Walter Cronkite and a familiar story

Walter Cronkite and a familiar story December 12, 2011

Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin shares a story about the late CBS newsman Walter Cronkite.

I’d never heard this story before, yet it’s familiar to me and, I suspect, familiar too to many others like me.

On Dec. 11, 1973:

Mark Segal of the Philadelphia-based Gay Raiders posed as a reporter for the Camden State Community College newspaper and called CBS asking permission to watch the broadcast of the CBC Evening News with the legendary Walter Cronkite from inside the studio. The network agreed, and so … he briefly interrupted the broadcast about halfway through by running up in front of the camera with a yellow sign reading “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.”:

“I sat on Cronkite’s desk directly in front of him and held up the sign while the technicians furiously ran after me and wrestled me to the floor and wrapped me in wire — on camera,” [Segal] recalled in an interview. “The network went black while they took us out of the studio.”

Ever the professional, Cronkite reported on the event. “Well, a rather interesting development in the studio here — a protest demonstration right in the middle of the CBS News studio,” Cronkite told viewers. He later explained: “The young man was identified as a member of something called Gay Raiders, an organization protesting alleged defamation of homosexuals on entertainment programs.” Segal was charged with trespassing.

As of Dec. 10, 1973, Cronkite doesn’t seem to have given a great deal of thought toward the subject of gay rights. And why would he? It wasn’t that he had any particular antipathy toward the subject, but he was a busy enough man with an awful lot already vying for his attention, and this subject wasn’t something that touched him closely.

But, as Burroway notes, his unexpected encounter with Segal changed that:

After Segal’s trial for trespassing in which his attorneys subpoenaed Cronkite to testify, the news anchor began to take an interest in Segal’s grievance. He arranged a meeting at CBS where Segal could air his complaints to management, and Cronkite’s broadcast on May 6, 1974 featured a segment on gay rights, reporting on the ten cities throughout the country that had passed legal protections for gay people.

Burroway quotes Segal from Edward Alwood’s remembrance on “Walter Cronkite and the Gay Rights Movement“:

“He was the kind of man who believed in human rights for everyone,” Segal said of Cronkite. “I am amazed and humbled by his willingness to reach out to me. He was a bridge between the gay movement and major media. We remained friends, and it was a privilege knowing him.”

Cronkite’s belief in “human rights for everyone” hadn’t been willfully circumscribed to exclude gay people, it was just something he hadn’t previously considered due to the luxury that privilege affords of not having to think about how such abstract commitments apply to others outside of our own limited sphere. An encounter with a new friend revealed a new context in which to test that belief. Does “human rights for everyone” apply to GLBT people too? Cronkite doesn’t seem to have thought much about that before, but once he was led to do so, he concluded that of course it does. And that made him a bridge and a friend and an ally.

As I said above, that story is familiar to me. New friendships can help one to see beyond the blinding boundaries of privilege, forcing one to make abstractions real, and making them, unexpectedly, personal and important.

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  • Anonymous

    Occasionally, I wonder if protests ever work.  If OWS will change anyone’s mind, if liberals and conservatives will ever be able to see each other or change each other’s mind.  Sure, I’ve opened my friend’s eyes to a few things that they never noticed before, but no one’s become the raging liberal I am.

    And then I read something like this and think: maybe it does actually do something, in it’s small way.

  • New friendships can help one to see beyond the blinding boundaries of privilege, forcing one to make abstractions real, and making them, unexpectedly, personal and important.

    So can fictional friendships. Like my ongoing affection for Willow Rosenberg.

  • Offtopic, but Fred, could the Tweet button be moved to the left of the +1 button? When I reshare your posts on my G+, the first word is always “Tweet.” Not exactly a big deal, but if it’s easy, I figured I’d ask.

  • I’ve never been very familiar with Walter Cronkite, or the phenomenon that is Walter Cronkite. But this blog post comes as I’ve been rereading Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music for the first time in decades. It came out in 1976, and I assume the book takes place around that time, too. The main character, 12-year-old Victor, is a HUGE Walter Cronkite fan boy. Apparently the lizards are big fans, too.

    This story makes me that much closer to Victor in perspective. Clearly, Cronkite was awesome.

  • Huh. I didn’t know that about Walter Cronkite. :)

  • New friendships can help one to see beyond the blinding boundaries of privilege, forcing one to make abstractions real, and making them, unexpectedly, personal and important.

