Walter Cronkite & Me

It’s about four in the afternoon. I’m in the corner conference room 29 floors above Times Square. The UN General Assembly building peaks through the skyscrapers down 45th Street. Black sheets of rain are blowing in from the west. The conversation is periodically interrupted by flashes of lightening and claps of thunder. I duck out early to get to the busy work these days of meetings have precluded.

Back to my office, I am updating Excel documents and sorting through Outlook, when I strange woman appears in my door. “Benjamin? Hi. My name is Africa. I work in communications. And I was told you might have a digital camera.”

I’m asked this sort of thing all the time. MTV people always come to me for technology.

“Yup,” I say, looking up from the glare of my 21 inch monitor. “What do you need it for?”

“Well, we’re doing a Choose or Lose interview in the studiio, and Dave Sirulnick wants some photos,” she says.

“Oh yeah? Cool. Who’s the interview?”

“Walter Cronkite.”

“Do you need a photographer?”

Three minutes and one elevator ride later, I’m standing in MTV’s Uptown Studio watching Walter Cronkite read from a TelePrompTer. He is impeccably dressed in a gray suit with suede Merrill approach clogs.

“Hello,” he says in that voice, that deep, trustworthy voice. “I’m Walter Cronkite. I know, I know — I’m the last person you’d expect to see on MTV, but I’m here to speak about voting. Stay tuned.”

“That’s perfect, Mr. Cronkite,” floor producer Craig D’Entrone says. I can hear supervising producer Betsy Forhan — she worked on my brother’s first MTV show, ‘Unfiltered,’ and was one of the first people I met in New York — in Craig’s headphones. “One more for safety?”

In the essay I wrote for my application to Northwestern University way back in 1988, I wrote of Mr. Cronkite’s journalistic integrity, connection with his audience, and understanding of substance over form. I wrote that I too, as Managing Editor of ‘The Conestoga Spoke,’ aspired to those ideals. My first action as Managing Editor, I wrote, had been to change the masthead from a youthful, hand-penned masthead, to a more stately Old English font, a la ‘The New York Times.’

Problem was, I spelled Cronkite with a K: Kronkite. So I didn’t get in.

Of course, I went to Syracuse University (everyone’s second choice) and found my way — gratefully, in retrospect — into a dual newspaper/creative writing major. I kept my integrity, of value of substance over form, but also did things like form a rock band, tour the Northeast, and make records. I graduated, moved to Saratoga Springs, NY, and began writing for the local paper. And kept making music. I moved to New York City in 1996 to be a freelance writer. One year later, with two dozen Rolling Stone clips and one magazine piece under my belt, I took an online producer job at Lifetime Television. The money was better. There were benefits. A year later, I started at MTV News. The money was better. There were benefits.

And I kept making music.

Mr. Cronkite finishes his reads, and gingerly steps up from his chair. He is swarmed by producers, handlers, and the like. I stay back in the shadows, snapping away on the digital camera, grinning.

Moments later, as he and my colleague Gideon Yago pose for a photo op — The Old Guard and The New — I step forward.

“Mr. Cronkite,” I say, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir. My name is Benjamin Wagner. I am the Director of Production for MTV News, and I must tell you that you are the reason that I am here today. You are the reason I am a journalist.”

He held my handshake firm, and fixed his eyes on mine.

“Well, thank you, Benjamin. Director of Production, huh?. At least some good’s come of all this.”

Yes sir,” I said, stammering. “And I will continue to try and make good.”

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