Looking back, it's hard to believe that Walter Cronkite's career anchoring CBS Evening News lasted only two decades. To people of my generation -- I was a college kid when he took the job in 1962 -- his avuncular presence lent reassurance through turbulent times. Nobody who watched Cronkite choke up as he announced the death of President John F. Kennedy on that terrible afternoon in November 1963 will ever forget it.
Nor the awful events of 1968: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, rioting in American cities and pitched battles between antiwar protesters and the Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention. To my young wife and me, watching from a rented farmhouse in Virginia where only CBS's signal came in clearly, it felt as if the nation had gone mad.
But this isn't about us. Millions of Americans felt the same.
Cronkite, who'd seen far worse as a war correspondent in Europe during World War II -- narrowly missing death in the London Blitz, surviving a night-glider landing behind the lines at Normandy and riding with Air Force pilots on bombing raids over Germany -- conveyed an air of imperturbable calm. This, too, his manner suggested, will surely pass.
Not for nothing did a 1980 poll find Cronkite the "most trusted" public figure by Americans -- edging out the pope by 40 to 26 percent. This even after the CBS anchorman, the most influential newsman of his time, had exposed successive U.S. presidents -- Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon -- for the manipulative, self-deluded liars they'd become.
It's no exaggeration to say that Cronkite was instrumental in bringing both presidents down. Salon's Glenn Greenwald highlights what the newsman called his proudest moment: a rare commentary airing Feb. 27, 1968, after Cronkite had flown in a chopper evacuating dead and wounded U.S. Marines from the Vietnamese city of Hue.
History, Cronkite said, might judge the Tet offensive a draw. But Americans had repeatedly been assured that the United States had the Viet Cong on the run. It was too late, he said, "to have faith any longer in the silver linings [American military and political leaders] find in the darkest clouds ... For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate ... 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."
Watching the broadcast, LBJ reportedly told aides, ''If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.'' His decision not to run for reelection in 1968 came five weeks later. It's virtually impossible, Greenwald argues, to imagine today's preening anchor creatures exhibiting anything like Cronkite's gravitas, nor commanding equal respect.
Four years later came Nixon's turn. Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee credits two October 1972 broadcasts about the Watergate scandal with lending instant credibility to his newspaper's reporting. "It was a political year," Bradlee wrote in Newsweek, "and everyone was saying, 'Well, it's just politics, and here's the Post trying to screw Nixon'... Cronkite was the reigning dean of television journalists. When he did the Watergate story, everyone said, 'My God, Cronkite's with them.'"
Not with them in a partisan sense, it's crucial to understand, but in explaining that the facts showed the Watergate conspiracy to corrupt the 1972 presidential election extended deep into the White House. Viewed today, CBS's story holds up extraordinarily well; without exception, the malefactors it cited ended up copping pleas or going to prison. What White House hacks denounced as "outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting" remains historical fact.
Two big things about Cronkite and his times made him different from today's multimillionaire news celebrities. First, he came up as a print journalist, covering ball games, school fires, city council meetings and the Texas state Legislature. He knew a fact from an opinion, how to distinguish a reliable source from the other kind, and how to construct an airtight story. He was a news professional, devoted to craft. I suspect he'd have walked off the set rather than devote an entire newscast to a pop singer's death, never mind entire weeks.
Second, Cronkite grasped the purely arbitrary aspects of TV celebrity. Fame never went to his head. In retirement, he conducted a long-running feud with CBS executives he thought sacrificed journalistic values to the star system and bottom-line greed. ''Something is seriously out of balance,'' he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "when the top people receive such huge wages while the networks drastically cut their staffs to meet grossly reduced budgets."
The exacting standards Cronkite and his colleagues established have all but vanished. One of the right-wing noise machine's signal achievements has been to devalue even the possibility of his kind of professionalism. It's all propaganda to them.
We'll not soon see Walter Cronkite's like again.
© 2009 Gene Lyons. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association