The commentary of former CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite defined issues and events in America for almost two decades.
Cronkite, whom a major poll once named the “most trusted figure” in American public life, often saw every nuance in his nightly newscasts scrutinised by politicians, intellectuals, and fellow journalists for clues to the thinking of mainstream America.
In contrast, Cronkite viewed himself as a working journalist, epitomised by his title of Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News.
His credo, adopted from his days as a wire service reporter, was to get the story, “fast, accurate, and unbiased”; his trademark exit line was “And that’s the way it is”.
Walter Leland Cronkite Jr was born in St Joseph, Missouri, in 1916. After working at a public relations firm, for newspapers, and in small radio stations throughout the Midwest, in 1939 Cronkite joined United Press (UP) to cover World War II.
There, as part of what some reporters fondly called the “Writing 69th,” he went ashore on D-Day, parachuted with the l0lst Airborne, flew bombing mission over Germany, covered the Nuremberg trials, and opened the UP’s first post-war Moscow bureau.
Though he had earlier rejected an offer, Cronkite joined CBS in 1950. First at CBS’s Washington affiliate and then over the national network, Cronkite paid his dues to the entertainment side of television, serving as host of the early CBS historical recreation series, You Are There.
He even briefly co-hosted the CBS Morning Show with the puppet Charlemagne. In a more serious vein, he narrated the CBS documentary series Twentieth Century. Earlier, Cronkite had impressed many observers when he anchored CBS’s coverage of the l952 presidential nominating conventions.
In April l962, Cronkite took over the anchorman’s position from Douglas Edwards on the CBS Evening News. Less than a year later, the program was expanded from 15 to 30 minutes. It was also ironic that Cronkite’s first thirty-minute newscast included an exclusive interview with President John F.Kennedy.
Barely two months later Cronkite was first on the air reporting Kennedy’s assassination, and in one of the rare instances when his journalist objectivity deserted him, he shed tears.
Cronkite’s rise at CBS was briefly interrupted in 1964 when the network (disturbed by the ratings beating CBS News was taking from NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley) decided to replace him as anchor at the l964 presidential nominating conventions with the team of Robert Trout and Roger Mudd. Publicly accepting the change but privately disturbed, Cronkite contemplated leaving CBS.
However, over 11,000 letters protesting the change undoubtedly helped convince both Cronkite and CBS executives that he should stay on.
In l966, Cronkite briefly overtook the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the ratings, and in l967, took the lead. From that time until his retirement, The CBS Evening News was the ratings leader.
Initially, Cronkite was something of a hawk on the Vietnam War, although his program did broadcast controversial segments such as Morley Safer’s famous “Zippo lighter” report.
However, returning from Vietnam after the Tet offensive, Cronkite addressed his massive audience with a different perspective; “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate”.
He then urged the government to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Many observers, including presidential aide Bill Moyers speculated that this was a major factor contributing to President Lyndon B. Johnson‘s decision to offer to negotiate with the enemy and not to run for President in l968.
A year later, Cronkite was one of the foremost boosters of America’s technological prowess, anchoring the flight of Apollo XI. Again his vaunted objectivity momentarily left him as he shouted, “Go, Baby, Go,” when the mission rocketed into space.
For some time Cronkite had seen the space story as one of the most important events of the future, and his coverage of the space shots was as long on information as it was on his famed endurance.
In what critics referred to as “Walter to Walter coverage,” Cronkite was on the air for 27 of the 30 hours that Apollo XI took to complete its mission.
By the same token, Cronkite never stinted on coverage of the Watergate Scandal and subsequent hearings.
In 1972, following on the heels of the Washington Post‘s Watergate revelations the CBS Evening News presented a 22 minute, two-part overview of Watergate, generally credited with keeping the issue alive and making it intelligible to most Americans.
Cronkite could also influence foreign diplomacy, as evidenced in a 1977 interview with Egyptian President Sadat, in which he asked Sadat if he would go to Jerusalem to confer with the Israelis.
A day after Sadat agreed to such a visit the invitation came from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It was a step that would eventually pave the way for the Camp David accords and an Israeli-Egyptian Peace treaty.
Many criticised Cronkite for his refusal to take more risks in TV news coverage. Others felt that his credibility and prestige had greater impact because of his judicious display of those qualities. In addition, many felt that his demand for centre stage (an average of six minutes out of the 22 minutes on an evening newscast focused on him) took time away from in-depth news coverage. Some referred to this time in the spotlight as “the magic.”
In 1981, in accord with CBS policy, Cronkite retired.
He was hardly ever inactive. His New Years Eve hosting of PBS’s broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic became as much a tradition as the dropping of the ball in Times Square. He also hosted PBS documentaries on health, old age and poor children. In l993 he signed a contract with the Discovery and Learning Channel to do 36 documentaries in three years.
In addition, his name became virtually synonymous with the news anchor position worldwide. Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters, while in Holland they are Cronkiters.
In June 2009 Cronkite was reported to be terminally ill. He died on 17 July 2009 at his home in New York City, at the age of 92. He is believed to have died from cerebrovascular disease.