What Walter Cronkite Did for Journalism

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Longtime newsman Walter Cronkite died Friday at the age of 92.

Cronkite was anchor of the “CBS Evening News” for 19 years, from 1962 to 1981. In that time, he covered the Vietnam War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the moon landing and more.

Cronkite said in 2006 that he immediately regretted his decision to retire:

“Twenty-four hours after I told CBS News that I was stepping down at my 65th birthday I was already regretting it and I’ve regretted it every day since … It’s too good a job for me to have given it up the way that I did.”

Cronkite continued to believe in journalism, despite industry declines. In reference to the awards named in his honor, Cronkite said, “Americans may have more places to turn for political news than ever before, but television remains journalism’s largest public square … Especially when resources are painfully scarce, it’s important to celebrate journalists who use their skills at gathering and reporting a story to strengthen our democracy.”

Cronkite recorded the opening of his former newscast, so his familiar voice can be heard saying, “This is the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.”

A 1973 poll showed Walter Cronkite to be “the most trusted man in America.” The title stuck. Decades later, Cronkite said:

“‘When I read those polls the first time, I thought, how silly,’ he says. ‘I really did. I still feel pretty much that same way. It [made it seem] like I was more trustworthy than all of the members of the Supreme Court, the president and the bishops. That is perfectly ridiculous. That was only because I was the one person that was known all over the country because of being on national television.’

Journalists struggling to capture what Cronkite meant to journalism and to America may seek inspiration from the legend himself.

In 2006 Cronkite talked to NPR about how to tell a great obituary. He said that in journalism, we recognize a kind of hierarchy of fame. “We measure it in two ways,” he said. “By the length of an obituary and how far in advance it is prepared.” It may be the sort of humor only a journalist can appreciate.

Cronkite added that an obituary should assess a subject’s impact, advice that is so poignant on the occasion of his passing.

As Chet Huntley noted when Winston Churchill died, “it may be that those under 35 don’t know what the rest of us are talking about. Everyone knows what Churchill did, but 1940, and 41 and 42 must be part of your personal memory or you cannot know how it was.”

In some ways, that is how hard it is to explain why Cronkite’s death matters today. If you came of news consumption age after the dawn of cable news and the Internet, you have not known a time when commentators did not scream at each other, when they did not express political views, when shedding a tear when the president was gunned down was actually controversial because it showed emotion.

Art Buchwald, longtime newspaper humorist, once called Cronkite “the only honest face on TV.”

Biographical background

Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Mo. The University of Texas at Austin lays claim to him as a student, but he was a college dropout. Radio stations in Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo., can lay claim to having him on their staffs. In fact, he was a sports announcer in Kansas City using the name Walter Wilcox.

He started as a Scripps-Howard writer and editor and then worked for United Press International during World War II and covered the Battle of the Bulge. (You can listen to Cronkite recount that story here.)

He went ashore on D-Day, parachuted with the 101st Airborne and flew bombing raids over Germany. After the war, he worked as the chief UPI reporter covering the Nuremberg trials (hear his memories of covering that story) and later worked as the UPI’s main reporter in Moscow. Given his experience, Cronkite had many thoughts on the role of censorship when covering war.

The Museum of Broadcast Communication has additional biographical information and lists the chronology of Cronkite’s life.

Cronkite’s rise through the CBS ranks

Though Cronkite had earlier resisted offers from Edward R. Murrow, in 1950 he moved to CBS as a correspondent.

After he hosted the 1952 national political conventions, pundits began using the word “anchor” to describe what his role was on television. He was, in effect, the first anchor.

In 1962, he followed Douglas Edwards as anchor of “CBS Evening News.” A year later, CBS expanded the newscast to 30 minutes and debuted the new “CBS Evening News” featuring an interview with John Kennedy. The debut was rocky.

Two months later, Cronkite was first on the air reporting Kennedy’s assassination.  Years later, he shared his recollections of JFK.

In 1964, while getting beaten in the ratings by “The Huntley/Brinkley Report,” CBS briefly removed Cronkite from the anchor desk and placed Robert Trout and Roger Mudd in the anchor chairs.

Cronkite didn’t want to be a TV personality. He insisted on the title “managing editor.”

