Walter Cronkite: “We are here this evening, not only to protect our own interests in the bountiful sea — but to represent the interests of those who could not be here tonight. Creatures with eight legs, shiny scales, striped feathers, and funny-looking faces. We have a responsibility to represent the interests of other living things with whom we are sharing this planet.”
It was Walter’s fascination with the natural world that won the hearts of scientists. By luck, I had the honor of writing scripts like the one above for him that heralded the earth. In 1981, at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, we were delighted to hear that Walter Cronkite would produce the CBS Cronkite Universe Series upon leaving the newsroom for good. Greeting him in our lab, I met a talented gentleman who shared a passion for broadcasting the wonders of our planet. We coined it ‘Earth’ advertising.
Once on location for the Universe Series, Walter descended into the submersible Alvin to eyewitness bioluminescence in the sea firsthand. He paused on the ladder as I held up his script cards. It was then when I first noticed he wasn’t looking at the camera like most newscasters, nor did he appear to be reading the script. He poetically rewrote it in his head as he spoke from his heart. His mind was more of a marvel than his subject matter. The man was talking directly to the people of America. He addressed them as though engaged in lively dinner conversation, unaware that the world sat on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear what he had to say.
As a young radio announcer back in Kansas City, or elsewhere along his way, Walter became the one in a million, authentic voice that could cut through the clutter. Maybe it was when he met his wife Betsy, a beautiful quick-minded advertising copywriter to whom he often gave credit. As a team, they experienced the power of media to influence people’s thinking. Though he never got into advertising, he had a lot to say about it. Mainly that news had been cut to the bare bones to make more room for commercials. When they posed as content, it was an insult to our collective intelligence.
“The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi-informed,” he wrote in his 1996 memoir, “A Reporter’s Life.”
Once, I gave Walter a lift to La Jolla from the Coastal Processes Lab where I worked at Scripps, and we stopped at the grad student weekly TGIF. It dawned on me at the age of 22 that everybody worshipped this man, not just my dad’s generation, but people of all ages, from all walks of life. We drove on up the hill and along La Jolla Cove in my old rust bucket of a car. Pedestrians swarmed us at a stop sign, but with a reverence I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t like the Beatles, or even a president. It was more like a pope.
Stuck in the traffic, our conversation turned to how we might best translate and prepare scientific knowledge for public consumption. How to engage Homo sapiens in the healthy future of all species, including our own. How to share the enormity and complexity of nature as a force to believe in, rather than reckon against. He was mesmerized by the planet, and the universe beyond. To the very end, Walter’s curiosity had the innocence of a little boy with a magnifying glass.
For the next 20 years, we’d make time to sail out of Edgartown harbor and brainstorm how to harness curiosity about the natural world, to keep up the spirit for seeking the truth. He believed that people would align with their belief system when it came to the environment if the path was laid out, and that advertising had to take that bull by the horns because maybe nobody else would. This is how Walter was with people. Some say it was his depth of conversation that spurned the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty.
The struggle between news information and advertising may be age old, but Walter got to see a shift, a new chaordic order. The great melting pot of new media leaves no place for information to hide from those willing to seek it out. This is why responsible brands will shine through the eco-darkness. There are signs all around us that “green” is now getting a little more popular, greenwashing aside.
A year or so ago, I called Walter to find out how he wanted to be listed on a project we were working on together. “How about ‘executive Producer’?” I asked. He countered with the word ‘journalist,’ and we pondered adding the title of ‘explorer.’
As Americans, we’ll always remember the newsman who was at once the keel of the ship, the wind in the sail, the tiller on course, and our moral compass for a time. We stand here on this humble shore, shining a lantern upon him as he disappears into the fog, out of our world and into that one frontier we all can’t explore together. Goodbye to Walter from the advertising world– we’ll try to keep it honest.
Written by Martha Shaw, President, Earth Advertising
Martha is founder of Earth Advertising and eFlicksMedia, an agency established in 1998 to represent the best interests of the planet. She is a Fellow of the Explorers Club, recipient of top creative awards in media, and member of socially responsible business organizations, media panels and scientific advisory boards. She lives in New York and Martha’s Vineyard with her family.