Cronkite, Walter

views updated May 29 2018

Walter Cronkite

Excerpt from an editorial about the Vietnam War

Broadcast on CBS Television, February 27, 1968

It is generally agreed that American media coverage of the Vietnam War had a major impact on public attitudes toward the conflict. But historians, military leaders, lawmakers, community leaders, and ordinary Americans have different opinions about the nature and quality of coverage provided by U.S. television and print journalists in Vietnam. Defenders of the American press in Vietnam claim that the journalists informed the American people about the true nature of the war at a time when their political and military leaders repeatedly deceived them. But critics in the government, the military, and elsewhere claim that the media was dominated by antiwar journalists who poisoned the American public against the war by delivering superficial and negative coverage of the conflict. Three decades later, the fairness and accuracy of American journalism in Vietnam remains a subject of fierce debate.

When the United States first became involved in Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the relationship between America's press and its military and governmental leaders was fairly positive. This cordial relationship is generally attributed both to America's triumph in World War II and the economic prosperity the nation enjoyed in the late 1940s and 1950s. These events gave the American people great confidence in their government and their way of life. Not surprisingly, most U.S. newspaper and magazine news coverage reflected this perspective.

During the early 1960s, however, events in Vietnam put a strain on the generally positive relationship that existed between the press and U.S. governmental and military institutions. The journalists passed along official assurances about the South Vietnamese government's abilities to build popular support and eliminate the threat of the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas. But some members of the American and international press corps stationed in South Vietnam recognized that the country was more unstable than government officials wanted to admit. These reporters filed critical reports about the political and military situation in the country stating that the national government was actually quite corrupt and unpopular. They also noted that Viet Cong guerrillas controlled many of the country's rural regions. These blunt reports embarrassed and angered many American and South Vietnamese officials, and their relationship with the independent-minded journalists began to sour.

Still, most of the journalists who filed critical reports from South Vietnam during the war's early years actually supported American involvement in Indochina. They shared the U.S. government's belief that communism was a dangerous threat to the region. "At the beginning of the war," noted William Hammond, author of Reporting Vietnam, "correspondents . . . disagreed at times with official policy, but their reporting never questioned the ends [goals] of the war. Instead, placing great confidence in the American soldier, they argued in favor of more effective tactics and less official obfuscation [attempts to hide information]. The military, for their part, reciprocated [returned the favor], rejecting censorship of the press in favor of a system of voluntary guidelines that respected the willingness of reporters to avoid releasing information of value to the enemy."

American media coverage of the war increased dramatically in the mid-1960s, when U.S. troop commitments soared. "American news organizations cared little about Vietnam while it was primarily a fight between Vietnamese," confirmed Clarence Wyatt in Paper Soldiers. "But when American soldiers began to fight and die with regularity, journalistic interest and investment increased." As media coverage of the conflict expanded, President Lyndon Johnson, administration officials, and other supporters of the war all expressed concern that it might erode popular support for the U.S. commitment in Indochina.

By the late 1960s American society had become bitterly divided over the Vietnam War. The internal turmoil over the conflict was due in no small part to the contradictory information that the American people received from government officials, military leaders, and journalists. Many of America's leaders contended that the United States was steadily progressing toward meeting its goals of defeating North Vietnam and establishing a democratic government in South Vietnam. But many other people charged that the war had actually deteriorated into a wasteful stalemate that was destroying thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. Distrustful of government assurances that the Communists were being slowly crushed by U.S. firepower and strategy, critics of the war came to see independent American television and press journalists as a more reliable source of information on the conflict.

During this same period, press coverage of the growing antiwar movement also became a topic of heated debate. Supporters of U.S. involvement in Vietnam complained that American newspapers, magazines, and television programs slanted their coverage in favor of the antiwar demonstrators. Antiwar activists, on the other hand, charged that the press ridiculed their concerns and misrepresented their actions. In reality, American newspapers, magazines, and other media were divided on the issue of antiwar protest. Some voices were sympathetic to the antiwar movement, while others expressed great hostility toward the demonstrators.

The Tet Offensive

In early 1968 North Vietnam launched a surprise invasion of the South. The Communists hoped that this attack—known as the Tet Offensive—would overwhelm South Vietnam and its American allies and trigger a nationwide revolt against the Saigon government. The massive assault stunned the American public, which had been repeatedly assured by President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) and other U.S. officials that victory was near.

As the Tet Offensive unfolded, hundreds of American journalists rushed to cover the event. The best known of these reporters was Walter Cronkite. Cronkite was a respected World War II correspondent who had served as anchorman of the CBS Evening News since 1962. By the time of the Tet Offensive, he had become one of America's most popular public figures. Indeed, he had built a reputation across the country as a level-headed, trustworthy, and patriotic journalist.

When Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to cover the Tet Offensive in February 1968, he was shocked by the military and political situation in the South. He had long held private doubts about the progress of the war, but he had hoped that official U.S. assurances that victory was near were true. As he toured the war-ravaged cities of Saigon and Hue, however, Cronkite realized that North Vietnam remained a strong and dangerous foe. Armed with this knowledge, the trusted broadcast journalist decided to air a grim editorial detailing his own impressions of the war in Vietnam.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Cronkite's editorial:

  • As the Vietnam War dragged on and American casualties mounted, journalists and ordinary citizens began questioning official versions of events with greater frequency. Some supporters of the war claimed that this shift in attitude was unfair. But other historians and government officials have expressed amazement that the American press and public remained as supportive as they did for so long. Clarence Wyatt, author of Paper Soldiers, recalled that when Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1911–1978) visited South Vietnam in the fall of 1967, he asked a group of journalists to "give the benefit of the doubt to our side." "Benefit of the doubt?," replied one reporter. "Hell, what do you think we've been doing for the last six years?"
  • Few Americans believed that North Vietnam was capable of defeating U.S. forces in direct combat on a regular basis. They recognized that the United States enjoyed big advantages over the enemy in areas such as military firepower, transportation capability, and resources. But the Communists used surprise attacks, guerrilla tactics, and America's unfamiliarity with Vietnam's mountains, jungles, and climate to neutralize the United States' military superiority throughout the war.
  • Cronkite's remarks make it clear that he is uncertain whether either side managed to gain a military victory in the Tet Offensive. At one point he suggests that "the referees of history may make [the invasion] a draw." But Cronkite contends that whatever the outcome, the offensive showed that North Vietnam remained a dedicated and potent enemy. He also claims that Tet was a clear indication that U.S. and Vietnamese political leaders had been far too optimistic about their progress in defeating the Communists. "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," declared Cronkite.