Cronkite’s civil rights coverage

Cronkite reported on the civil rights struggle and later said that coverage of the struggle threatened to divide CBS News. You can watch the opening of “CBS Evening News” the evening that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

Cronkite’s Vietnam commentary

The Museum of Broadcast Communication noted that Cronkite’s coverage of Vietnam may have changed presidential politics when he traveled to Vietnam following the bloody Tet offensive. He reported in an editorial that “it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” You can read the entire editorial here and watch a video of it. Years later in 1996, Cronkite reflected on the editorial.

Cronkite’s Space Race coverage

Cronkite covered Neil Armstrong taking man’s first steps on the moon,as well as Apollo landing on the moon. He was later honored for his coverage of the space program.

 

Other remarkable Cronkite videos include:

Cronkite left the anchor desk to Dan Rather in 1981. There was a lot of speculation throughout the years that as Rather rose in the ranks at CBS, upper management grew eager for Cronkite to move on.

After Rather was forced out of his job in 2005, Cronkite took a jab at Rather, saying Bob Schieffer would have been a better choice. Nine years after he retired, a poll ranked Cronkite as America’s number one broadcaster.

The Cronkite School of Journalism

In 1984, Arizona State University named its journalism school The Walter Cronkite School. Cronkite later spoke about that honor and the future of journalism and education.

Journalists, he said, need to know a little bit about a lot of things, so journalism schools should focus on liberal arts. He criticized some journalism schools for drifting toward “the theoretical.”

My colleague Jill Geisler wrote a story about Cronkite in 2002 after introducing him at a public event. The story included this passage:

“Former Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus, once a university chancellor and professor of radio, TV and speech told Cronkite he used to invoke his name as he challenged students to think critically. ‘Be aware,’ he’d tell them, ‘Be alert. Remember, Walter Cronkite might lie.’

“And that elicited one of the broadcast legend’s funniest and most telling stories of the evening. He recalled that ‘two little old ladies” approached him when he was anchor of the CBS Evening News, and one said to him: ‘Oh, Mr. Cronkite. I believe everything you say.’

“Cronkite’s face grew animated. ‘I wanted to shake them by the shoulders and say, ‘For God’s sake don’t! Be skeptical. Be careful.’ “

Cronkite the media critic

Over the years, Cronkite offered his critiques of television news. He wrote one essay, for example, about a time when television commentators “took time to think’ before they talked.

He wrote a newspaper column in his retirement. In his final column he wrote:

“Our evening news broadcasts are just a half hour and there are commercials in that half hour, so that the news period is really about 17 minutes.

“I have a great complaint, that with the complicated nation that we have and with a complicated world which we play a role, that is not nearly enough time to handle just the basic news of the day.”

A 1994 American Journalism Review article reported on Cronkite’s growing pessimism about TV’s impact on American society:

“In the face of rising competition from cable, videocassettes, and more aggressive local newscasts and tabloid shows, the Big Three newscasts ‘frequently go too soft,’ Cronkite says. ‘Their features aren’t interpretive to the day’s events, and the time could be better used.’

“He blames the tabs, especially. ‘It is part of the whole degeneration of society in my mind,’ he says. ‘We’ve always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you’re finding the bad driving out the good.’

“At the local level, he adds, ‘the consultants [have] convinced all these stations that they had to have action in the first 45 seconds — any old barn-burning or truck crash on the interstate would do. There is no attempt to cover any of the major stories of the town in depth — the school board and city hall and that sort of thing.’

“Cronkite — who was a United Press European editor when CBS hired him in 1950 — has always recognized the medium’s limitations. In his first stint as an anchor in 1952, he once recalled, ‘I wanted to end every broadcast saying, ‘For more details, see your local newspaper.’”

Here is a collection of Cronkite’s reflections on lessons from recent history, produced by NPR.

Cronkite’s thoughts on the Internet

Reuters reported a few years ago on Cronkite’s view of the Web, saying:

“In the case of presidential elections, Cronkite said the TV industry should be forced to give away air time to candidates to avoid multimillion dollar TV ad campaigns and keep offices from being up-for-sale to the candidate who raised the most money.

“The newsman said he values the Internet as a research tool, but he finds some stories published on the Web — scandals especially — play too fast and loose with the facts.

“‘I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future,’ he said.

Funny as it mean seem, there is a Walter Cronkite fan page on Facebook.

About his own career on the evening news, Cronkite told Reuters his work was “rewarding,” but “not entirely satisfactory” due to time limitations that prevented deep reporting of any one story.

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