Cronkite, Walter (1916—)

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Cronkite, Walter (1916—)

Walter Cronkite's 19-year tenure as anchorman of the CBS Evening News was an uncanny match of man and era. Two generations of Americans came to rely upon his presence in the CBS television anchor chair in times of war and crisis, scandal and celebration. His was a forthright, solemn presence in a time when each new dawn brought with it the prospect of nuclear annihilation or a second American civil war. Yet the master journalist was also a master performer—Cronkite was able and quite willing to display a flash of emotion or anger on the air when it suited him; this combination of stoic professionalism and emotional instinct earned the broadcaster two enduring nicknames: the man known familiarly as "Uncle Walter" was also called "The Most Trusted Man in America." When Cronkite closed the Evening News each night with his famous sign-off "And that's the way it is," few doubted he was telling them the truth.

Cronkite's broadcasting career had a unique prologue; the young war correspondent did what few others dared: he turned down a job offer from Edward R. Murrow. The CBS European chief was already a legend; the radio correspondents known as "Murrow's Boys" were the darlings of the American press, even as they defined the traditions and standards of broadcast journalism. Cronkite, however, preferred covering the Second World War for the United Press. It was an early display of his preference for the wire-service style and attitude; the preference would mark Cronkite's reporting for the rest of his career.When Cronkite accepted a second CBS offer several years later, the budding broadcaster found himself assigned—perhaps relegated—to airtime in the new medium that seemed little more than a journalistic backwater: television.

He anchored the local news at Columbia's Washington, D.C., affiliate starting soon after the Korean War began in 1950, his broadcast a combination of journalism and experimental theater. There were no rules for television news, and Cronkite had come in on the ground floor. He had little competition; few of the old guard showed much interest in the new medium. Cronkite was pressed into service to anchor the 1952 political conventions and election for CBS television, his presence soon taken for granted in the network anchor chair. Walter Cronkite had established himself firmly as the network's "face" in the medium which was, by now, quite obviously the wave of the future.

He continued to anchor much of CBS's special events coverage, including the 1956 and 1960 political conventions. In 1962, he succeeded Doug Edwards as anchor of the CBS Evening News, in those days a fifteen-minute nightly roundup that found itself regularly beaten in the ratings by the runaway success of NBC's anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Ratings aside, however, television news was finally coming of age; CBS news was expanding staff, adding bureaus and airtime. That TV news veered away from the staged, hackneyed style of its most obvious model, the movie newsreels—and instead became a straightforward, serious purveyor of hard news—is thanks in no small part to the efforts and sensibilities of Cronkite and his colleagues. His Evening News expanded to thirty minutes in September, 1963, premiering with an exclusive interview of President John F. Kennedy.

Yet Cronkite, like Doug Edwards before him, regularly spoke to an audience much smaller than that of Huntley and Brinkley. And while it is Cronkite's shirtsleeves pronouncement of the Kennedy assassination that is usually excerpted on retrospective programs and documentaries ("From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official… President Kennedy… died… this afternoon… "), the simple fact is that NBC was the clear audience choice for much of the early and mid-1960s.

Cronkite's ratings dropped so low during the 1964 Republican convention, the behind-the-scenes turmoil growing so intense, that he was removed from his anchor chair, replaced for the Democratic convention by Robert Trout and Roger Mudd, two fine veteran broadcasters whose selection nonetheless was a thinly veiled effort to capture some of the Huntley-Brinkley magic. It didn't work; a viewer uprising and a well-timed prank (a walk through a crowded hotel lobby with a high NBC executive) quickly led to Cronkite's re-instatement.

Meanwhile, Cronkite threw himself into coverage of the American space program. He displayed obvious passion and an infectious, even boyish enthusiasm. His cries of "Go, baby, go!" became familiar accompaniment to the roar of rockets lifting off from Cape Canaveral. Cronkite anchored CBS's coverage of every blast-off and splashdown; arguably the single most memorable quote of his career came as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon the afternoon of July 20, 1969. "The Eagle has landed," Armstrong radioed, and Cronkite added his benediction: "Gosh! Oh, boy!" He later recalled it as the only time he'd come up speechless on the air. That afternoon, Cronkite's audience was more than that of NBC and ABC combined. Huntley-Brinkley fever had cooled. Walter Cronkite had become "the most trusted man in America," and his stature in American living rooms resounded throughout the television industry.

