Cronkite By Douglas Brinkley
University of North Texas
October 7, 2017
Walter Cronkite was not a flashy, dramatic, over-the-top type of news anchor that you often see today. He was laid back, confident, with a voice that made his audience trust in what he said behind the anchor desk at CBS News.
In the book Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley he allows readers to go through the newsman’s life from his childhood in St. Joseph, MO to his last days after being forced to retire from CBS in 1981. “Cronkite…became the TV conscience of cold war America and beyond. His sense of comity at times of national crisis helped guide the country through tumultuous decades” (Brinkley, 2012, p.666).
Brinkley’s thorough research lead to the conclusion that a 1972 poll determined; Cronkite was “Most Trusted Man In America” (Brinkley, 2012, p.481). The anchorman was smart, courageous, professional, and could take complicated issues and break them down for the audience to understand. Brinkley said “…he was the suppertime state on 169 TV stations across America…” (Brinkley, 2012, p.265).
The 820-page biography also revealed another side of Cronkite that the public did know and probably wouldn’t have liked. He was competitive, sometimes ruthless and unethical, judgmental, jealous, and insecure.
Brinkley interviewed more than 100 people for the book and reviewed more than 600 articles that included oral histories done by Cronkite. David Hendricks with the San Antonio Express News reviewed the book (June, 2012) and said “Brinkley exhibits the right feel for the issues of the news industry and for Cronkite’s personality.”
The author chronicles Cronkite’s journalism career from his start in radio at the age of 19 to his work at United Press Wire as a fact checker and then reporter. By the time Cronkite was named the anchor of CBS News in 1962 he had a solid resume of experience covering political conventions, presidential elections, and the Vietnam War.
Cronkite had the ability to connect with his audience. Brinkley said he knew how to draw them in. “Cronkite has mastered the intentional pause, the need for frozen seconds of silence at certain historic moments” (Brinkley, 2012, p.2).
On November 22, 1963, Cronkite would solidify his mark in journalism when he was the first television anchor to report President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, TX. “Like a trapeze artist without a net, Cronkite was on his own that November 22, anchoring only by his wit” (Brinkley, 2012 p.272).
It was CBS correspondent, Dan Rather based in Dallas who gave Cronkite the first pieces of information he reported to television viewers. Kennedy had been shot. But it was
the official statement of his death that would be the most challenging for Cronkite to report. “His eyes became wells of sadness. Removing his glasses, fidgeting with them, he shot an intense look at the camera…at the viewer…” (Brinkley, 2012 p.275). President Kennedy was dead.
Cronkite stayed on the air for five hours reporting on the Kennedy story. For months to follow, the CBS mailroom was bombarded with mail from viewers thanking Cronkite for his work.
Brinkley dug into Cronkite not-so-good side too, but James Rosen who reviewed the book for The Boston Globe (July, 2012) felt the author failed his readers. “While he dutifully relate the anchorman’s many moments of personal pettiness and journalistic miscarriage…and their frequency and severity are the real-eye openers of the book—Brinkley avoids some of the tough conclusions his research warrants.”
What was Rosen talking about? In 1952, Cronkite wanted to beat his competitors in coverage of the Republican national convention at any cost. “Just how hungry Cronkite was to excel in CBS’ coverage of the conventions became readily apparent when he orchestrated the secret tape recording of the Republican’s credential committee meeting” (Brinkley, 2012,p.161)
Brinkley went soft on Cronkite for his invasion of privacy and unethical reporting, instead pointed the blame on Sig Mickelson. He was a producer who approved the bugging of the room. “Cronkite and Mickelson pulled off the bugging with the consummate skill of veteran safecrackers” (Brinkley, 2012, p.161)
Cronkite would cover many historical events in the 1960’s: Kennedy’s assassination, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, Cesar Chavez boycotts, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War. But it was Apollo 11 mission to Earth’s moon that the news anchor thought was the most historically significant of all.
Cronkite is also given credit for putting Watergate in front of a national audience. Even though Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the story in the Washington Post, Cronkite decided to turn the newspaper story into a television report in October 1972. Alicia C. Shepard with NPR wrote in 2009 “Cronkite brought the story to a national audience…even without documents.”
For a man who was at the top of his game in broadcast journalism, Cronkite had his insecurities. In the book “Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News”, Nicholas D. Gutgold (Lexington Books, 2008) described how Cronkite reacted when he heard ABC News gave Barbara Walters a five-year, five million dollar contract to co-anchor the news. Cronkite said “ There was a first wave of nausea, the sickening sensation…all of our effort to hold network television news aloof from show business has failed.”
Barbara Walters told Brinkley “Walter was very nasty about me…it was the old boys’ club and I didn’t fit in. I was a new generation, I started in TV, not the AP or UP. Walter didn’t like any of this” (Brinkley, 2012, p.523)
By the early 1980’s CBS News started to push Cronkite out of the anchor chair, and prepared to let Dan Rather take over. Cronkite did not like Rather, and the network ordered him to be nice to him.
In his last broadcast on March 6, 1981, Cronkite told his viewers “This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards proceeded me in this job and another, Dan Rather will follow.” (Youtube, March 2016)
Walter Cronkite died on July 17, 2009. He was 92-years-old. I would recommend his biography to anyone who wants to learn how news was done during the 1950’s to the 1980’s. This is a story about a man who realized television was a medium that could change the world and take people where history happens.
Walter Cronkite’s Last Broadcast (March 2016) Youtube.
Gutgold, Nichola D.(2008) Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News. Lexington Books, p. 32
Rosen, James (July 1, 2012). Cronkite’ by Douglas Brinkley. Boston Globe
Hendricks, David (June 2, 2012) Book review: ‘Cronkite’.San Antonio Express News
Shepard, Alicia C. (July 20, 2009). If Walter Cronkite Said It Was a Story, It Was. NPR.