    This is also one of the big reasons why I dislike it when people with whom I nominally find common political ground say nasty things about Republicans.  I have a few Republican friends, and I do not like it when people say nasty things about my friends.  I might disagree with the most extreme voices of rhetoric in the Republican party, and politely disagree with my Republican friends (preferably in a way that has us incorporating the views of the other to temper and moderate our own,) but that does not mean I have a beef with most individual Republicans themselves.  

  • FangsFirst

    That is a very frustrating thing, I find. An extended debate with my conservative-familyed Schödinger’s girlfriend would occasionally lead to me taking a breather and trying to ask someone to give me a more objective view of what we were arguing about, and I’d be told, “Conservatives seem to do that, just refuse to see alternate viewpoints and double down on their existing ones, just refusing to believe anyone with a differing view could ever be right.”

    …Uh, thanks. So, we’re aiming for hypocrisy then?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Sorry, I have a hard time being tolerant of intolerant people.  

    OR their enablers.

    Of course, I have the luxury of mostly associating with ‘liberal’ people.

  • Right-wing contempt for cities, universities, public transportation, and maybe even ‘The Media’ has more than a little to do with the smae observation that Fred made here, I’m sure. 

  • FangsFirst

    If perhaps that was directed in my direction: I am with you on intolerance of the intolerant.

    However, the conservatives I actively associate with (actually, there are few, but still) generally disagree on non-social issues. My SGF was usually disagreeing based on a poisoned pool of information–from a source she saw as reliable that I was gradually proving was nothing of the kind (her mother). However, the emotional reaction many (if not all) have is to defend existing positions.

    I mean, I convinced her to reconsider gay marriage. But damn did she get annoyed when I started asking those questions. But it wasn’t out of intolerance, it was because it was a given in the circles she ran in. And the other “liberals” she knows either don’t talk politics around her at all, or they treat her like shit. For instance, two of them thought it was cool to show her studies that said that, on average, atheists are smarter than Christians, and on average, Catholics are the dumbest of all. Those two are atheists. She’s a Catholic. Hardly a wonder her reaction to people is to become defensive. Such things get trained in. She’s identifying less and less as conservative (and almost dropping it completely as a social label) but the principle stands for me.

    (Others jumped on her after election day for voting against gay rights. She didn’t tell them who she voted for. They just assumed and called her a horrible, terrible person.)

    She’s one of the most tolerant people I know. And yes, I could say, “Well I don’t think she IS conservative,” but that wouldn’t change the fact that saying, “Conservatives all….” would still sound pretty crappy in her presence, as she would at least feel it applies, if she self-identifies as such.

  • Anonymous

    New friendships can help one to see beyond the blinding boundaries of
    privilege, forcing one to make abstractions real, and making them,
    unexpectedly, personal and important.

    And THIS in essence is how I moved from a decidedly right-of-center religious conservative to a decidedly left-of-center religious liberal during my time at seminary.  Being put into a position of listening to people’s story (and, yes, even though the “token conservative” at a liberal seminary, I was willing to listen — figured it was part of learning to be a priest) made me see that things weren’t as black and white as I had thought.

    And when the “gay agenda” goes from being this big evil plot to convert everyone to an unholy lifestyle to that of being an agenda of wanting a house with a nice yard in a good neighborhood, a decent paying job and the right to see the person you love in a hospital emergency room . . . well . . . those friendships and conversations were extremely valuable in that process. 

    Talking about gay issues became talking with gay people about their hopes, dreams and struggles.  And that made all the difference.

  • Debbie Notkin

    Stage and movie star Alan Cumming (who is British) has a wonderful story. When he was starring in Cabaret as the MC, he used to invite a man from the audience to dance with him at one point. At one performance, his first choice turned him down hard, so to keep the show moving, he turned to an older gentleman at a side front table. When the gentleman got up to join Cumming, the crowd went wild.

    Cumming didn’t know he was dancing with Cronkite.

    Some months later, he met Cronkite at a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts event. He was a little nervous, until Cronkite said “May I have this dance?”

  • Tonio

    Over at the Slacktiverse, one thread talked about mom-shaming and the importance of trusting women to make decisions for their lives and families. I made the point that not only is it wrong to trust men and not women that way, but that type of trust should be the default for everyone. Not to claim that men have it just as bad, because they most certainly don’t, but to emphasize that women wouldn’t be treated that way if society accepted that principle of trust.