Excerpt from Walter Cronkite's Editorial on the Vietnam War:

There are doubts about the measure of success or setback, but even more, there are doubts about the exact measure of the disaster itself. All that is known with certainty is that on the first two nights of the Tet Lunar New Year, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regular Forces, violating the truce agreed on for that holiday, struck across the entire length of South Vietnam, hitting the largest thirty-five cities, towns, and provincial capitals. How many died and how much damage was done, however, are still but approximations, despite the official figures.

The very preciseness of the figures brings them under suspicion. Anyone who has wandered through these ruins knows that an exact count is impossible. Why, just a short while ago a little old man came and told us that two VC were buried in a hastily dug grave up at the end of the block. Had they been counted? And what about these ruins? Have they gone through all of them for buried civilians and soldiers? And what about those 14 VC we found in the courtyard behind the post office at Hue? Had they been counted and tabulated ? They certainly hadn't been buried.

We came to Vietnam to try to determine what all this means to the future of the war here. We talked to officials, top officials, civilian and military, Vietnamese and American. We toured damaged areas like this, and refugee centers. We paid a visit to the Battle at Hue, and to the men manning the northernmost provinces, where the next big Communist offensive is expected. . . .

We'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another stand-off may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khe Sanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige, and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another stand-off. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another stand-off.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive had been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that—negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

This summer's almost certain stand-off will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of 100-, or 200-, or 300,000 more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

What happened next . . .

Many of South Vietnam's cities and towns became war zones during the Tet Offensive. But the invasion failed to spark a general uprising against the South Vietnamese government, and the Communist forces suffered tremendous losses at the hands of U.S. and South Vietnamese military forces. North Vietnam eventually was forced to call a general retreat. Their massive invasion had been a military failure.

Nonetheless, Tet proved disastrous for the Johnson administration. In the months prior to the invasion, the president and America's military leadership had repeatedly told the American people that they were on the verge of victory in Vietnam. The scale of the Communist invasion, however, made it clear that defeating the North would require significant new commitments of troops, weapons, and money. As a result, Tet destroyed the credibility of the Johnson administration among large segments of the American public. Many historians believe that this collapse in confidence was best symbolized by journalist Walter Cronkite's post-Tet description of Vietnam as a "stalemate." In fact, Johnson reportedly watched Cronkite's commentary, then flipped off the television and said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

American press coverage of the Vietnam War continued to draw criticism from lawmakers and military leaders throughout the remainder of the conflict. President Richard Nixon (1913–1994), who succeeded Johnson in January 1969, expressed frustration with U.S. news coverage on numerous occasions. In 1971 he even stated that aside from the Communists, "our worst enemy seems to be the press." This comment, which was echoed by many of Nixon's pro-war allies, reflected a genuine belief that the press reported events in Vietnam with a negative slant. But the American media, antiwar lawmakers, and other observers dismissed these complaints. They charged that Nixon and other government officials disliked the press coverage because it exposed their flawed policies to the world. In any case, day-to-day coverage of the war declined dramatically in American newspapers and network news programs in the early 1970s, as the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam accelerated.

Criticisms of American media coverage of the war

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975 with a Communist victory, the debate over American media coverage of the conflict has remained a bitter one. The most common complaint heard from critics of the U.S. media performance in Vietnam is that the majority of America's television, newspaper, and magazine journalists were personally opposed to the war. They claim that these reporters provided negative and misleading coverage of the war, and that their slanted coverage turned American public opinion against U.S. involvement.

Some lawmakers, military leaders, and historians also contend that American journalists did not do a good job of explaining or interpreting events in Vietnam. Nixon, for example, argued that the media did not provide any sense of the "underlying purpose" of the battles and maneuvers that Americans saw, heard, and read about. "Eventually this contributed to the impression that we were fighting in military and moral quicksand, rather than toward an important and worthwhile objective," he claimed. Other critics claim that some journalists simply jumped to the wrong conclusions when reporting events in Vietnam. The most commonly cited example of this phenomenon is the Tet Offensive, which some American reporters initially—and mistakenly—interpreted as a military defeat for the United States.

Other critics complained that the rivalry among news organizations created superficial and incomplete coverage, as reporters competed to submit the most dramatic stories. In addition, journalists were widely criticized for emphasizing coverage of American combat troops at the expense of less glamorous but nonetheless important issues. "An intense focus on spot reporting of day-to-day combat activity, to the detriment of coverage of less dramatic . . . but equally important social and political stories . . . typified American journalism in Vietnam," commented Wyatt. "During the height of American military involvement, even the most interested, diligent [dedicated] news consumer could conclude that the war in Vietnam was primarily an American effort in which non-military issues were either nonexistent or unimportant."

Finally, many observers believe that television coverage of Vietnam had a tremendously negative impact on American attitudes toward the war. Supporters of this theory claim that when the grim imagery of the Vietnam War—including fierce bombing raids, wounded American soldiers, and crying refugees—appeared on America's television screens, the footage gradually eroded public support for the war. As Daniel C. Hallin noted in The "Uncensored" War, "television shows the raw horror of war in a way print cannot." One Marine officer even claimed in Military Review magazine that "the power and impact of television was the deciding factor in turning American public opinion from one of supporting the U.S. defense of South Vietnam to one of opposing it."

American media coverage defended

Criticism of the American press in Vietnam has remained strong over the years. But many of the journalists who covered the war defend their performance, and they are supported by a wide range of historians, lawmakers, and members of the U.S. military. As Vietnam reporter Don Oberdorfer noted in The Bad War, "coverage of Vietnam was a complicated subject, most of which is conveniently forgotten by one side or the other in the debate. For the American press, Vietnam was a learning experience—much as it was for the rest of the country and the government. We knew very little at the beginning, but as the war progressed people in the press, along with people in the government, who were our sources after all, began to get this very hazy, fuzzy situation into focus. And this picture was not the same picture that was being portrayed in the official reports."

Historians and Vietnam-era reporters agree that the coverage of the war was sometimes superficial. Many also believe that journalists sometimes focused too much on American wartime experiences at the expense of informing readers and viewers about Vietnamese perspectives on the conflict. But they strongly object to the charge that they slanted their coverage because of personal opposition to the war. "Republicans in Washington were questioning [Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's] credibility on the war long before most television correspondents were," stated Hallin. "At least a year before Cronkite called the war a 'bloody stalemate' and urged negotiation, the secretary of defense [Robert McNamara] had reached essentially the same conclusion."

