When I first heard that Fred Phelps, the famous anti-gay activist, planned to protest the funeral of one of the modern heroes of journalism, the late Walter Cronkite, I thought I had missed something in The New York Times obituary. I combed through it again, revisiting those classic moments in broadcast history that have been replayed over and over: the momentous moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, Cronkite’s detailed analysis of Watergate scandal, and his unabashed misgivings from the situation in Vietnam. I read about a puppet Charlemagne that kept him amused between broadcasts, and that he had played the voice of Benjamin Franklin in a PBS cartoon series. But, I found nothing about Cronkite and the gay rights movement.
As it turns out, Cronkite supported the gay rights movement by … reporting on the fact that there was a gay rights movement underway.
In a column that has been circulating the web media circuit, Edward Alwood retells an anecdote involving the broadcast journalist and his interactions with Mark Segal, 19-year-old gay rights activist. Segal was involved in direct action that targeted the mainstream media for censoring news about gays. During one Cronkite broadcast, Segal, who managed to get in as a member of the audience, leapt before the cameras with a sign, “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” The broadcast went off the air as Segal was removed from the studio. When Cronkite returned, he faithfully reported that the studio had just been visited by a member of the Gay Raiders, “an organization protesting alleged defamation of homosexuals on entertainment programs.”
This was, however, just the beginning of Cronkite’s commitment to fair and comprehensive reporting. During Segal’s subsequent trial for trespassing on the CBS studios, Cronkite testified (albeit rather unwillingly; it’s worth reading Alwood’s humorous account of the incident). At a break in the proceedings, Cronkite apparently approached Segal and asked him about the incident. As the story goes, Segal called Cronkite and the media, “news censors,” and proved his point by giving the CBS news anchor three examples of imbalanced coverage. He offered by way of example the network’s failure to cover Gay Pride Day, which was equally attended as the reported-on International Women’s Year. Whether or not Cronkite would ever say the charge was accurate, the incident seemed to have left an impact. CBS started covering notable events such as the passage of gay rights legislation throughout the states.
The most touching part of this story is that Cronkite had enough humility to listen to others, not least of all a young activist. Perhaps, this is what made him the journalist he was. I learned further that Cronkite has been publicly speaking out in support of gay rights, including marriage equality, for a long time. Thus, while many of us might remember Cronkite as a journalist with integrity and a humanitarian with heart, there are others like Phelps who will go on protesting Cronkite.
That aside, it’s always worth remembering that censorship is not just news that is banned or suppressed but the stories that are ignored or neglected, the ones we may never realize aren’t being printed or broadcast unless we think to ask.