Monday, August 31, 2009
The important lesson Walter Cronkite carried with him all those years
I love this essay Walter Cronkite wrote for Guideposts magazine. And I love the introduction he wrote for my first book, Journalism Stories from the Real World. He was one special person.
There came a time when I was growing up in Houston, Texas, that I wanted to own a watch. In fact, I had a particular watch picked out, an Ingersoll on display in our local drugstore. It cost a dollar.
Since I had no money, and no prospects for raising a dollar quickly, I asked the druggist if I could take the watch and pay for it little by little. He agreed, and the next day, when my mother happened to come into the store, he casually mentioned the arrangement we'd made.
My mother would have none of it. She was a woman of scrupulous honesty, and to her, I'd taken advantage of another person's willingness to trust me. She paid the druggist the dollar and hurried home to confront me.
"Don't you see?" she said. "Your intentions are honorable, but even you admit you don't know how you're going to earn the money for that watch. There's no outright dishonesty here, but you're flirting with it. It's one of those risky gray areas, Walter. Be careful of gray—it might be grime."
Then she took the watch and kept it until I earned the money to retrieve it.
Throughout the years since that experience, I've had plenty of reasons to remember my mother's admonition. As a newscaster I've always had to be on guard against gray—a presentation of only half the facts, a story that didn't ring quite true. And there have been such occasions in my personal life as well.
One time, for instance, some speculators offered to give me a large parcel of land. There was no suggestion that I talk about their property on the air. They were not being dishonest; they just wanted to be able to say that I owned land in the area that they were trying to promote. But it seemed like a gray area to me. I didn't accept the offer.
I believe that most of the people in this world are honest, and want to be honest. But honesty, like all other virtues, requires vigilance. My mother, Helen Lena Cronkite, knew this. This is what she had in mind as she helped me to stay clear of ambiguity—the gray areas that might be grime.