Walter Cronkite, reporting from Vietnam Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Anyone working in television news in the Sixties and Seventies felt the shadow of Walter Cronkite and the reflected prestige of an honest reporter who had become more than an icon. Cronkite, who died July 17, was the last American newsman who could absolutely set an agenda for the nation’s political debate.
There were good television journalists before him, notably Edward R. Murrow, and there were good anchors after him, notably Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. But no other person combined the qualities of reporter and anchor like Cronkite.
He was the last CBS icon. Murrow created the CBS news team on radio, then brought many of them to television. Notably, Cronkite had turned down an invitation to be one of “Murrow’s Boys” during World War II, deciding to stick with hard-news reporting for United Press International, where he excelled. Cronkite turned down Murrow’s princely offer (for 1943) of $125 a week, got UPI to raise his pay to an unheard-of $92 weekly, and stayed with the wire service until he moved to CBS in 1946.
A single tragic event changed Cronkite — and America — forever. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Cronkite was pressed into almost continuous on-air service, and America became comfortable with his plain speaking and assuring baritone. We sensed he spoke from the heart, and with the objectivity of a reporter. Cronkite protected that objectivity fiercely; in a 1990 article he described how he almost fell off the wagon in 1968 under the influence of Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy.
Hard to imagine, but in 1963, television has just made the giant leap from a 15-minute national newscast to half an hour, and the difference in what could be reported was more than just the doubling of news time. But newspapers were still king.
For me the moment of discovery came the day after JFK’s death. My managing editor, a hardcore newspaper veteran who groused when our paper began to carry the television schedules and disdained any mention of the medium in our paper, entered the news room carrying — horrible of horribles — a television set. We watched Walter Cronkite.
Seven years later, when I moved to broadcast myself, it was with an NBC affiliate, King’s station in Portland, so my loyalties were with David Brinkley, but the shadow of Cronkite was everywhere.
Before the fragmenting of the media landscape, with cable and satellites and finally the Internet, the three big networks set America’s agenda. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously told his aide, Bill Moyers, that when Cronkite went to Vietnam in 1968 and reported we could not win there, that he (LBJ) had lost Middle America. It was so unusual for Cronkite to express opinion on the air that his Vietnam report shook the nation in a way no other journalist could.
America has no common agenda in 2009, and hasn’t had an agenda-setter since Cronkite left CBS in 1981. Television from 1963 until about 1980 didn’t tell America what to think, but it did tell America what to think about, and that is the classic role of an agenda setter. Watergate in 1972 was exposed by newspapers but it lagged in public understanding until Cronkite produced a series of thoughtful pieces for CBS.
Cronkite became more famous than movie stars, more trusted than presidents, but he remained a reporter and a defender of reporters. I served with him on a national reporters’ steering committee in the Seventies, and when I needed a quote for an historical monograph in 2001, he commented freely and candidly, although there were early hints of the medical issues that resulted in his death from dementia. To the end, he fought to free journalists from foreign prisons, and for openness and honesty in public life. When needed, he could be counted on to help raise money, a task for which most journalists have little talent.
Defenders of today’s fragmented and fractious media environment too easily dismiss Cronkite and the broadcast icons of his era as dinosaurs of the white-male elite, better replaced by a plethora of competing voices, from which truth will emerge. But in too many cases what has emerged is cacophony, in which the rich baritone of Walter Cronkite is sorely missed.