    That’s how I see homosexuality. I could explain how there’s nothing intrinsically immoral or wrong about it, but the larger principle is that aspects of individuals’ lives that don’t harm others shouldn’t be the business of others. By definition, sexual orientation is a private matter, and I don’t mean that individuals should keep it private. It’s not just that homosexuality is morally neutral, it’s that being different is morally neutral. Rick Perry’s hateful video amounts to treating two aspects of private life, sexual orientation and religious affiliation, as though they’re the business of both government and society. By contrast, Cronkite appeared to already accept the truth that there’s nothing wrong with being different, and it just hadn’t occurred to him to apply that principle to homosexuality.

  • Launcifer

    Want to hear something a bit weird though rather pertinent? I’m English, under thirty and have only really become interested in American anything during the past five to ten years – and yet the first newsreader-type I actually learned to recognise and name was Walter Cronkite. All because he once made a programme about paleontology that was shown by the Open University that my mum recorded for me when I was going through the semi-obligatory five year old dinosaur phase.

    I’m starting to think that awesome is somehow an inadequate term of description.

  • Anonymous

    I know I’m tremendously grateful to the friends who listened to my long rambling thoughts when I was trying to work out what I really thought about homosexuality.  I like to think I’d have sorted my head out in the end anyway, but the de-bigoting process was tons easier with supportive people who hung around to help put things in perspective.

  • Mark

    Over the years I’ve seen the disruption and press express different views of the action and the aftermath.  This is a very beautiful way to describe it.

    best,
    Mark Segal

  • Anonymous

    Good heavens, I remember Lizard Music now!  I read that as a grade school kid.  Victor loves watching news programs; the highlight of his parents going out of town is that he can watch the 11-o’clock news and he’s amazed hat the anchor has a beard.  And then the lizards show up….

    Wow.  I’d almost forgotten that book!  Thanks for reminding me of it!

  • Marshall Pease

    I think it’s great and rather amazing that Cronkite was able to listen to the message and not be distracted by the presentation. Listening to the truth and not the image, even at the expense of submitting to a bit of personal embarrassment. Real servant-like behavior.

    #5012, are you suggesting that Segal was intolerant? I don’t see it. In-your-face isn’t necessarily the same as intolerant. It’s hard to be calm when you’re really engaged, especially when you’ve been calm and people don’t listen but take advantage.

  • Emcee, cubed

    One of my opening-someone’s-eyes moments, interestingly, also involved Mark Segal. *waves! hi, Mark, if you’re still reading here*

    Back in the late ’80s, there was a local talk show in the Philadelphia area called People Are Talking, hosted by Jerry Penacoli (yes, that Jerry Penacoli, ugh, let’s not talk about that, other than to say stupid stories are stupid.) They did an episode where they had as guests Mark Segal, then publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News (he may still be, not being in the area any more, no idea), and obnoxiously anti-gay Philadelphia city councilman Francis Rafferty. I meant to call for tickets to the show, but never did (I’m a procrastinator, it’s what we do), so I didn’t know until I arrived at the TV studio that morning, that it was by invite only. (Apparently the studio held 70 people. They had 30 tickets that had been given to a senior center before the topic had been selected, then gave 20 tickets to Rafferty and 20 tickets to Segal and said bring who you want.)

    I then lied, saying I left my ticket at home, and they let me in. While in the studio audience, I made a comment about how we weren’t asking for “special rights”, a term they kept throwing around, but simply the right not to be harassed, abused, beaten and possibly killed, for engaging in activity that heterosexual people engage in without even thinking about, such as holding hands. I got rather emotional, and once I sat down, collapsed into arms of a guy sitting next to me, who I didn’t even know at the time.

    Two older women sitting in front of me felt bad that I was crying. They very nicely explained that they were with Mr. Rafferty, but that I shouldn’t get so upset, because there were already laws against assault, battery and murder, that applied to people who committed crimes against gay people as well. I also very nicely explained back that that actually wasn’t the case, law enforcement often turned a blind eye to cases of gay bashing, juries often acquitted people accused of gay bashing and killing gay people, and judges often gave lighter sentences to perpetrators of crimes against gay people (there was a recent case at the time of a gay basher who was found guilty, but given an extremely light sentence because the judge stated that the crime was “understandable”.) The women looked at me for a moment, realized I was serious and had the facts to back it up, and said, “Well that’s not right at all. Maybe something should be done about that.”

    I don’t know if it had any lasting effect (Rafferty, at least, continued to be a bigot until they voted him off of city council, and possibly even longer), but for a least a moment or two, those ladies seemed to understand what we were fighting for.

    *EDITED for formatting, because I didn’t realize what a solid wal of text it was until I posted.