This was the age in which local television news departments strove to emulate the networks—not the other way around—and the success of Cronkite's dead-earnest Evening News led many local TV newscasts soon to adapt a distinctly Cronkite-ish feel. Likewise, there's no official count of how many anchormen around the world, subconsciously or not, had adapted that distinctive Cronkite cadence and style. Politicians and partisans on all sides complained bitterly that Cronkite and CBS were biased against them; this was perhaps the ultimate tribute to the anchorman's perceived influence on American life in the late 1960s.

In truth, Cronkite had grown decidedly unenthusiastic about the Vietnam War. A trip to Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive led to arguably the most courageous broadcast of the anchorman's career … Cronkite returned home, deeply troubled, and soon used the last few moments of a CBS documentary to call for an end to the war. It was a shocking departure from objectivity, easily the most brazen editorial stand since Ed Murrow criticized Senator Joe McCarthy nearly a decade-and-a-half earlier. At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have remarked "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Whether the anecdote is apocryphal is irrelevant; that it is widely accepted as fact is the real testament to Cronkite's influence as the 1960s drew to a close.

Cronkite rode his Evening News to ratings victory after victory through the 1970s, the whole of CBS news now at the pinnacle of its ability and influence. Cronkite cut short his summer vacation to preside over the August 8, 1974 resignation of President Nixon; he anchored an all-day-and-all-night television bicentennial party on July 4, 1976; later he stubbornly closed every nightly newscast by counting the number of days the American hostages had been held captive in Iran. The Carter administration likely was not amused. When the hostages' release on January 20, 1981 coincided with the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, Cronkite held forth over his last great news spectacular, calling the historic convergence of events "one of the great dramatic days in our history."

By then, Cronkite was on his way out, giving up the anchor chair to Dan Rather, narrowly forestalling Rather's defection to ABC. Cynics have long speculated Cronkite was, in fact, pushed aside to make way for Rather, but everyone involved—including Cronkite—has clung to the story that the veteran anchorman was genuinely tired of the grind and had repeatedly asked to be replaced. His final Evening News came March 6, 1981, his final utterance of "And that's the way it is" preceded by a brief goodbye speech … "Old anchormen don't go away, they keep coming back for more." He couldn't have been more wrong.

Cronkite had not intended to retire completely upon stepping down from the anchor chair, but to his utter astonishment, he found the new CBS news management literally would not let him on the air. An exclusive report from strife-torn Poland was given short shrift; later, his already limited participation in the network's 1982 Election Night coverage was reportedly reduced even further when anchorman Rather simply refused to cede the air to Cronkite. The new brass feared reminding either viewers or a jittery, ratings-challenged Rather of Cronkite's towering presence; Rather himself was apparently enjoying a little revenge. "Uncle Walter" had for years been known behind-the-scenes as a notorious air-hog, filling airtime with his own face and voice even as waiting correspondents cooled their heels. Now, suddenly, the original "800-pound gorilla" was getting a taste of his own medicine.

It only got worse. Cronkite's fellow CBS board members roundly ignored the elder statesman's heated protests of mid-1980s news budget cuts, even as it appeared the staid, substance-over-style approach of Cronkite's broadcasts was falling by the CBS wayside. His legacy was fading before his very eyes. That he never pulled up stakes and left the network (as a disgruntled David Brinkley had recently bolted from NBC) is a testament either to true professional loyalty … or an iron-clad contract.

In the 1990s, however, Cronkite made a broadcasting comeback. He produced and narrated a series of cable documentaries, including a multi-part retrospective of his own career; his 1996 autobiography was a major bestseller. In late 1998, Cronkite accepted CNN's offer to co-anchor the network's coverage of astronaut John Glenn's return to space. On that October day, Cronkite returned to the subject of one of his great career triumphs: enthusiastic, knowledgeable coverage of a manned spaceflight. It was thrilling for both audience and anchor; yet it was also clear Cronkite's day had come and gone. He was frankly a bit deaf; and he thoroughly lacked the preening, all-smiles, shallow aura of hype that seems to be a primary qualification for today's news anchors. His presence that day was, however, undoubtedly a glorious reminder of what Cronkite had been to the nation for so long: the very manifestation of serious, hard news in the most powerful communications medium of the twentieth century. He was a rock, truly an anchor in some of the stormiest seas our nation has ever navigated.

—Chris Chandler

Further Reading:

Boyer, Peter. Who Killed CBS? New York, Random House, 1988.

Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter's Life. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Joyce, Ed. Prime Times, Bad Times. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

Leonard, Bill. In the Storm of the Eye. New York, G.P. Putnam'sSons, 1987.

Slater, Robert. This… Is CBS. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1988.