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.