Moreover, many observers believe that the American press corps provided a much more objective account of the war than the U.S. government, which repeatedly distorted events to suit its war aims. "Press coverage of the Vietnam War . . . often conveyed more of the truth than official pronouncements on such significant matters as drug abuse, race relations, the state of military morale, combat operations, and conditions within the South Vietnamese government and armed forces," declared historian William Hammond of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Some people also believe that the impact of television on American support for the war has been overstated. They agree that some violent television footage shocked and disturbed the American public. But studies indicate that most television coverage of the conflict in Vietnam did not feature scenes of outright warfare. "Television covered Vietnam nearly every day for more than seven years, producing hours of reporting on the war," wrote Hallin. "Some of that reporting concerned events of great immediate significance. But the majority did not: it was taken up with routine battle coverage .. . ; reports on technology; human-interest vignettes about the troops; occasional 'light' stories about such trivia as what it is like to parachute out of an airplane; and many speeches and press conferences." In addition, much of the television coverage—especially prior to Tet—emphasized the bravery and patriotism of the American soldiers. Some observers believe that this emphasis actually increased public support for the war (one 1967 Newsweek poll, for instance, reported that 64 percent of American citizens believed that television coverage heightened their support for the war effort).

Many journalists who reported on the war in Vietnam confirm that the tone of coverage became more critical in the war's latter stages, as American hopes for outright victory faded. But they insist that the tone of press coverage simply reflected the changing public view of the war. "The American news media both reflected and reinforced the trend [of support for the government], replaying official statements on the value of the war and supporting the soldier in the field, if not always his generals," wrote Hammond. "With time, under the influence of many deaths and contradictions, American society moved to repudiate [reject] that earlier decision. . . . The press followed along, becoming more and more critical of events in South Vietnam as withdrawals continued and the war gradually lost whatever purpose it had held."

Finally, defenders of American press coverage of Vietnam claim that the strongest criticism of the media came from U.S. lawmakers, government officials, and generals who wanted to shift the blame for the failed war away from themselves. "The press didn't lose the war for us," commented diplomat Richard Holbrooke—a former Johnson administration official—in The Bad War. "The war was lost because the strategy was wrong. The military lost the war; the political leadership of this country lost the war. Lyndon Johnson . . . and Richard Nixon and [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger are the men who cost us this thing. Not the Case-Church Amendment [a law that placed restrictions on presidential war powers], not David Halberstam and Walter Cronkite, and not the antiwar demonstrators. . . . The war was not lost, as Nixon always likes to write, in the halls of Congress and on the pages of the New York Times; it was lost in the rice paddies of Indochina."

Did you know . . .

  • According to media historian Lawrence Lichty, less than 5 percent of television news film reports from Vietnam between 1965 and 1970 showed scenes of "close-up" combat.
  • During President Nixon's first term of office from 1969 to 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew became well known for his attacks on American television and print journalists who questioned the administration's Vietnam policies. His description of reporters as "nattering nabobs of negativism" drew particular applause from supporters of the war.
  • Since the Vietnam War, American officials have imposed greater restrictions on journalists assigned to report on conflicts in which U.S. troops are involved. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, the U.S. military and civilian officials limited media access to soldiers and prevented reporters from visiting some regions in which military operations took place.


Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977.

Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter's Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Dougan, Clark, and Stephen Weiss. The American Experience in Vietnam.New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.

Elegant, Robert. "How to Lose a War." Encounter, August 1981.

Hallin, Daniel C. The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hammond, William M. Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Mandelbaum, Michael. "Vietnam: The Television War." Daedalus, Fall 1982.

Porter, William E. Assault on the Media: The Nixon Years. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976.

Turner, Kathleen J. Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam and the Press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Willenson, Kim, et al. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Wyatt, Clarence. Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."

Walter Cronkite (1916–)

Walter Cronkite ranks as one of the most influential journalists in American history. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, Cronkite worked as a newspaper and radio reporter until 1939, when he became a correspondent for United Press International (UPI). He covered many of Europe's major battles during World War II (1939–1945). In 1946 he began a three-year stint as UPI's bureau chief in Moscow in the Soviet Union.

In 1950 Cronkite was hired by the CBS television network, and over the next decade he emerged as one of its leading broadcast journalists. In 1962 he was chosen to anchor the CBS Evening News, a position he held until 1981. He became a trusted father-figure to many Americans during this period. As a result, his critical comments on the Vietnam War had a significant influence on public opinion. After retiring from the CBS Evening News in 1981, Cronkite continued to pursue his interest in U.S. and world affairs. He worked as a special correspondent for CBS, and he hosted a variety of public affairs programs on PBS and other networks during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1996 Cronkite published an autobiography called A Reporter's Life, in which he provided additional commentary on the Vietnam War. He claimed that the Johnson administration (which occupied the White House from late 1963 to early 1969) mishandled the war in two basic areas. First, Cronkite charged that Johnson's efforts to "shield the American economy from the consequences of the war" created serious economic and social problems for the country. Second, Cronkite stated that "Johnson never leveled with the American people about the nature or likely extent of the war."

Cronkite's own "disillusionment" with American military involvement in Vietnam developed gradually, as the United States invested ever greater resources and soldiers in the conflict. With each passing month, Cronkite became concerned with what he called "the increasing reports from the military and the political foxholes of Vietnam that neither the battle to subjugate [defeat and bring under control] the Vietcong nor that to win over the Vietnamese villagers was meeting with any tangible success. Additionally, there was something distinctly uncomfortable about a war in which it was impossible for even the most optimistic military spokesmen to claim that we were liberating and holding any sizable parts of the territory of South Vietnam. The criterion [measurement] for success that our military adopted was the body count. The only way to measure victory, it seemed, was in terms of how many Vietcong we could kill. That was scarcely uplifting, scarcely inspiring, scarcely calculated to build the morale of either the fighting forces or the home front. It became increasingly difficult to justify the war as the terrible cost to ourselves in blood and material grew and the supply of Vietcong needing to be killed appeared inexhaustible."

Cronkite also expressed anger about accusations that the antiwar movement opposition to the conflict was a betrayal of the United States. "Patriotism simply cannot be defined," he said. "Many of those against the war protested with the most dedicated patriotism—in the total conviction that the war was not a just one and was besmirching [staining or ruining] the image of a nation they loved."

In 1975—two years after the last American combat troops left Vietnam—North Vietnam finally defeated South Vietnam to end the war. Cronkite anchored CBS's coverage of the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam's capital city, despite being troubled by a painful back injury. In fact, Cronkite rode to the CBS television studio in an ambulance, with a doctor by his side. Outfitted in a back brace, he reported on South Vietnam's final hours of existence while literally strapped to his anchor chair.

Years later, Cronkite continued to claim that he and the other CBS reporters offered fair and objective coverage of the war in Vietnam. He also points out that his famous commentary during the Tet Offensive was clearly labeled as an editorial. "I was proud of the degree to which we had kept our evening newscast free of bias, although on a subject as controversial as the war, we did not get credit from either side for doing so," he said. "A generation of officers later, there still lurks in the Pentagon [the headquarters of the Department of Defense] the belief that the media lost the war. We could have won, they insist, if the press had not shown those pictures of naked, napalmed Vietnamese girls fleeing our bombing, of prisoners being shot in the head, of burning hooches [huts], of wounded GIs [American soldiers]. Television brought the war into our living rooms at home and destroyed our will to fight, their theory goes."

