Walter Cronkite: The Way It Was. The Way It Should Be.

Original Publication: Vogue, April 1986

Nearly two thousand days have elapsed since Walter Cronkite last signed off The CBS Evening News, “And that’s the way it is . . .”, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that he is still the most believed person in media.  In fact, according to the polls, more adults – 92 percent – believe what Walter Cronkite tells them than children do in Santa Claus – 87 percent.  Ever since he began broadcasting for CBS in Washington in 1950, Cronkite, now sixty-nine, has not only been the ultimate witness to history, he has also helped shape our perception of that history by virtue of his role in directing the course of television news.  Today, almost 64 percent of Americans say that TV is their primary source of news.

Last December, Cronkite held forth on his extraordinary career in a four-day series of seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City, complete with videos that in effect comprised “Walter’s Greatest Hits.”  He recounted his willingness to lose his job in order to tell the American people after the Tet offensive in 1968 that we were not winning the war in Vietnam, and spoke candidly about the great pressure – and interference – brought to bear on CBS by the Nixon administration after the first major report on Watergate.  As Cronkite’s celebrity mounted over the years, so did his ability to snare world leaders for interviews, so that by the end of his career Cronkite was engaging in diplomacy.  In two separate interviews in 1977, it was he who more or less engineered former Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to meet Israeli chief Menachem Begin in Jerusalem.

In no small measure, Walter Cronkite’s success and the esteem in which he is held have helped glamorize television news and invest it with the kind of disturbing power it has today.  Even in his retirement, reporters in the small, dark museum auditorium strayed from the subject at hand to seek his views on the recent summit and unilateral disarmament.  In responding to John Lofton, an arch-conservative columnist of the Washington Times (owned by the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church), Cronkite proved he was anything but detached.  The columnist’s questions on unilateral disarmament so infuriated Cronkite that he momentarily lost his cool and told Lofton to “Shut up!” (Cronkite later apologized.)

Nor was the rest of Cronkite’s performance without flaws.  I waited in vain for a moment when Cronkite might mention the presence of women in TV news.  Except for an anecdote that mentioned a female producer, he never did.  After the last day’s session, I asked him why less than 15 percent of network correspondents were women and did he feel any responsibility for this?  “No, I feel no responsibility whatsoever,” Cronkite answered, although he had gone on at great length as to how he had helped to shape, as well as present, The CBS Evening News. “Although stereo may have corrected it a little,” he continued, “TV’s sound system works better in the lower ranges of voice than in the higher ranges, and it has generally been agreed upon that women’s voices are harder to understand than men’s.”  It was an answer that perfectly mirrored the prevailing attitude of the men who have always been in charge of TV, even today.

It was obvious, however, that Cronkite had what he considered more urgent issues on his mind.  In fact, by the end of the fourth day, he was sounding like one of his favorite presidents, Eisenhower, whose last great speech warned of the threat posed by the “military industrial complex,” a threat brought home today by every story chronicling the “waste, fraud, and abuse” rampant among Pentagon contractors.

Cronkite is also alarmed at the trivialization and “featurization” of network news and the lack of preparation of those who bring it to us. “I’m very disturbed about communications schools in this country that seem to be concentrating more on trade education,” Cronkite said.  “In many of these schools, they’re taking Trench Coat I and II and Makeup I and II.  I’m afraid we’re getting out of these schools a generation of people who, if it were not for the glamour of broadcasting, would be in drama school.  They are not gut journalists.”

Gut journalism is what Cronkite’s early career was about.  He began as a wire-service reporter and European editor for United Press in London.  At his first anchor job in Washington, he studied the wires all day and at six o’clock delivered his fifteen-minute newscast ad lib.  He has never believed that a public that relies mostly on television news can be informed.  “In the beginning, I wanted to end every broadcast saying, ‘For further details see your local newspaper.’  You can imagine the reaction of CBS to that.”

Today, television networks, for lack of staff in the field, still do only limited original reporting and still rely heavily on the wire services and the front pages of the major newspapers to frame their agenda.  The difference is the dramatic electronic advances such as satellites which have made it possible for many more news-gathering operations to exist.  This, coupled with the amount of money news now generates, makes competition among the three networks even more fierce.  Hence, the saturation coverage of big stories like the TWA hostage crisis.  Moreover, as the number of local stations acquiring the own satellites increases, the networks’ control of the news is also threatened.  To ward off the intruders, Cronkite thinks the networks’ only hope is to distinguish themselves with hard, in–depth news pieces.

“We are not covering the world today at all,” Cronkite admonishes. “I object strenuously to what my colleagues at CBS and the other networks have been doing — trivializing the evening news.  There are more features stories in those twenty-three minutes than I think are justifiable.”

Cronkite’s dream has always been an hour-long nightly news broadcast, but as more local stations get more electronic toys to play with, the possibility they’ll cede another half hour of news to the network is remote indeed.  The upshot, he says, is that the public will continue to be shortchanged.  “We do not have the time to get in the parenthetical phrase, the extra sentence that would give people a clearer understanding of what happened.”  The need to stop “compressing five pounds of news into a three-pound package,” says Cronkite, is obvious: the trend of the majority of the public not to supplement its viewing with reading is starving the body politic.  “We’ll have a public not bright enough, not informed enough to participate in the democratic process.”  And no one like Walter Cronkite to believe in.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.