Walter Cronkite died Friday at the age of 92, but the kind of journalism he represented — tough, spare, serious — has been on the wane since he left the anchor’s chair.
As anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” Cronkite was often referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” When he spoke out against the Vietnam War on the air, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
The networks evening newscasts in those days were appointment television, their anchors — and Cronkite most of all — deeply respected figures on the American landscape.
Today, the leading news anchors have been seriously diminished — not just by the thudding drumbeat of “liberal bias” charges, though that’s a factor, but by the excess in which they co-exist. Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson still preside over nightly broadcasts that resemble the template Cronkite used, but they are a shadow of what they once represented in terms of journalistic ambition. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Cronkite jetting out to Los Angeles to preside over CBS’ wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson’s memorial, as Couric recently did.
Cronkite operated in a different era, but as Fox News’ Brit Hume noted, his style reflected a certain modesty that appears to have been largely lost in television news. The most bombastic voices, not surprisingly, frequently garner the most attention today.
“The seepage of opinion into journalism slowly broke his heart over the years,” NBC anchor Brian Williams said on MSNBC.
Dan Rather — who replaced Cronkite at CBS — also noted on MSNBC that Cronkite was “an extremely strong ad-libber,” and “had that ability to get through the glass … to connect with people.” Rather added that Cronkite was a reporter first and fiercely protective of correspondents and producers — a mindset that permeated the news division during his tenure.
Cronkite “really became a model for what anchoring an evening newscast would be,” Gibson said in an interview with CNN, adding that his wire-service background was invaluable in shaping the way Cronkite approached presenting the news. Gibson conceded that TV news is a balance between what people want to know and what they need to know, “because it’s a business, and you need ratings.”
Cronkite fell squarely into the “need to know” camp. He wasn’t a robot — he was almost giddy on-air in reporting on the moon missions — but he exemplified an attitude that’s become anachronistic in a world where even print journalism is driven by its own clicks-and-traffic version of instant ratings.
Cronkite, who died Friday at his Manhattan home from cerebrovascular disease, was the first TV news correspondent to be designated an “anchor,” and he chronicled many of the most important events of the 20th century, first as a print reporter and than as a broadcast newsman.
He anchored “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite” from 1962-81 and ushered Americans through some of the most tumultuous and trying times of the last century, from the assassination of President Kennedy through the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. His daily signoff “And that’s the way it is. … “ became a trademark and one of the most-oft repeated, and often spoofed, quotes.
In the decades since retiring from the CBS newscast, Cronkite sought to use his fame and sterling reputation to promote journalistic integrity in an era marked by cost-cutting at network news divisions and the rise of tabloid coverage in mainstream media. In 2000, he partnered with USC’s Annenberg Norman Lear Center to launch the annual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
Although he was the epitome of the just-the-facts news anchor, Cronkite became more politically opinionated after signing with King Features in 2003 to pen a weekly column “And That’s the Way I See It …”
An unassuming Midwesterner who was known affectionately as “Uncle Walter,” Cronkite proudly considered himself a man of the people. “A good journalist doesn’t just know the public; he is the public. He feels the same things they do,” he was quoted as saying.
The image of Cronkite choking back tears on Nov. 22, 1963, as he announced the tragic news of Kennedy’s assassination became an indelible part of the national consciousness.
Born in St. Joseph, Mo., Cronkite began his career in journalism as a campus correspondent at the Houston Post, where he worked during high school and his freshman year at the U. of Texas. He moved into broadcasting at age 20 when a Houston radio station hired him.
Cronkite was a correspondent for United Press Intl. from 1937-48. As one of the most prolific reporters covering WWII, Cronkite participated in the fighting in North Africa, went ashore on D-Day, parachuted with the 101st Airborne and flew in B-17 raids over Germany. He was one of eight journalists selected for special training by the Army Air Corps. The group, dubbed the “Writing 69th,” included Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, who became a longtime friend and a colleague at CBS News.
Following the war, Cronkite covered the Nuremberg War Trials as Brussels bureau chief. From 1946-48, he headed UPI’s first post-war bureau in Moscow before returning to the U.S. and working in radio for two years.
In 1950, Cronkite joined CBS News as a correspondent, with the intention of covering the Korean War. At the time, Edward R. Murrow and his proteges dominated the net’s news operation, but Cronkite was not one of “Murrow’s Boys.” Cronkite paid his dues at CBS as host of news programs such as “CBS News: Up to the Minute” and “The Week in Review” in addition to quizshows “It’s News to Me” and “Pick the Winner.”
George Clooney, who chronicled the world of Murrow and CBS News in the film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” said Friday that Cronkite “was the most important voice in our lives for 30 years. And that voice made people reach for the stars. I hate the world without Walter Cronkite.”
‘Old Iron Pants’
Cronkite gained the title “anchor” for his work as the stage-setter for the 1952 presidential nominating conventions. His cool demeanor under pressure — and his ability to go long stints without a break — also earned him the nickname “Old Iron Pants.” The conventions solidified his reputation as a trustworthy newsman who brought the world into Americans’ living rooms.
That reputation led to another famous assignment, as host of the history re-creation program “You Are There,” which he narrated from 1953-57.His popularity grew when he became host of “The 20th Century” (1957-70), a weekly look at the major events of our time and predictions about the future.
When Douglas Edwards was dismissed as anchor of CBS’ 15-minute news program in 1962, Cronkite was named as his replacement. On Sept. 2, 1963, the show became television’s first half-hour news broadcast and was renamed “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.” The new show made its debut with an in-depth interview with Kennedy.
Less than three months later, Cronkite announced that the president had been assassinated. Cronkite went on the air as news of the shooting broke and stayed on for most of the next 36 hours, covering the aftermath. The assassination coverage marked the coming of age of television news.
America’s favorite anchor
During the early ‘60s, the leader in the evening news ratings race was NBC’s Huntley/Brinkley Report. When Cronkite’s show didn’t catch them, the Eye decided to replace him as anchor of the 1964 nominating conventions, choosing Robert Trout and Roger Mudd to fill the anchor chairs. Cronkite considered leaving CBS, but when the net received 11,000 letters protesting the change, he and Eye execs decided against a move. Cronkite overtook Huntley and Brinkley in the ratings race for the first time in 1966, then m
oved into first place for good in 1967, remaining in the top spot until his retirement.
In 1972, as the Watergate scandal was just emerging, he devoted two 22-minute segments to the story, explaining its complexities to the public. The segs were key to building public understanding of the scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and snagged Cronkite another Emmy. Altogether, he won seven statuettes from 1970-74.
Although Cronkite remained popular into the 1980s, he was pushed out of CBS in 1981 at the age of 65 because CBS was afraid of losing his heir apparent, Dan Rather, to another network.
Cronkite remained at CBS as a special correspondent and became a member of the company’s board of directors. In his role as special correspondent, he hosted a series of programs called “Universe” from 1980-82 and hosted a variety of specials for CBS. He also produced a number of programs for PBS.
After forming his own documentary production company, the Cronkite Ward Co., Cronkite signed a three-year deal with the Discovery Network in 1992 to produce and host global investigative news program “The Cronkite Reports.” He also produced a series of “Great Books” programs for Discovery sibling the Learning Channel.
A private funeral will be held Thursday at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. Cronkite will be buried in Missouri alongside his wife Betsy, who died in 2005. A public memorial will be held at New York’s Lincoln Center within the next month.
CBS aired a one-hour tribute to Cronkite on Sunday night.
(Paula Bernstein contributed to this report.)