Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite Remembered

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite passed away this evening at the age of 92. Recent media reports suggested that Mr. Cronkite had been in failing health for several months.

Describing him as a broadcast and journalism icon would be an understatement. He personified television news as CBS's primary anchor in the 1960s and 70s, an era when that network's evening newscast dominated the ratings, and Cronkite was hailed as the "most trusted man in America."

He was at the anchor desk for the biggest stories of that period, including manned space flights. As Apollo 11 roared aloft in July 1969, Cronkite (in a rare, unguarded on-camera moment), offered his own words of encouragement: "Go, baby, go." A few days later, when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, the CBS anchor fell silent. He later faulted himself for having nothing to say at a such a moment.

By that time, Mr. Cronkite had been working at CBS News for almost two decades, and a journalist for more than 30 years. But for many viewers, Walter Cronkite didn't really enter the public consciousness until the afternoon of November 22, 1963, during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. As the newly-installed anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite was in the network's New York newsroom when the first bulletins began moving across the AP and UPI wires.

With the passage of time, memories of that day have become a blend of fact and fiction. Popular legend suggests that Cronkite and CBS were the first on the story. In reality, the first broadcast bulletins were delivered on WNBC-TV in New York, and moments later, on the entire NBC network, by staff announcer Don Pardo (yes, that Don Pardo). Cronkite was on the air moments later, but the audience only heard his voice. In those days, it took a few minutes for cameras to warm up, delaying the anchor's appearance on screen.

Cronkite was a steady, reassuring presence in the studio that day, and CBS also benefited from strong, on-scene reporting. The local CBS affiliate in Dallas, KRLD-TV, was among the first to learn that Kennedy had died, and passed that information to the network. CBS's recently-hired Dallas bureau chief (a fellow named Dan Rather) found a second source, a Catholic priest at Parkland Hospital (the facility where Kennedy was treated). The priest confirmed that the President had, indeed, died from an assassin's bullet.

While Cronkite was widely praised for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, the space program and political conventions, it would take several years to overcome the NBC team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who had topped the evening news ratings since the late 1950s. After Huntley's retirement in 1970, Cronkite and CBS became dominant, and never relinquished their lead. In those days before personality journalism, Cronkite's no-nonsense, wire service approach attracted millions of viewers, although the anchor became a celebrity in the process, much to his chagrin.

Yet Mr. Cronkite wasn't above an occasional touch of vanity. In his book Air Time, broadcast historian Gary Paul Gates recounts an exchange between the Evening News anchor and John Hart, who then helmed the CBS Morning News. Hart asked Cronkite's support for a journalism fellowship he was involved with. Cronkite agreed, but warned his colleague, "Be careful how you use the name." Not "my name." "The name."

While Cronkite ruled the ratings throughout the 1970s--and made millions of dollars for CBS--he left the anchor chair in March 1981 and retired. Laudatory profiles at the time suggested that the anchor was a victim of CBS corporate policy, which mandated retirement at the age of 65.

But that version of events is something of a red herring. As the CBS anchor prepared to hang it up, the network signed Mike Wallace--only two years Cronkite's junior--to a new contract. It was the first in a series of deals that kept Wallace on 60 Minutes for another 25 years. From the perspective of CBS executives, it wasn't a double standard, just a nod to the bottom line. The news magazine was--and is--far more profitable than the Evening News, and Wallace was instrumental to its success. So much for mandatory retirement.

Mr. Cronkite's departure solved something of a succession problem for the network. Dan Rather's agent had been offering his client's services to ABC and NBC, with the threat that Rather would move if he didn't get the top job at CBS. Cronkite's "retirement" allowed Rather to move into the anchor's chair, where he remained for almost 24 years, and took the Evening News from first to third place in the process.

After stepping down, Cronkite wrote a couple of books, made occasional TV appearances and even began a newspaper column in his late 80s. His retirement pension was (reportedly) more than $1 million a year, and he earned additional income from speeches and serving on corporate boards, including a 10-year stint as a director at CBS. And why not? His place in the pantheon of television news was secure, and Cronkite's stature only grew as Rather struggled and CBS News lost much of its former glory.

Still, if Mr. Cronkite represented the zenith of broadcast news, he also helped create the culture of bias that caused many viewers to turn away from the networks, in favor of talk radio, the internet and outlets like Fox News. We refer, of course, to Cronkite's 1968 documentary on the Vietnam War. At the end of the program, the CBS anchor described the conflict as a "stalemate," and urged an American withdrawal. A few weeks later, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term as President, figuring if he had "lost" Walter Cronkite, he had lost the support of most Americans.

At the time it aired, Cronkite's documentary was roundly praised. But critics contended that the CBS anchor got it wrong, noting that the Tet Offensive was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, not the U.S. That conclusion was later affirmed in Peter Braestrup's masterful The Big Story, published in 1977. Braestrup, a former Washington Post reporter, described media coverage of Tet as a "potrait of defeat" that contradicted events on the battlefield. Mr. Braestrup also concluded there was a causal relationship between press reporting and the willingness of American leaders--and the public--to continue the war.

