We gave it a B+
Given the realities of contemporary TV journalism, it’s safe to say we’ll never see the likes of Walter Cronkite ever again. As the anchorman of the CBS Evening News from 1962 until he stepped down in 1981, Cronkite was far more than just another prominent journalist or television celebrity. To Americans old enough to recall the assassination of JFK (Cronkite broke down on the air), the moon landings, or the fall of Saigon, Cronkite’s avuncular presence and air of incorruptible common sense made him a kind of American Everyman. After he delivered a stinging editorial on the Tet offensive at the end of a CBS ”Special Report” in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson snapped off the TV and told aides, ”If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection came five weeks later.
That’s not to say Cronkite was overly modest or lacked ambition. Few readers of his episodic, yet consistently readable memoir, A REPORTER’S LIFE, would come to that mistaken conclusion. He tells the story of his precedent-breaking Vietnam editorial, for example, with evident pride. Public-opinion polls, Cronkite notes, voted him the single most trusted individual in the United States.
But there was always a good deal more to Cronkite’s credibility than televised imagery. Before signing with CBS, Cronkite had been an old-school print journalist for many years. He began covering the Texas legislature for the Houston Press just after leaving the University of Texas. But Cronkite’s first love was newspapering. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, he signed on with the United Press. His ability to write fast, accurate copy earned him a slot with what was jokingly dubbed the Writing Sixty-ninth (after a heroic WWI division known as the Fighting Sixty-ninth). In that capacity, Cronkite flew on bombing missions over Germany with the Air Force, landed in a glider near the front lines in Normandy, and rode with Gen. George S. Patton’s troops through the Ardennes Forest. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg trials and spent two years in Moscow as a UP correspondent.
Switching to broadcast journalism, Cronkite found himself anchoring his first daily TV-news broadcast on WTOP in Washington. Like everybody else in those early days, he underestimated the new medium’s power. Completely unanticipated, his subsequent stardom shocked and somewhat disconcerted him.
But readers seeking intimate revelations about him or his CBS colleagues will be disappointed. The latter half of A Reporter’s Life is devoted almost entirely to public themes: anecdotes about Cronkite’s professional dealings with Presidents, prime ministers, and other political celebrities. It tells few, if any, tales that haven’t been heard before.
Cronkite does spend a lot of time lamenting the effects of TV journalism upon everything from the Pentagon to the American political process itself. He appears determined to continue his long-running feud with CBS executives, whom he accuses of destroying the legacy he and his colleagues built, sacrificing journalistic values to the star system and bottom-line greed. ”Something is seriously out of balance,” he argues, ”when the top people receive such huge wages while the networks drastically cut their staffs to meet grossly reduced budgets.” True enough. But not all of his arguments add up. He says the average TV network sound bite of presidential candidates’ speeches, for example, decreased from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 8.2 seconds in 1992. It has. But is there anybody in America who didn’t get enough Bill Clinton or Bob Dole in recent months? Given the existence of C-SPAN, CNN, CNBC, the Internet, and countless chat shows on cable, voters can watch politicians babble virtually around the clock if that’s what turns them on. Fixated upon the old sins of the networks, Cronkite hardly alludes to the new realities of the news biz.
Even so, the simple truth is that 15 years after his retirement, CBS has yet to fill the void left by Cronkite. Many readers of this engaging memoir are apt to wonder whether anybody could. B+