  • Emcee, cubed

    #5012, are you suggesting that Segal was intolerant? I don’t see it.
    In-your-face isn’t necessarily the same as intolerant. It’s hard to be
    calm when you’re really engaged, especially when you’ve been calm and people don’t listen but take advantage.

    Not 5012, so can’t speak for him, but I believe he was responding to the comments by Fearless Son and FangsFirst about people saying nasty things about Republicans, and not talking about the original post.

    Your statements, however, are correct. I just don’t think 5012 was saying what you thought he was saying.

  • Izzy

    Right.

    And at this point, when we’re talking about adults with access to information, I don’t think there are any reasons for voting Republican that *don’t* reflect badly on the voter. “Well, gee, you don’t hate gay people and women–you just think their rights are not as important as…making sure millionaires never pay a higher-than-twenty-percent tax rate. Or ensuring that anyone with a hundred dollars can buy a deadly weapon without a waiting period. That’s so much better!”

    Not something I can see myself saying. 

  • This is also one of the big reasons why I dislike it when people with
    whom I nominally find common political ground say nasty things about
    Republicans.  I have a few Republican friends, and I do not like it when
    people say nasty things about my friends.  I might disagree with the
    most extreme voices of rhetoric in the Republican party, and politely
    disagree with my Republican friends (preferably in a way that has us
    incorporating the views of the other to temper and moderate our own,)
    but that does not mean I have a beef with most individual Republicans
    themselves.

    Yeah, the thing is, being the actual human being that help[s] one to see beyond the blinding boundaries of privilege, forcing one
    to make abstractions real, and making them, unexpectedly, personal and important
    is actually incredibly wearying and exhausting and discouraging, and a lot of the time you’re not dealing with people who are willing to be friends, you’re dealing with drive-by douchebags who only hang around long enough to spit out poisoned little barbs of hate – and when you’re queer or ‘different’ you’re dealing with them constantly and it’s unsurprisingly difficult to deal with.

    So when you do by chance encounter someone is so benign and friendly and all-loving that, instead of outright saying ‘God hates fags!’ they just say ‘Well, I love you like I love every other human being (agape love!!!!), but I just don’t think you should have the same rights or protections as me, and I’m going to vote for someone who thinks you’re an unnatural abomination to be in power over you without giving you a second thought, oh, and p.s., if you just got right with God your brain chemistry would fix itself all up (and maybe your queerness too) and you wouldn’t *need* health insurance like those other lazy poor people who just don’t want to work’

    -well. My patience has begun to sprint towards ‘does not give a flying fuck about incorporating views that are actively hurting me in order to temper my own.’

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m attacking you, FearlessSon, but when it comes to people who are actively voting for people and policies that will harm me and *my* friends, I find it rather difficult to care overmuch about their feelings.

  • By all means, vote against them.  And unfortunately, yes, some buy into a few talking points all too much.  I blame it on insularity and epistemic closure.  However, it is not necessarily true that because a person is a Republican, they are necessarily a bigot.  Unfortunately, the bigots have come to dominate the talking points, and a lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly fed up with it, even if some of those voices on the right tend to be silenced by their peers.  

  • By all means, vote against them.  And unfortunately, yes, some buy into a few talking points all too much.  I blame it on insularity and epistemic closure.  However, it is not necessarily true that because a person is a Republican, they are necessarily a bigot.  Unfortunately, the bigots have come to dominate the talking points, and a lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly fed up with it, even if some of those voices on the right tend to be silenced by their peers.  

  • I’ll admit that, like Victor, I secretly hoped that when Cronkite’s time came, his last words would be “And that’s the way it is.”

    And since Cronkite was real, I spent quite some time trying to find a copy of Invasion of the Fat Men to watch.

  • [totally off-topic]

    @rraszewski:disqus : And since Cronkite was real, I spent quite some time trying to find a copy of Invasion of the Fat Men to watch.

    When my husband and I got to that part of the book, we put it down and looked at each other and said, more or less simultaneously, “OK, that one can’t be real.” But we couldn’t be 100% sure because all the other late-night movies Victor watches are real…

    “We must always be prepared. Never again shall earth be taken by surprise without an arsenal of jelly donuts.”

    Ah, Invasion of the Fat Men. Did you not exist, Pinkwater would have had to invent you. And I guess he did.

  • Mark Segal

    WOW-  You all touched me deeply.  

    Mark Segal (mark@epgn.com)

  • Chip Cronkite

    Me too, Mark.