CRONKITE, WALTER

U.S. Broadcast Journalist

Walter Cronkite is the former CBS Evening News anchorman, whose commentary 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 scrutinized by politicians, intellectuals, and fellow journalists for clues to the thinking of mainstream America. In contrast, Cronkite viewed himself as a working journalist, epitomized 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 ws, "And that's the way it is."

After working at a public relations firm, for newspapers, and in small radio stations throughout the Midwest, in l939 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 Nuremburg trials, and opened the UP's first post-war Moscow bureau.

Though he had earlier rejected an offer from Edward R. Murrow, 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 program was expanded from fifteen to thirty 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 l964, 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. Publically accepting the change, but privately disturbed, Cronkite contemplated leaving CBS. However, over ll,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," he said, "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 l972, 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. On an international level.

Cronkite could also influence foreign diplomacy, as evidenced in a l977 interview with Eygptian President Anwar El-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 an 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-Eygptian Peace treaty.

Many criticized him 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. Similarly, Cronkite was critized because of his preference for short "breaking stories," many of them originating from CBS News' Washington bureau, rather than longer "Enterprisers," which might deal with long range and non-Washington stories. In addition, many felt that Conkite's demand for center stage--an average of six minutes out of the 22 minutes on an evening newscast focused on him--took time away from in-depth coverage of the news. Some referred to this time in the spotlight as "the magic."

In l981, in accord with CBS policy, Cronkite retired. Since then, however, he has hardly been inactive. Indeed, his New Years Eve hosting of PBS's broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic has become as much a New Years Eve tradition as the dropping of the ball in Times Square. He has 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.

Cronkite's legacy of separating reporting from advocacy has become the norm in television news. In addition, his name has become virtually synonymous with the position of news anchor worldwide--Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters, but in Holland they are Cronkiters.

-Albert Auster

WALTER CRONKITE. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, U.S.A., 4 November 1916. Attended University of Texas, 1933-35. Married: Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, 1940; three children. Newswriter and editor, Scripps-Howard, also for United Press, Houston, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Dallas, Austin, and El Paso, Texas; and New York City; United Press war correspondent, 1942-45, foreign correspondent, reopening bureaus in Amsterdam, Brussels; chief correspondent, Nuremberg war crimes trials, bureau manager, Moscow, 1946-48, manager and contributor, 1948-49, CBS-News correspondent, 1950-81, special correspondent, since 1981; managing editor, CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, 1962-81. Honorary degrees: American International College; Harvard University; LL.D., Rollins College, Bucknell University, Syracuse University; L.H.D., Ohio State University. Member: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (president, national academy, New York chapter, 1959, Governor's Award, 1979); Association Radio News Analysts. Recipient: several Emmy Awards; Peabody Awards, 1962 and 1981; William A. White Award for journalistic merit, 1969; George Polk Journalism Award, 1971; Gold Medal, International Radio and Television Society, 1974; Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award in Broadcast Journalism, 1978 and 1981; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1981.

TELEVISION SERIES

1953-57 You Are There
1957-67 Twentieth Century
1961-62 Eyewitness to History
1961-79 CBS Reports
1967-70 21st Century
1962-81 CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite             (managing editor)
1980-82 Universe (host)
1991 Dinosaur!

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1975 Vietnam: A War That Is Finished
1975 In Celebration of US
1975 The President in China
1977 Our Happiest Birthday
1984 Solzhenitsyn:
1984 Revisited

PUBLICATIONS

The Challenges of Change. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1971.

Eye on the World. New York: Cowles, 1971.

Unger, Arthur. "`Uncle Walter' and the `Information Crisis'" (interview). Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1990.

"Covering Religion" (interview). The Christian Century (Chicago, Illinois), 14 December 1994.

Snow, Richard F. "He Was There" (interview). American Heritage (New York), December 1994.

FURTHER READING

Attanasio, Paul. "Anchors Away: Good Evening Dan, Tom and Peter. Now Buzz Off." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 23 April 1984.

Cronkite, Kathy. On the Edge of the Spotlight: Celebrities' Children Speak Out About Their Lives. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Rottenberg, Dan. "And That's the Way It Is." American Journalism Review (College Park, Maryland), May 1994.

 

See also Anchor; Kennedy, John F., Assassination; News (Network); Space Program and Television