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During his fourteen years at Fox News, Tucker Carlson made waves on the airwaves and perhaps dragged broadcast news to its nadir. His abrupt defrocking makes for an interesting contrast with another journalist who shaped as well as reported on events, but in a far different way. Walter Cronkite, the longtime anchor of CBS News, was once regarded as the “most trusted man in America.”
Looking at the two men in juxtaposition, we’re tempted to imagine that Cronkite’s mellow voice and poise in front of the camera reflected a different time in America, one less riven by discord, more civilized, more understandable. But no, Cronkite’s nineteen years as the country’s most popular broadcaster were every bit as contentious and rowdy as our own times.
Born in Texas in 1916, Cronkite had been drawn to journalism early. He served as a war correspondent for United Press during World War II, riding a glider into combat with the 101st Airborne Division. When he took over as CBS anchor in 1962, he was allotted only fifteen minutes to report the national news. Television was overwhelmingly the arena of entertainment—most citizens got their information from the daily newspaper.
In 1963, CBS expanded its nightly news program to half an hour. Cronkite took advantage of his first longer broadcast to interview President John F. Kennedy. Three months later, he famously reported to the nation, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at one p.m. central standard time.”
It was only the beginning of an era of assassination, riots, cultural disruption, and political discord, not to mention the first moon landing, the Three-Mile Island nuclear disaster, and the Watergate scandal. Events at times strained Cronkite’s sense of journalistic balance. Reporting on the riot at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, he referred to the city’s police force, whose members had manhandled reporters, as “a bunch of thugs.”
But for the most part, Cronkite lived up to his reputation as an “avatar of objectivity,” a stance in keeping with his personal views, which mirrored those of the majority of Americans during the era. And it was that objectivity that gave him power.
The point at which Cronkite made rather than just reported news came in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson was overseeing a war in Vietnam that all agreed was tearing our own country apart.
During the earlier years of the war, Cronkite had passed along the assurances of the American military brass. Deaths of U.S. service members had spiked to eleven thousand by 1967, but General William Westmoreland insisted that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” Late in January 1968, the enemy launched attacks in cities across South Vietnam on Tet, the lunar new year holiday. Chaos reigned in the streets. The Viet Cong even managed to gain entry to the American embassy compound in Saigon.
Although the heavy fighting resulted in massive enemy losses, Cronkite was surprised. “What the hell is going on?” he exclaimed. “I thought we were winning the war.” In February, he went to Vietnam to see for himself. An experienced reporter, he visited the city of Hue while the fighting was still going on and rode out on a helicopter with twelve U.S. Marines in body bags.
On Tuesday evening, February 27, 1968, CBS aired in prime time a one-hour special report on the fighting in Southeast Asia. The American public, unused to graphic scenes of violence, shared Cronkite’s shock. The clincher came when, during the program’s final minutes, Cronkite turned from reporting to giving his opinion. “It seems now more certain than ever,” he said, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He advised the country to negotiate with the enemy, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
Cronkite’s report was not the sole or even the most important factor in turning public opinion against the war. Nor is it likely that President Johnson ever uttered the words attributed to him: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But Johnson was already being challenged by antiwar rivals like Senator Eugene McCarthy, and on March 31, just a month after Cronkite’s report, the president announced he would not seek another term.
Walter Cronkite retired as news anchor in March 1981. By the time he died in 2009, at the age of ninety-three, cable TV was fragmenting the televised news business—the Internet would soon shatter it altogether. Fox News, which until 2017 used the slogan “fair and balanced,” took a right turn into reportage saturated with partisan bias and promoted personalities whose trademarks were toxic scorn and ginned-up rage.
If Americans think back fondly on “Uncle Walter,” it’s for the reassuring professionalism he brought to his job. For that and for the simple dignity of the man himself. In the tears he wiped away on announcing Kennedy’s death and the glee that lit his face when he covered the moon landing, Cronkite displayed a genuine humanity that many remember with nostalgia.
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Just so wonderful to read about one of my heros.....and so sad to see our "news guiders" have such lack of character ( do people even use the term character anymore? ).
I remember when Rodger Mudd was supposed to replace him and it went to Dan Rather. I thought that they gave it to " the pretty boy" but he too looks golden in hind sight. Isn't it so crazy that Rodger Mudd was related to the Mudds of John Wilkes Booth barn hiding.....I have that right....right?
Touching and informative as well. Thanks, Jack.