The death of Walter Cronkite at 92 leaves Americans contemplating the changes in our media since his heyday as our preeminent television news anchor. It is hard to imagine that we once looked to a network news broadcast as a digest of the nation’s daily experience, that one voice was ever regarded as, “the way it is.” We have so many ways to get our news now, but none are so central to the American experience as the CBS Evening News was in Cronkite’s day.
The first distinct remembrances I have of Cronkite are from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he commented on Mayor Richard Daley’s security tactics against reporters by calling them “thugs” on the air and where he threatened to “pack up our cameras and go home.” I also remember his coverage of the Apollo landing on the Moon, which was informatively detailed and yet still inspirational. And finally, when the Watergate scandal began to wane because the facts seemed too arcane for most Americans to follow, Cronkite demanded, and got, a 22-minute, two-segment report on the nightly news to illustrate the money trail that led from Cuban burglars invading the Democratic National Committee headquarters directly to the White House and the Presidency of Richard Nixon.
One of the ways to understand the profound difference that good television journalism made in Cronkite’s era is to reflect on his coverage of the war in Vietnam. Cronkite was initially a proponent of the American escalation there, and his coverage of the war reflected his orthodoxy for a while. But as his reporters began to bring back stories that contradicted the military and White House perspective on the conflict, Cronkite decided to go see Vietnam for himself. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, Cronkite journeyed to the war zone and saw the protracted civil war for what it was, a stalemate that couldn’t be won by intervening American forces.
As a respected combat journalist, not only did Cronkite’s on-air assessment strike a chord with a broad swath of the American public, but his reportage was apparently pivotal to President Lyndon Johnson, who decided shortly thereafter not to seek re-election in 1968. Johnson told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost Middle America. Negotiations with the North Vietnamese began shortly thereafter.
It’s hard to imagine Americans, high and low, responding to a media figure today the way the country listened to Cronkite during the 1960’s. The firewall between news and entertainment had not yet fallen at the networks— and there was a sense of pride among the CBS news staff that they were carrying a public trust— to present the events of the day to the nation fairly. Cronkite was the voice of that organization and it was trusted to put journalistic standards largely above selling soap.
Another part of the work Cronkite and his colleagues did was to unpack more investigative stories in long-form documentary shows, aired in prime time. Pieces like “The Selling of the Pentagon,” which detailed some of the scandalous ways that military contractors used political connections and former military officers to get incredibly lucrative contracts out of the Defense Department drew huge audiences of American viewers and caused changes to be made in government policies. One can’t remember Cronkite without keeping in mind the organization he had behind him at CBS.
It would be worth thinking long and hard as we remember Cronkite about how we bring stories today to the public that the powers-that-be would still rather relegate to the backwaters of our media. It won’t be through an organization at the major networks. That day is over, as is Walter’s. But it’s a legacy that should and must live on. As we miss Cronkite, we should also remember that his standards should be his legacy to his country.
(Bill Kavanagh cross-posts at Buck Naked Politics.)