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On the Late Walter Cronkite and Gay Rights

The Washington Post has published an interesting piece about activist Mark Segal and how his protest during a December 1973 broadcast of the CBS Evening News with the late Walter Cronkite changed both Cronkite's mind about reporting on gay rights and forever shifted network news approach to it.

Cronkiteprotest Segal, who interrupted Cronkite's broadcast with a sign reading "Gays protest CBS prejudice" and was subsequently wrestled to the floor and taken away, later subpoenaed Cronkite to testify in the court case over his trespassing charges.

The WaPo notes:

When the trial began in April 1974, Cronkite took the stand, but CBS lawyers objected each time Segal's lawyer posed a question. During a recess, Segal felt a tap on his shoulder. "Why did you do that?" Cronkite asked about the incident in the studio.

"You're news censors," Segal responded. The anchorman was appalled. "If I can prove it," Segal then asked, "would you do something to change it?" He cited three examples, including a CBS report on the second rejection of a gay rights bill by the New York City Council. "Yes, I believe I wrote that story myself," Cronkite said.

"Well, why haven't you reported on the 23 other cities that have passed gay rights bills?" Segal asked. "Why do you cover 5,000 women walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City when they proclaim International Women's Year on the network news, and you do not cover 50,000 gays and lesbians walking down that same avenue proclaiming Gay Pride Day? That's censorship." Genuinely moved, Cronkite shook Segal's hand and thanked him. 

Said Segal of Cronkite: "He was the kind of man who believed in human rights for everyone. 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."

I've posted 365gay's report on the broadcast moment, AFTER THE JUMP...

Walter Cronkite and the Gay Rights Movement [washington post]

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Comments

  1. Cronkite was exceptional; the recent 60 Minutes coverage of his career proved it (as though that was needed). "Journalists" like Bill O'Reilley and Larry King are such pap in comparison.

    Posted by: Paul R | Jul 25, 2009 3:56:41 PM


  2. aloha andy...
    thank you for the amusement and info over the years. human rights for everyone -- perhaps, that is where happy hour in west hollywood gave me a headache. it's great to see some more people engaged, yet, unfortunate to see the oversights and sleep inducing coma states in others. it's better to cut through the shit....as there is plenty.

    thank you
    richard

    Posted by: ricardo | Jul 25, 2009 4:45:08 PM


  3. mark segal was know for this locally in philly too. if you met him you would be surprised he doesn't seem that rebellious. just a sweet guy.

    Posted by: richard s | Jul 25, 2009 5:35:09 PM


  4. video dead

    Posted by: Blake | Jul 25, 2009 5:44:57 PM


  5. Great story. Everyone should own a copy of Edward Alwood's "Straight News."

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Jul 25, 2009 7:03:34 PM


  6. What a great story, Andy. Thanks for posting!

    Posted by: peterparker | Jul 25, 2009 8:37:49 PM


  7. beautiful story. thanks Andy.

    it reminds me of my late father-a man of Cronkite's generation, and a man that when i told him i was gay at 18, almost 35 years ago, told me to make sure i brought home any man i was dating so he could make sure he was good enough for me.

    there were Men in that Greatest Generation, and then there were the rest of 'em.

    Posted by: casey | Jul 25, 2009 9:00:00 PM


  8. It is a great man who can admit a mistake. It is an even greater man who can learn from it.

    Mr. Cronkite, you will be missed.

    Posted by: Christopher | Jul 25, 2009 9:40:08 PM


  9. Kudos to Mark Segal and Cronkite. Can you even imagine, in 2009, someone making a clear, simple statement like Segal did -- and then a network news figure (none of today's whom even compare to Cronkite's influence) actually LISTENING and responding in a fair, honest and intelligent way? It would sound like a far-fetched lie if someone said it happened with any of the horrid clowns who pollute today's airwaves.

    Posted by: paul c | Jul 25, 2009 9:46:31 PM


  10. It's interesting that O'Reilly claimed that he and Cronkite (whom O'Reilly worked with early in his career) shared sensibilities about news media.

    Seems to me that O'Reilly's an absolute liar. Cronkite was nothing like him at all.

    Posted by: damien | Jul 25, 2009 10:02:34 PM


  11. We are all reaping the benefits of Mark Segal's bravado. "Mark Segal Hall" sounds nice!!

    Posted by: ty | Jul 25, 2009 11:31:36 PM


  12. In September of 1978, A Championship Softball team that I played on, won the right to represent San Francisco, in the Gay World Series at New York. However after arriving in the "Big Apple", our team was kicked OUT for having too many"non"gays on our roster. I called the Associated Press, and they put the story on their wire service. It was picked up and noted on WALTER CRONKITE's CBS Evening News, and the next day was featured on Paul Harvey's News and commentary national radio show. Mayor Moscone, gave our team a Citation for its diversity, and wished us luck in N.Y. and for beating the S.F. Cops 17-0 in the annual Peach-Fuzz Charity game that was played in front of 8,000 fans a week before leaving for the gay World Series.

