Given the orchestrated assault against the press in general and New York Times in particular, PBS could hardly have picked a better time to recognize the newsman once identified as “the most trusted man in America.” Walter Cronkite’s storied career made him far more than a mere witness to history, but this well-paced, slickly produced “American Masters” documentary underscores Morley Safer’s point that newscasters will never again command that kind of universal respect.
PBS has chosen the summer of Katie Couric’s ascension to the CBS News throne to honor those whose names are still invoked with hushed reverence, with plans to follow the Cronkite piece by looking at Edward R. Murrow. Couric lends her voice to the proceedings as narrator.
Cronkite cut his journalistic teeth as a WWII wire-service correspondent, returning from a postwar stint in Europe just as television was being born. (As noted, the portion of U.S. homes with TV sets soared from less than 10% in 1950 to roughly 90% by 1960, two years before Cronkite took over “The CBS Evening News.”)
Writer-producer-director Catherine Tatge incorporates all kinds of wonderful, little-seen clips — from “As the World Turns” at the moment of the “CBS Bulletin” about the shooting of President Kennedy to the 1952 political conventions, where organizers fretted about the impact of this strange new medium.
Perhaps more than any other anchor (a term “60 Minutes” patriarch Don Hewitt explains arose from Cronkite handling the “anchor leg,” a relay-race metaphor, at the conventions), Cronkite could shape perception of a story with an arched eyebrow or mere expression of skepticism. His public doubts regarding the Vietnam war — tame by today’s standards — put the entire effort into question, just as the decision at the “Evening News” to tackle Watergate ratcheted up pressure on the Nixon White House.
In a lighter vein, Cronkite’s fascination with NASA during the ’60s — and his almost-gleeful reaction when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon — made him, as Tom Brokaw muses, “the John Madden of the space program.”
Notably, Cronkite’s reputation did not spare him assorted indignities, from being demoted during the ’64 political conventions (because NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley tandem had scored ratings inroads) to threats leveled against CBS by the Nixon’s administration. Tatge also slightly soft-peddles the circumstances that surrounded his exit (ABC’s Roone Arledge had made overtures to CBS correspondents Dan Rather and Roger Mudd, which, Arledge wrote in his autobiography, hastened Cronkite’s departure).
Nevertheless, what comes through is a vision of a man who, as director Sidney Lumet observes, “seemed to me incorruptible” — a figure of enormous integrity who judiciously leveraged his lofty perch to embody journalism’s most noble qualities. He was also a stern defender of those ideals — taking on Vice President Spiro Agnew, for example, whose broadsides against an elite press, in Cronkite’s view, were little more than “an implied threat to freedom of speech.”
Cronkite’s shadow still hovers over broadcast news, but as Safer and “60 Minutes” colleague Andy Rooney remind us, those days are gone. Still, looking at TV news the way it is, it’s certainly refreshing to spend 90 minutes or so remembering the way it was.