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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