    Posted by: jerry pritikin | Jul 26, 2009 11:01:37 AM


  13. Andy, I adore your blog, but I wish you had mentioned that Mark Segal went on to become the long-time owner and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News (PGN), one of the longest running & most influential weekly gay news publications in the country. Mark is also himself one of the most widely respected gay journalists and can count Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell as a friend.

    Posted by: Eric Axelson | Jul 26, 2009 1:27:22 PM


  14. cronkite was a good and decent man. he played fair.

    Posted by: nic | Jul 26, 2009 2:37:23 PM


  15. Thanks, in part, no doubt to Segal’s zap, Walter Cronkite played a role in another major moment in gay rights history—and, boy, do we need him still.

    On May 26th, 1975, he began his evening’s broadcast by telling his twenty million loyal viewers what they probably anticipated: President Ford had observed that Memorial Day by honoring veterans at Arlington Cemetery. However, most were probably shocked when, toward the program's close, Uncle Walter intoned,

    “Since their inception our military forces have had an absolute ban on homosexuals. Now a decorated Air Force sergeant who’s had three tours in Vietnam is going to court to challenge that ban. On March 6th, Sergeant Leonard Matlovich disclosed to his supervising officer at Langley Air Force base in Virginia that he was a homosexual and that he wanted to stay in the Air Force. Last week the Air Force moved to discharge him, and Matlovich, with a team of lawyers, plans this as a classic test case, if necessary, all the way to the Supreme Court. Today, Jed Duvall, asked the 31-yr. old sergeant about his decision to disclose his homosexuality.”

    Before the issue’s current spokesperson, Lt. Dan Choi, was even born, Leonard told Duvall that seeing gays discharged had been tearing him up inside and that he decided he had to "come forward and say, ‘No more, America’!" Asked what the reaction was among those he worked with on the base, Leonard replied that he’d been surprised with how positive it had been.

    If Cronkite had never before thought about gay rights in relation to that horrible war he helped end and the military generally, he did that morning when Leonard’s story broke on the front page of the "New York Times," and “the most trusted man in America” apparently decided it was a story the entire country needed to hear, and worthy of some effort to tell.

    Today, Leonard would have been directed to the nearest television station with a satellite feed to New York. But that day in 1975, someone called him in Hampton, Virginia, and told him that CBS had chartered a plane and were on their way to interview him in person.

    Whether "ABC Evening News" would have interviewed him the next day had Cronkite not launched Leonard and the gays in the military issue into international news orbit one can’t say. He certainly wasn’t the first gay person reported on, but he was soon the movement’s first celebrity and, given the military’s institutional foothold on the nation’s psyche, gays in the military the first movement issue that Americans could easily wrap their minds around if not entirely embrace.

    Cronkite, as mainstream media generally, would continue to report on Leonard’s fights for military equality, against Anita Bryant and other demagogues, and his arrests for protesting Reagan administration AIDS inaction. By 1988, he was no longer the anchor at CBS, so it was left to others to report Leonard’s death that summer.

    Segal says that Cronkite was against the ban's current iteration, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," so one is left to wonder all the more how differently he would be responding to recent claims by Obama administration representatives and the President himself.

    Those reporters who have challenged them on the as-yet unfulfilled promise to fight for repeal are to be applauded. But would Cronkite ... who wasn’t afraid to enrage Frank Sinatra by asking him about his alleged Mafia connections or risk an international incident by asking Egyptian President Anwar Sadat if he would be willing to meet Israeli Premier Menachem Begin in Jerusalem ... cave as they have, time and again, whenever the response has included some reference to undefined problems that gay integration would allegedly create? Would he let them go before they explained exactly what they mean when they mutter at once forebodingly and nebulously about:

    "a complex and difficult problem. If we do it, it’s important that we do it right, and very carefully," "in a way that mitigates any downsides." - Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. [WHAT "downsides"?]

    "the impact on our people and their families." - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. [Huh? First, gay marriage now gays in the military are a threat to straight families?]

    "...changed in a way that ultimately works well for our military." – President Barack Obama? [Exactly why wouldn't it?]

    Last month, the President told gays at the White House, "I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security. ...patriots who often possess critical language skills and years of training and who’ve served this country well. ... these cases underscore the urgency of reversing this policy not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is essential for our national security."

    Thirty-four years after Walter Cronkite first introduced the issue to Americans, can anyone imagine him not asking,

    "Then, why, Mr. President, are you still doing it?"

    Posted by: Michael @ LeonardMatlovich.com | Jul 26, 2009 2:55:31 PM


  16. Casey, that's a sweet story about your dad. My dad's like that too. I count myself quite lucky, as do you I'm sure.

    Posted by: The Milkman | Jul 26, 2009 4:00:36 PM


  17. I have a somewhat different memory of Walter. Someone asked him backstage at the Emmy Awards about ten years ago (I forget which one; I've attended most of them with free tix and passes backstage) what he thought about gay news reporters. At first he didn't understand the question, and was very hard of hearing to the point of being deaf, but when he did understand the question was about gay journalists he looked like he'd smelled something bad and turned away, giving no answer but obviously displeased by the subject.

    Posted by: J. J. | Jul 27, 2009 8:36:00 AM


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