Cronkite, though, argues that television and print journalists provided the American public with valuable information about Vietnam at a time when the U.S. government and military was not being truthful. "Let's be clear," he said. "There must be military censorship in time of war. Strategy, tactics, size of forces, success of operations are all legitimate secrets that the military must not disclose. [But] our government simply must not shy away from sharing with the people the unpleasant results of war. All aspects of such foreign adventures must be exposed, and discussed, in a free society."

Cronkite, Walter

views updated May 18 2018

Walter Cronkite

BORN: November 4, 1916 • St. Joseph, Missouri

American broadcast journalist television anchorperson

Walter Cronkite was one of the most popular and influential television journalists of the second half of the twentieth century. During his long and distinguished career in radio and then television broadcasting, he covered many important historical events, including World War II (1939–45), the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the U.S. space program, the Vietnam War (1954–75), the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) in 1963, and the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) to resign from office in 1974.

"[In my first news anchor job in 1950] we had slides with pictures and some film and some voice on film. But it was a very, very primitive performance compared with what we have today."

Cronkite reported on many of these events as the anchor (main news presenter) of the CBS Evening News. He held this position for nearly two decades, and during that span he became America's most respected and trusted television journalist. When he finally retired from his daily news anchor duties in 1981, television scholars and viewers alike described his departure as the end of an era.

Beginning a career in journalism

Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on November 4, 1916. His father was Walter Leland Cronkite, a dentist, and his mother was Helena (Fritsch) Cronkite. According to Cronkite, both of his parents were nurturing and supportive, and they gave him strong moral values. In his autobiography A Reporter's Life, for example, he recalls an incident in which his family was eating dinner at the home of his father's new business partner. When his father's partner struck a black delivery boy and insulted him with racial slurs, Cronkite's father angrily marched his family out the door, refusing all apologies from his partner. Cronkite later said that the memory of that night stayed with him throughout his years of reporting on the civil rights movement in the South.

The Cronkite family moved from Missouri to Texas when Walter was still a youngster. It was after this move that he became fascinated by newspaper reporting. Cronkite viewed it as an exciting and glamorous profession. "So I took up journalism," he recalled in American Heritage. "I was terribly lucky: I was in a high school that, rare in that period, had a journalism course." Cronkite described the teacher who directed the course as "the inspiration for my career."

After graduating from high school in 1933, Cronkite enrolled in the University of Texas. He studied there for the next two years, while working part-time in the offices of the Houston Post newspaper. He left college in 1935 and spent the next several years working for newspapers and radio stations. His experiences during this time ranged from full-time work as a reporter with the Post to a stint as a radio sportscaster in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In 1939, Cronkite's journalism career got a big boost when he was offered a position as a World War II correspondent, or field reporter, with United Press (later United Press International), a news organization that provides stories to newspapers all across the United States. One year later, he married Mary Elizabeth "Betsy" Maxwell, with whom he eventually had three children.

Reporting on World War II

World War II began in 1939, when Germany—under the control of dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi Party—invaded neighboring Poland. The following year German forces moved across Western Europe and conquered France. Hitler also forged an alliance with Italy and Japan that came to be known as the Axis Powers. These countries continued fighting in Europe against Great Britain and its allies. In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and six months later Japan attacked the United States. The Soviet Union and the United States joined forces with Great Britain to form the Allied Powers. Fighting continued in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Ocean until 1945, when Germany and Japan were forced to surrender to end the war.

Cronkite reported on the war in Europe for United Press. His work intensified as the war went on—and especially after the United States entered the conflict in 1941. Over the next four years, Cronkite filed stories from war zones all across Europe. He parachuted into hostile regions with airborne divisions, accompanied pilots on bombing missions over Germany, and filed reports from Normandy, France, after the important Allied invasion known as D-Day. This bloody battle on the coast of Normandy, which took place on June 6, 1944, is regarded by many historians as one of the key turning points of World War II. With each of these assignments, Cronkite's excellent work increased his reputation as one of the war's finest reporters.

Cronkite's high-quality reporting during the war even caught the eye of famous CBS Radio journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965; see sidebar in William S. Paley entry). As one of the most famous American reporters of World War II, Murrow was known both for his bravery and for his high journalistic ethics. He offered Cronkite a spot on his top-notch CBS Radio crew covering the war in Europe. Cronkite was honored to receive the offer, but he reluctantly turned it down because he could not imagine getting better assignments than he already had with United Press.

After Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, Cronkite worked as the chief correspondent for United Press at the Nuremberg war trials. These famous trials were held to judge captured Nazi officials who had been accused of various war crimes. In 1946, United Press sent Cronkite to the Soviet Union to open the agency's first-ever bureau in Moscow. Cronkite served as chief correspondent for United Press in the Soviet Union for the next two years. In this position, he filed many important stories during the early years of the Cold War (1945–91), a period of intense military and political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Joining CBS

In 1950 Cronkite joined CBS, tripling his annual salary in the process. At that time, radio broadcasting was still the primary way in which CBS and other media networks reached American audiences. But Cronkite spent his first months with CBS serving as the anchor of the local television newscast for a CBS station in Washington, D.C. TV news was not technically advanced in those early days. "It was a studio presentation done with whatever newsreel they could purchase," Cronkite recalled in American Heritage. "We had slides with pictures and some film and some voice on film. But it was a very, very primitive performance compared with what we have today."

Cronkite excelled as a broadcast journalist from the outset, and within a matter of months CBS executives were looking for ways for him to have more time on television. His first major role on national television for CBS came in 1952, when he served as an anchorman for the network's coverage of the Democratic and Republican political parties' presidential nominating conventions. In 1953, he was named host of a historical re-creation series called You Are There, and he remained in this position for the next four years. In 1957, he began a ten-year period as narrator of the CBS documentary (fact-based film) series Twentieth Century.

By the late 1950s, television news broadcasting was beginning to come of age. As television technology became more sophisticated and television sets became less expensive to purchase, CBS and other media networks increasingly saw that television would dominate news in the future. With this expectation in mind, network executives began moving money, staff, and other resources away from their radio holdings and into their television operations. One of the journalists who benefited from this shift toward television was Walter Cronkite.

Becoming a famous anchorman

On April 16, 1962, Cronkite succeeded Douglas Edwards (1917–1990) as the new lead anchor for CBS's evening news program. A few months later, the show expanded from fifteen to thirty minutes. In November 1963, Cronkite became the first American anchorman to tell a stunned national audience about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Cronkite himself was so disturbed by the tragic event that he was unable to keep his emotions totally in check while covering the story.

