The truth behind Cronkite’s allure

Walter Cronkite on TV during a presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

By Eric Mink

I never fell under the spell of Walter Cronkite — all that “Uncle Walter” nonsense, that “most trusted man in America” stuff.

By the time Cronkite took over the “CBS Evening News” in the spring of 1962, I was already a Huntley-Brinkley kid. Not that I’d deliberately chosen NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” with Chet Huntley in New York and David Brinkley in Washington. That’s just the way it was in our house when I started getting curious about the news on television.  

Besides, Cronkite scared me. He reminded me of our pediatrician, Bernard Schwartzman, another adult with a mustache. Dr. Schwartzman was a fine physician with a warm and gentle manner, but I associated him with sickness and pain and getting shots. Cronkite’s image activated some of those memory circuits. No, thank you.

So I managed to elude the massive gravitational pull of Planet Cronkite, even though there was no way to avoid seeing — or being affected by — his work. When teachers wheeled a TV set into class after President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, there was Cronkite, the words catching in his throat, his teary eyes searching for the clock on the wall behind him. And as a college student in Washington five years later, I paid close attention to Cronkite’s carefully phrased “stalemate” commentary about the Vietnam War, which reversed too many years of optimistic CBS war reporting. But I wasn’t in awe of him.

I just finished “Cronkite,” historian Douglas Brinkley’s 800-page brick of a biography released last week by Harper Collins Publishers. It’s not a stellar work of prose, but it surprised me, despite already knowing much of the Cronkite saga:

High-flying correspondent for United Press during World War II, fits and starts in radio and early television, breakthrough work on live sports and news events, the elevation to anchor and managing editor of the “Evening News,” the coalescence around him of a talented team of producers and correspondents, CBS News division rising to qualitative and commercial dominance, his insistence — albeit belated — on aggressive reporting on Vietnam and Watergate, the disappointment and embitterment of his early retirement years….

In reviewing these familiar phases of Cronkite’s life, Brinkley  — no relation to the aforementioned newscaster — applies discipline to his researching, writing and sourcing. But the biographer’s real challenge is that Cronkite, who died in 2009, was not merely a successful anchorman with a distinguished career.

As the connective tissue between the American public and some of the most wrenching, traumatic and occasionally triumphant events of his era, Cronkite was transformed into an American icon. With him as point man, CBS came to be considered, with some justification, the gold standard of a golden age of broadcast news that affirmed the medium’s crucial importance to American society.

And if all that isn’t grand enough, by the time Cronkite anchored his last “Evening News” broadcast on March 6, 1981, he was revered by millions of Americans.

Brinkley approaches the beloved icon delicately, clearly admiring Cronkite but stopping short of reverence. He humanizes Cronkite by describing the newsman’s occasional indulgences in human weakness — alcohol, strip clubs and girlie mags, for example. He also describes more serious errors of ethical judgment: Cronkite trading on his genuine enthusiasm for the early U.S. space program to extract special privileges that NASA did not provide to other journalists and an ego-driven sense of entitlement that became sufficiently unseemly to earn rebukes from senior CBS management.

But Brinkley also understands that the full scope of Cronkite’s story involved more than occasional lapses, and while the author’s sympathies lie with his subject, he follows the facts.

I met Cronkite only once and never interviewed him at length; my tenure covering television began shortly before his “CBS Evening News” tenure ended. But I came to know many people who had worked closely with him, almost all of whom revered him. And what they told me didn’t always square with Cronkite’s public image.

Cronkite decried, for example, television news’ emphasis on personality, but if any single person drove the growth of the “cult of the anchor,” surely it was Cronkite. Not only did he ensure that his face and voice dominated the evening newscast, limiting the airtime of his correspondents, but Cronkite also was practiced at the dark art of “bigfooting,” in which anchors swoop into major breaking stories at the expense of beat reporters who initially developed them. Brinkley’s describes the “rap against Cronkite within this CBS family”: He was an air hog.

Also consistent with what I learned over the years from CBS News correspondents, producers and executives are Brinkley’s repeated references to the anchor’s overweening personal and professional ambition. “Cronkite’s defining quality,” Brinkley writes, “remained competitiveness.” And it applied not only to other competing news organizations but also to individuals within CBS whom Cronkite saw as potential threats to his career and position.

So when Brinkley recounts Cronkite’s post-retirement resentment at feeling disrespected and marginalized by successor Dan Rather and Rather’s allies, it’s hard to forget that Cronkite and his backers did much the same over the decades to Edward R. Murrow, Roger Mudd and others.

Cronkite became “the most trusted man in America” through a bogus 1972 opinion survey of people in 18 states who received a list of names and ranked them for trustworthiness. Cronkite was the only non-politician in the bunch. CBS promoted the result, of course, but Cronkite knew too much about politics and polling to take it seriously.

Shortly before he retired, Cronkite received an honorary doctorate of law degree from Harvard University, accompanied by a standing ovation. Afterward, Brinkley writes, Cronkite spoke to his long-time friend Fred Friendly and claimed that he didn’t really understand the crowd’s reaction.

Friendly, whom I came to know very well, had been the fearless producer of Ed Murrow’s legendary “See It Now” documentary series. He later produced Cronkite’s “Evening News” and for a brief period ran the CBS News division.tFriendly, who died in 1998, could be tough and edgy, but no one understood television and news better than he did.

Fred explained the Harvard ovation to Cronkite this way: “At a time when everybody was lying — fathers, mothers, teachers, presidents, governors, senators — you seemed to be telling them the truth night after night,” he said. “They didn’t like the truth, but they believed you at a time when they needed someone to believe.”

If there’s one insight worth taking away from “Cronkite,” that’s it.