martha's Vineyard, said he was touched when the retired anchor invited the then-president and his family sailing during the "tumultuous summer" of 1998, after the revelation of Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"Someone might take a picture of us, but so what?" Clinton recalled Cronkite saying.
"At the time, I could have done with a picture with Walter Cronkite," Clinton added.
Longtime Cronkite friend and "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney shared a similar tale, saying that Cronkite offered to "use whatever good will" he had with the public by being seen having dinner with Rooney after the latter was suspended temporarily from CBS for making offensive comments.
"If it can be said about any person in our business that he was a force for good in this world, Walter Cronkite was that person," Rooney said.
Jimmy Buffett, a sailing friend who sang "Son of a Son of a Sailor" at the service, recalled Cronkite's impish sense of humor.
The singer once inquired of the anchor whether he thought correspondent Ed Bradley should wear his earring while reporting his pieces for "60 Minutes."
"Walter said, 'It doesn't matter where he wears an earring, as long as it's a good story,' " Buffett recalled. Cronkite then quipped: "If I was going to wear an earring on '60 Minutes,' I'd wear one of those big, long dangly ones."