Cronkite took over the CBS Evening News at a time when the program's ratings were far lower than the nightly news program on NBC hosted by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Despite Cronkite's best efforts, the show's ratings did not improve much during his first two years as lead anchor. In 1964, in fact, CBS decided to try out other anchors for the network's coverage of that year's presidential conventions. But Cronkite's absence sparked an unexpected outpouring of protests from viewers. CBS executives quickly returned Cronkite to the anchor desk, and the network's faith in him proved well deserved. By 1967, the CBS Evening News was the most popular nightly news program in the United States. With Cronkite as the face of the broadcast, it held this position for the next fifteen years.

The rise of Cronkite and the CBS Evening News has been attributed to the program's emphasis on factual news stories about important events and people, as well as Cronkite's unique blend of professionalism and personal appeal. He projected a screen image that was simultaneously reassuring and knowledgeable and attracted Americans of all political, religious, and racial backgrounds. He was widely considered to be one of the most trusted figures in America. Cronkite "became better known than most Hollywood stars," wrote Edward Bliss Jr. in Now the News. "Besides a zest for life—sailing, dancing, auto racing until his wife, Betsy, made him give it up—he had a respect for news that showed on camera. Viewers sensed the seasoning that came from experience. There was authority in what he said."

At the height of Cronkite's popularity, an estimated 19 million viewers tuned in to his broadcasts on a nightly basis. Cronkite, though, never stopped viewing himself as a working journalist. He retained the title of managing editor of the CBS Evening News throughout his years as anchor. Even after his farewell line at the end of each broadcast—"And that's the way it is"—became one of the best-known phrases in American television history, Cronkite continued to describe himself as an ordinary journalist whose main goal was to provide his audience with reliable, unbiased news.

Praising the space program and criticizing the Vietnam War

Occasionally, though, Cronkite set aside his objectivity to let viewers know his personal feelings about some issues. The Vietnam War was perhaps the best-known example of this. The United States became involved in this conflict during the Cold War, as part of its efforts to halt the spread of communism around the world. The U.S. government sent military troops to Southeast Asia in 1965 to help its ally, South Vietnam, avoid being taken over by its Communist neighbor, North Vietnam. But the Communists enjoyed a great deal of support among the Vietnamese people. In fact, South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong joined forces with the North Vietnamese Army to fight against the American and South Vietnamese troops. Even though the United States had superior weapons and equipment, the war turned into a bloody stalemate, with neither side able to achieve victory.

During the early years of the conflict, Cronkite was privately supportive of the decision to go to war. As the war dragged on, however, Cronkite began to have doubts about the optimistic forecasts of American politicians and generals. After the 1968 Tet Offensive—a massive attack by Communist forces against cities and defensive positions held by U.S. troops and their South Vietnamese allies—CBS sent Cronkite to Vietnam to get a firsthand look at the situation. When he returned, Cronkite shared his opinions about the war in an on-air editorial. Speaking before a national audience, Cronkite contradicted positive government reports and expressed his view that the U.S.-led war effort had not made much progress. He said that the government should withdraw American troops and negotiate an end to the conflict. Cronkite's strongly worded editorial forced millions of viewers to rethink their support for U.S. involvement. It also helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–73; served 1963–68), who had taken office following Kennedy's assassination, not to run for re-election.

Cronkite was also famous for his enthusiastic support of the American space program of the 1960s. Some observers even believe that his passion for space exploration boosted the American people's support for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) more than any of the agency's public relations efforts. Millions of people tuned in to watch U.S. astronauts make the first manned space flight, the initial orbit of the Earth, and the first moon landing over the course of the decade. When Neil Armstrong (1930–) became the first human being to set foot on the Moon in 1969, the event drew an audience of 130 million people in the United States and 600 million around the world—or about one-fourth of the global population at that time. Cronkite was on the air for twenty-seven of the thirty hours of CBS's live coverage of this event. "I think it was just an incredible achievement of American technology and adventure and a nation's dedication to what appeared to be an impossible task," he later told American Heritage. "To do all of that in a decade is an exceptional performance, and the astronauts themselves were an exceptional body of men."

Life after the CBS Evening News

On March 6, 1981, Cronkite delivered his last report from behind the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News. Dan Rather took over the anchor job, while Cronkite became a special correspondent for CBS News. A few months later, Cronkite received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian (non-military) award presented by U.S. government. This was the greatest of numerous honors Cronkite received during his career, including several Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards for journalistic excellence, and two DuPont-Columbia University Awards in broadcast journalism. In 1985, he became the second newsman, after Edward R. Murrow, to be inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

Cronkite delivered occasional special reports on events from around the world for CBS during the mid-1980s. But during this time, relations between the semi-retired Cronkite and his longtime employer became strained. Cronkite harshly criticized CBS for making cuts to its news division's budget and changing its focus to less important stories. CBS responded by giving the legendary newsman fewer projects to work on. These developments deeply disappointed Cronkite. "I felt I had been driven from the temple where for nineteen years, along with other believers, I had worshipped the great god News on a daily basis," he wrote in A Reporter's Life.

In the 1990s, Cronkite and CBS had little contact, though he remained officially under contract to the network as a special correspondent. Cronkite produced and narrated a series of critically acclaimed documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel, and other networks. In 1996 he published his long-awaited autobiography, A Reporter's Life. In 1998 CNN asked Cronkite to serve as co-anchor for its coverage of astronaut John Glenn's return to space (Glenn had been one of the astronauts Cronkite covered back in the 1960s). Cronkite's wife, Betsy, died of cancer in 2005 at their home in New York City. As of 2006, Cronkite continued to live in Manhattan, keeping busy with public speaking engagements and writing on a wide variety of subjects, from politics to sailing.

For More Information


Bliss, Edward J., Jr. Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Cronkite, Walter. The Challenges of Change. Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 1971.

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

Slater, Robert. This … Is CBS. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.


"Cronkite Takes a Stand." Newsweek, March 11, 1968.

Snow, Richard F. "He Was There." American Heritage, April 23, 1984.


"Cronkite, Walter." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on May 24, 2006).

"Reporting America at War: Walter Cronkite." PBS. (accessed on May 12, 2006).

"Walter Cronkite on NPR." National Public Radio. (accessed on May 24, 2006).

Cronkite, Walter

views updated May 18 2018

Walter Cronkite

Born November, 4, 1916
St. Joseph, Missouri

Journalist, television newsperson

Walter Cronkite worked in television news from its beginnings in the early 1950s. He played a large role in creating the format of television news programs. From 1962 to 1981, Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News program, not only reporting, but also summing up and analyzing the news. His calm, authoritative manner and his careful, hardworking approach to journalism earned him the trust of his viewers. More than other television personalities, Cronkite became a national figure. His news summaries were watched in millions of households. His nightly sign-off, "And that's the way it is," was familiar and reassuring to many viewers.