Ironically, Mr. Cronkite admitted the North Vietnamese suffered a military defeat on the February 16, 1968 edition of The Evening News. But that conclusion was missing from his special report, which aired two weeks later. To our knowledge, the CBS anchor never bothered to correct the record, or consider the impact of media reporting on the eventual fall of South Vietnam and the bloodbath that followed.

By any standard, Walter Cronkite was an exceptional broadcast journalist who helped define his craft. But the plaudits he deserved must be balanced against obvious mistakes. On one of the biggest stories of his career--the Vietnam War--Mr. Cronkite got it horribly wrong, and his reporting helped shape policy mistakes that produced a catastrophe. That too, is part of Walter Cronkite's legacy.


Nancy Reyes said...

Ah, but the PC anti war protesters went on to the stock market and then to save Gaia, and now to Obama Messiah.

Like Cronkite, they don't see their responsibility for the boat people, the Cambodian holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of Chinese in Viet Nam, (did Cronkite ever notice the Chinese refugees that fled to China or the war of Viet Nam with China over this?) or the fact that by fighting the US stopped the communist takeover of a half dozen other countries, including the Philippines.

Cronkite's legacy is this selective reporting of events.

tfhr said...

Condolences for all. It was terrible news for the newsman's family and friends to learn of their loss last Friday but America lost it's most famous newscaster more than forty years ago when Cronkite could no longer maintain his objectivity and in doing so cast his professional ethics aside in favor of his own political agenda. I'm referring, of course, to Cronkite's Tet "reporting".

When a journalist publicly aligns himself with a politician, a political party, or a political cause, they can no longer serve the public interest in a neutral capacity. Worse, when a media figure with Cronkite's stature departs from the task of strictly reporting news and begins to interject his personal opinions on any given matter, it should come as no surprise that others in that profession would follow his example. (And that's the way it was, to borrow a Cronkite signature phrase.)

Cronkite should have resigned from his job at CBS news. He could certainly have continued his advocacy as a private citizen and would have been a strong voice for those that shared his views but Cronkite failed to respect the necessity of Americans to have access to unbiased reporting and he abused his trusted access to the public.

The names of the dead are rightfully and respectfully honored on the wall at the Vietnam War Memorial. A dishonored news media was a casualty of that war too but the wounds were self inflicted and to this day there are few contrasts greater than the public's trust in military and the public's lack of trust in the news media. That will be Cronkite's place in history.

lgude said...

Rightly or wrongly I think Cronkite was an honest man and thought he was doing the right thing when he came out against the war. But I believe the incident showed the press how much power they had - that specifically TV had - and that lesser men - like Dan Rather - began to abuse that power. Rathergate was the result. Another appropriate result was Fox News as people recognized that American journalism had become postmodern propaganda.

PerfectMomentProject said...

'Most trusted' is a cliche, perhaps, but honestly, Walter Cronkite was the second most important man in my life.

Walter Cronkite reinforced the lessons my father gave me.

And then in so many ways, he became the man who helped shape my life into the extraordinary journey that it's been.

Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.

HL Shancken said...

A retired KGB officer recently told me that “nobody is easier to buy than a Western journalist.”--J.R. Nyquist

"Once upon a time, I lived for awhile not far from a village called Ba Chuc in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. After the U.S. evacuated Vietnam, there was nothing to stop old animosities between the Cambodians and Vietnamese from turning hot. Here’s a description of what happened in Ba Chuc.

“On April 30, 1977, Pol Pot’s troops launched a surprise attack on 13 villages in eight Vietnamese border provinces. Ba Chuc was the hardest hit. The massacre was at its fiercest during the 12 days of occupation, April 18-30, 1978, during which the intruders killed 3,157 villagers. The survivors fled and took refuge in the pagodas of Tam Buu and Phi Lai or in caves on Mount Tuong, but they were soon discovered. The raiders shot them, slit their throats or beat them to death with sticks. Babies were flung into the air and pierced with bayonets. Women were raped and left to die with stakes planted in their genitals.”

There were two survivors to the massacre.

Cronkite didn’t cover it on the CBS evening news.

HL Shancken said...

Cronkite helped turn the public against the Vietnam War, leading to our humiliating defeat. The U.S. lost more than 50,000 troops in Vietnam. Cronkite's broadcasts were documented by the Ethics and Public Policy Center to have been biased against a strong national defense. When Cronkite retired, we understood the reason for that bias. He became a spokesman for the World Federalist Association, a group of world government advocates who believe the U.S. can spend less on national defense and rely on the United Nations to protect us.

Talk show host Jim Bohannon, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68 with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, has documented Cronkite's role. In an article for The American Legion Magazine, he wrote about the communist strategy of "winning away from the battlefield…" Bohannon cites coverage of the Tet offensive, when a U.S. military victory was depicted as a success by the communists. Cronkite's coverage of Tet, a turning point in the war, was a key reason for the communists' propaganda victory.

Bohannon noted that Cronkite wrote with apparent pride in his own memoirs that "The daily coverage of the Vietnamese battlefield helped convince the American public that the carnage was not worth" the sacrifice. We are seeing the same strategy in Iraq.

HL Shancken said...

Watch this video of Walter Cronkite and ask yourselves why a blog such as this would laud such a man.