"[T]here was a sacred covenant between newspaper people and their readers. We journalists had to be right and we had to be fair."

—Walter Cronkite.

A nose for news

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. was born on November 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father, Walter Leland Cronkite Sr., was a dentist. When Walter Jr. was young, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. There, they lived a comfortable, though not wealthy, middle-class lifestyle. At age seven, Walter took a job selling a weekly magazine calledLiberty, earning a penny for each copy he sold. By the age of nine, he had progressed to selling copies of the Kansas City newspaper, the Star.

When Walter was ten, his family moved to Houston, Texas, where he lived for the rest of his childhood. They moved because Walter's father had an offer of a better job. However, the change in location was hard on the family in many ways. The racism and conservatism of the tight southern community shocked the liberal Cronkites. The pressure of the move caused his father to become distant and angry. Walter Sr. became an alcoholic and grew more and more separate from his family. The Cronkites divorced when Walter Jr. was in high school.

Young Walter also had some problems adjusting to life in the South. He was criticized by neighbors for playing with black children. Also, he was punished by a teacher for not saying "ma'am" and "sir" to his elders. However, he was a flexible and cheerful youth, who participated in sports, joined the Boy Scouts, took piano lessons, and got a job delivering purchases for a local drugstore to customers' homes.

Cronkite's early interest in the news was stirred when he entered San Janice High School. There he met Fred Birney, a former newspaper reporter who had begun teaching high school journalism. Inspired by Birney, Cronkite began to write and helped to start a school newspaper. Always a hard worker, he also got a job at the Houston Post, where his first on-the-job reporting experience was covering small social events.

Foreign correspondent

Cronkite continued working in the news business after he entered the University of Texas at Austin in 1933. He was fascinated by the exciting medium of radio, which was still in its infancy. He persuaded KNOW, a local radio station, to let him cover sports. He spent much of his leisure time at the state capitol, observing the workings of government. He met journalists there who helped him get a job as a reporter, writing for the International News Service (INS). A news reporting service, the INS was owned by legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). Cronkite's position led to a job offer from the Houston newspaper, the Press. By 1935, Cronkite had left college to go to work full-time for the Houston Press. Between 1935 and 1942, Cronkite worked on various papers and did news shows on radio as well. In 1939, he got a job with United Press (UP), a news service that collected and wrote news for a wide variety of newspapers.

World War II (1939–45) erupted in Europe in 1939. When the United States entered the conflict in 1941, Cronkite soon followed the U.S. troops to Europe as a war correspondent for the United Press. The war journalists of World War II were courageous reporters who often saw the same action that soldiers did, but they carried pens and cameras rather than weapons. Cronkite participated in the "D-day" invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944, which is considered a major turning point in the war. Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy and began a major push to defeat the Germans. He followed American soldiers as they fought, reporting on the war for those back home. His work sometimes put him in danger. He flew along on bombing missions and even parachuted out of planes, all in an effort to see and report on the events.

After the war ended in 1945, Cronkite covered the historic trials in the German city of Nuremberg. There, Nazi officers faced charges for crimes committed during the war, such as illegal medical experiments and the extermination of Jews in concentration camps. Far from a hardened reporter, Cronkite was moved many times by the suffering and bravery he witnessed during the war and its aftermath. He communicated these emotions in the reports he sent back to the United States.

After the Nuremberg trials ended in October 1946, Cronkite continued to work in the UP foreign offices for several more years. In 1940, he married his long-time sweetheart "Betsy," Mary Elizabeth Maxwell. Between 1946 and 1949, the couple lived in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Brussels, Belgium, and Moscow, USSR, while Cronkite worked in these European capitals' news bureaus. In 1950 he returned home to the birth of a new communication and entertainment medium, television.

Television and the news

A respected journalist for his work during World War II, Walter Cronkite was offered a new kind of job when he returned home. It would be in the brand new field of television news. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television network hired Cronkite as a news reporter. Some of his early jobs on television were not the serious newscasting that he was used to doing. Still, Cronkite remained flexible and good humored. He hosted an early history program called You Are There, which aired from 1953 through 1957. The show featured re-enactments of historical events, such as Revolutionary War battles or the trial of Joan of Arc. Real news reporters, such as Cronkite, would interview the historical participants

The Nuremberg Trials

On November 30, 1945, just after the end of World War II, a series of ground-breaking trials began in the southeastern German city of Nuremberg. Twenty-four officials of the Nazi government of Germany were brought individually before a panel of judges from the Allied countries to face charges of violating accepted practices of war. They were accused of many crimes, including starting and waging an offensive war; torturing and murdering civilians (including millions of Jewish citizens); abusing prisoners of war; and using slave labor. Along with the twenty-four high officers, many lesser officials of the government and military were also placed on trial.

The Nuremberg trials represented one of the first times that individuals were held responsible and tried in court for the actions of their government during wartime. Some thought that the trials were just a way of getting revenge for what happened during the war. Others believed that the governments of Europe had agreed on basic rules of warfare and that the German government had violated many of these rules. They argued that individual citizens have a responsibility to refuse if their government asks them to do things which break these international laws.

The world followed the trials with great interest, reading the reports sent back by correspondents such as Walter Cronkite and Janet Flanner. When the trials ended on October 1, 1946, 26 people were sentenced to be hanged, 128 were given prison sentences, and 35 were acquitted.

The effects of the Nuremberg trials were still felt in the early 2000s. The trials increased the reach of international law, a system of laws that crosses national borders. They strengthened the idea that individuals are responsible for what they do, even if they are "following orders." The trials also gave birth to the international human rights movement. Supporters of the movement believe that individuals in every country have basic rights and that everyone has a responsibility to protect those rights, regardless of nationality.

being played by actors. The reporters then would give a history lesson, sometimes pointing out a connection between history and modern times.

Another early Cronkite news/entertainment program was The Morning Show, which first aired in 1954. There, the experienced reporter shared a news desk with a puppet named Charlemagne the Lion. However, the network saw and valued Cronkite's skill as a reporter, along with his deep voice and mature looks. In 1952, he gained praise for his balanced and accurate coverage of the first televised nominating conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties.

By 1962, Cronkite was a respected television newsperson. CBS decided to give him the lead role on a new program, CBS Evening News, creating a new position for Cronkite. Since he would be the solid foundation of the newscast, they called him the "news anchor." He would be the person to coordinate stories from other reporters, comment on them, and analyze the news. In an era when there were only three television networks delivering news, viewers depended on anchors such as Cronkite to sift through the news and bring them the most important facts. Cronkite's distinguished looks and kindly manner caused viewers to have confidence in him. However, Cronkite never became merely a television star. He remained a serious reporter, researching and writing most of his own material throughout his career.

Along with his work on the Evening News, Cronkite was a prominent figure in many other television programs. Between 1957 and 1970, he hosted a documentary series called Twentieth Century (the name changed to Twenty-First Century in 1967). From 1961 to 1979, he did in-depth reporting about current events on CBS Reports. From 1980 to 1982, he hosted Universe, a news/science magazine show. In addition, he filmed many special programs, including Vietnam: A War That Is Finished in 1975, Our Happiest Birthday in 1977, and Dinosaur! in 1991.

Cronkite continued to anchor the CBS Evening News until 1981. Then he exchanged the job for the less demanding one of "special correspondent." This position only required that he issue occasional reports on specific news stories. After leaving his nightly news job, Cronkite continued to be active in both his work and private life. He was often called on to give his opinion about current events. Cronkite did not hesitate to speak out when he saw unfairness or bad government policies. He hosted and narrated numerous television specials, including Children of Apartheid in 1987. In 1993, he started his own production company to make documentary films. Three years later, his company produced an eight-hour series called Cronkite Remembers, which was shown on both CBS and the Discovery Channel.

In spite of his dignified image as a newscaster, Cronkite also spent his life as an athlete and adventure-seeker. His life-long love of racecar driving led him to become part of a team that drove a twelve-hour race in Sebring, Florida, in 1959. He also loved sailing and spent many hours on his boat with his family. Cronkite wrote several books, including an autobiography called A Reporter's Life.

For More Information


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

James, Doug. Walter Cronkite: His Life and Times. Brentwood, TN: J.M. Press, 1991.


"The Great Anchorman Off Camera." Life (November 1980): pp. 132–39.

Miller, Mark Crispin. "Walter Cronkite: And That's the Way It Seems." Current (May 1981): pp. 20–38.

Cronkite, Walter

views updated May 21 2018

Walter Cronkite

Born: November 4, 1916
St. Joseph, Missouri

American broadcaster and journalist

Walter Cronkite is an American journalist and radio and television news broadcaster who became one of an outstanding group of correspondents and commentators that the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) News developed after World War II (193945; a war in which Germany, Italy, and Japan fought against Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States).

Early years

Walter Leland Cronkite was born on November 4, 1916. He was an only child. His father was a dentist and his mother, Helena Lena (Fritsch) managed the home. While he was still a youngster the family moved to Texas, where his father took a position at the University of Texas Dental School. During that time Walter read an article in American Boy magazine about the adventures of reporters working around the world. It inspired his interest in journalism and he decided when he was in junior high school that he wanted to be a reporter. His preparation for that career began with his work on his high school yearbook and newspaper. He was also active in student government and athletics, particularly track.

In 1933 Cronkite entered the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied political science, economics, and journalism. He took a part-time job with the Houston Post newspaper. This set him on a professional career which led him to leave college after two years to serve in several different journalism jobs, including general reporter for the Post, radio announcer in Kansas City, Missouri, and sportscaster in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. After Cronkite's time at the Post, his principal employer for several years was United Press International (UPI). He covered World War II in Europe. He also served as chief correspondent at the Nuremburg war crimes trials (194546), and as head of the Moscow (Russia) office from 1946 to 1948.

Years at CBS

In 1950 Cronkite joined CBS News. Up to this point he was largely unknown to the general public. Two years later he was narrator for You Are There, a television program in which major historical events were recreated as though they were current news events. In 1954 he became narrator of The Twentieth Century, an outstanding television documentary recounting the events of recent history. This job gave Cronkite recognition with the viewing public.

Starting in 1952 Cronkite also served as the anchor for the CBS coverage of the Democratic and Republican national presidential conventions. With the exception of the 1964 Democratic convention, he continued this role until his retirement in 1981.

Cronkite assumed the duties of anchor and editor for the CBS Evening News in 1962. At that time the National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) Huntley-Brinkley Report, hosted by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, led viewer ratings. Gradually, the CBS broadcasts gained ground on the team at NBC, which broke up in 1970. From that time until his retirement, Cronkite's program was consistently the most popular television news broadcast.

Although the evening news was Cronkite's main responsibility, he maintained his leading role as narrator and correspondent on network specials. These included space shots, major documentaries, and interviews with world figures such as presidents Harry Truman (18841972), Dwight Eisenhower (18901969), and Lyndon Johnson (19081973). After his retirement he continued this role in addition to the periodic series, Walter Cronkite's Universe.

For a society that emphasized youthfulness, it was a paradox (contradiction) that Cronkite's reputation increased as he grew older. His white hair and mustache gave him a distinguished look. Cronkite's reputation did not rest on appearance, however. He earned recognition and praise through hard work, a passion for accuracy, and an insistence on impartiality (being neutral). Underlying that was a lifelong competitive spirit, which was moderated in front of the microphone and camera but which came out in his leisure activities of sailing, tennis, and race car driving.

Strengths as a reporter

Cronkite was quite concerned with not becoming part of the story he was reporting. He stated, "I built my reputation on honest, straight-forward reporting. To do anything else would be phony. I'd be selling myself and not the news." Yet there were memorable instances when he failed to remain completely separated from a story, such as his obvious emotional reaction when announcing the death of President John F. Kennedy (19171963); his broadcast pronouncement in 1968, upon returning from Vietnam, that he doubted United States policy for that region could succeed; and his undeniable enthusiasm when Neil Armstrong (1930) became the first person on the moon in 1969.

Despite Cronkite's philosophy of detachment, he sometimes influenced the news, as in his 1977 televised interview with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat (19181981), which led Sadat to visit Israel and led Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (19131992) to visit Egypt. Cronkite was an unintentional news topic in 1980, when John Anderson (1922), running as an independent presidential candidate, mentioned Cronkite as his likely running mate. (Former Wisconsin governor Patrick Lucey wound up as Anderson's choice.)

The depth of respect for Cronkite's work is reflected in the numerous awards he has received: the Peabody for Radio and Television, the William Allen White Award for Journalistic Merit, as well as the Emmy. In 1981, during his final three months on the CBS Evening News, Cronkite received eleven major awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1985 he became the second newsman, after Edward R. Murrow (19081965), to be selected for the Television Hall of Fame. At his retirement Cronkite was the most commonly mentioned person on the "dream list" for lecturers at conventions, clubs, and college campuses.

Post-CBS retirement

After retiring as anchor of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite served as CBS News special correspondent and on the network's board of directors from 1981 to 1991. He also anchored the CBS News science magazine series Walter Cronkite's Universe, (198082). From the late 1980s until 1992 he hosted Walter Cronkite's 20th Century, a daily, ninety-second account of same-day historical events.

In 1993 Cronkite formed his own production company and produced several award-winning documentaries for The Discovery Channel, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and other networks. One of those, Cronkite Remembers, aired in early 1997 in conjunction with the late 1996 publication of his autobiography, A Reporter's Life. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Cronkite headed efforts to convince networks to offer free television time for presidential candidates.

In 2001 Cronkite published Around America: A Tour of our Magnificent Coastline. He also signed on to do the voice of Ben Franklin in a new PBS animated series, Liberty Kids.

Cronkite raised television news broad casting to a level of professionalism that was praised around the world. His qualifications as a newspaperman and war correspondent, along with his unwillingness to stray from a hard news format that dealt only with impor tant events and their facts, demonstrated that acceptance and popularity in television news need not rest on covering trivial topics. Wal ter Cronkite continues to be admired by both his colleagues and by his audience. For many people he is the example of what a broadcast journalist should be.

For More Information

Aaseng, Nathan. Walter Cronkite. Minneapo lis: Lerner Publications, 1981.

Cronkite, Kathy. On the Edge of the Spotlight. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter's Life. New York: Random House, 1996.

Westman, Paul. Walter Cronkite: The Most Trusted Man in America. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1980.

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr

views updated May 23 2018

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr.

Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr., (born 1916) was an American journalist and radio and television news broadcaster who became pre-eminent among the outstanding group of correspondents and commentators developed by CBS News after World War II.

Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, the only son of his dentist father and the former Helena Lena Fritsch. While he was still a youngster the family moved to Texas. His reading about the exploits of foreign correspondents inspired his interest in journalism. Preparation for that vocation began with his work on his high school yearbook and newspaper.

In 1933 he entered the University of Texas at Austin and took a part-time job with the Houston Post. This set him on a professional career which led him to abandon college after two years to serve as a general reporter for the Post, a radio announcer in Kansas City, and a sportscaster in Oklahoma City. After that his principal employer for several years was United Press International (UPI), for whom he covered World War II in Europe (1941-1945) and served as chief correspondent at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials (1945-1946) and in Moscow (1946-1948).

Years at CBS

To this point Cronkite was largely unknown to the general public. In 1950 he joined CBS News where two years later he was narrator for "You Are There," a television program in which major historical events were re-created. In 1954 he became narrator of "The Twentieth Century," a monumental television documentary which established Cronkite's recognition with the viewing public. That was reinforced by his quadrennial service as anchor of the CBS coverage of the national political party conventions, which he first covered in 1952. With the exception of the 1964 Democratic convention, he continued this role until his retirement in 1981.

When Cronkite assumed the duties of anchor and editor for the "CBS Evening News" in 1962, NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" dominated viewer ratings. Gradually the CBS broadcasts gained ground on the renowned team at NBC, which broke up in 1970. From then until his retirement, Cronkite's program was consistently the most popular television news broadcast.

Although the evening news was his main platform, Cronkite maintained his prominence as narrator and correspondent on network specials, including space shots, major documentaries, and extensive interviews with world figures such as Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. After his retirement he continued this role in addition to the intermittent series, "Walter Cronkite's Universe."

For a society that emphasized youthfulness, it was a paradox that as Cronkite grew older his prestige increased. His white hair and moustache gave him a rather distinguished look, although Cronkite's reputation did not rest on appearance. He earned recognition and praise through hard work, a passion for accuracy, and an insistence on impartiality. Underlying that was a life-long competitive spirit that was sublimated before the microphone and camera but manifest in his leisure activities of sailing, tennis, and race car driving.

Among Cronkite's strengths were his believability, accuracy, and impartiality. He was also quite diligent about not becoming part of the story he was reporting. Yet there were memorable instances when he failed to remain completely detached from a story: his obvious emotional reaction when announcing the death of President John Kennedy in 1963; his characterization, on the eve of the 1968 Democratic convention, of the site as a concentration camp; his broadcast pronouncement in 1968, upon returning from Vietnam, that he doubted that U.S. policy for that region could prevail; and his undeniable enthusiasm when Neil Armstrong became the first person on the moon in 1969. Despite his philosophic disclaimer, Cronkite sometimes influenced the news, as in his televised interview with Anwar Sadat that led that Egyptian leader to visit Israel and the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to reciprocate. Inadvertently, Cronkite was a news topic in 1976 when John Anderson, running as an independent presidential candidate, mentioned Cronkite as his likely running mate.

The exceptions notwithstanding, Cronkite raised television news broadcasting to a level of professionalism that was lauded around the world. His credentials as a newspaperman and war correspondent, along with his unwillingness to deviate from a hard news format, demonstrated that acceptance and popularity in television news need not rest on superficiality.

The depth of respect for his work was reflected in the numerous awards he received: the Peabody for Radio and Television and the William Allen White Award for Journalistic Merit, as well as the Emmy. In 1981, during his final three months on the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite received 11 major awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1985 he became the second newsman, after Edward R. Murrow, to be selected for the Television Hall of Fame. At his retirement, Cronkite was the most commonly mentioned person on the "dream list" for lecturers at conventions, clubs, and college campuses.

Post CBS Retirement

After retiring as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite served as CBS News special correpondent and on the network's board of directors from 1981 to 1991. He also anchored the CBS News science magazine series "Walter Cronkite's Universe," (1980-82), and from the late 1980s until 1992, hosted "Walter Cronkite's 20th Century", a daily 90-second account of same-day historical events. In 1993 he formed his own production company and produced several award-winning documentaries for The Discovery Channel, PBS, and other networks. One of those, "Cronkite Remembers", was sheduled to air in early 1997 in conjunction with the late 1996 publication of his autobiography, A Reporter's Life. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Cronkite headed efforts to convince networks to offer free television time for presidential candidates. When not making documentaries, Cronkite enjoyed sailing his 48-foot yacht, the "Wynje".

Further Reading

Cronkite tells the story of his years growing up in Kansas City and Houston; his early career working for newspapers, wire services, and radio stations; his time as a war correspondent for UPI; and his years at CBS in his autobiography A Reporter's Life (1997). An excellent overview of Cronkite's work habits, strengths and weaknesses, and rapport with his colleagues is "Uncle Walter," a chapter in Air Time (1978) by Gary Paul Gates. Briefer episodes of a similar vein about Cronkite are in The Powers That Be (1979) by David Halberstam. In Challenge of Change (1971), Cronkite set out his journalistic philosophy. The book is a collection of nine speeches he gave during 1967-1970. Eye on the World (1971) is useful mainly as an example of his editing skills. The volume is largely excerpts from interviews by other CBS newsmen on major topics of that period. Both philosophic and descriptive is his "What It's Like To Broadcast News," Saturday Review (December 12, 1970). South by Southeast (1983) with Ray Ellis and South by Southwest (1971) provide insight into Cronkite's leisure activities, especially sailing. One of Cronkite's daughters, Kathy, recorded her experiences as a child of a celebrity in On the Edge of the Spotlight (1981). □