This may be the most famous photo of the many famous photos of the famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. The grainy, black and white image was taken while Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced the awful news that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.
In a remarkable piece of 1963-vintage television reporting, Cronkite sits calmly in the middle of what had to have been massive confusion in the CBS newsroom, fielding notes handed to him and seamlessly handing off the airwaves to a local reporter in Dallas. He makes it look easier than it was in 1963. We take that electronic news sleight of hand for granted today. It wasn’t normal back in the black and white days of television.
Two things about Cronkite’s reporting and demeanor strike me after all these years and after having seen the video many times. First, was his unwillingness to rush to the judgment that JFK had actually died. A local reporter in Dallas says that the president has apparently died and then Cronkite is handed a note saying that Dan Rather, who ironically would no so successfully replace Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in 1981, was reporting the same thing.
Still, the veteran wire service reporter won’t flatly speak the dreaded news. Finally, when the wire services confirm Kennedy’s death, Cronkite, with a slight quiver in his voice, says its true – the President of the United States has been assassinated. And that is the second remarkable thing about the video. Cronkite shows the emotion that I can remember and most American’s felt upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death – disbelief, horror, sadness, even fright. All of that was captured in a few seconds of television’s first draft of history.
In his masterful new biography of Cronkite historian Douglas Brinkley devotes an entire chapter, 20 pages, to Cronkite’s and CBS’s handling of the Kennedy murder. I read the passage, still gripped by the intensity of the moment all these years later, just a day after CNN and Fox News, among others, blew the initial coverage of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obamacare. What a contrast. And, while the two events – a president assassinated and a controversial court ruling – are hardly comparable, Cronkite’s careful, humble, measured response in handling a huge story is a startling contrast to a flustered, unprepared Wolf Blitzer mishandling a big story.
The Brinkley book, more than anything I have read recently about the state of journalism, particularly television journalism, makes the case that Cronkite-era standards have gone missing on much of the nation’s airwaves. The three network evening news programs, while drawing a sliver of the audience that Cronkite and his contemporaries once commanded, still offer a version of the old network quality and seriousness, but the vast wasteland of cable news is completely foreign to the news product CBS once put on the air night after night.
Cronkite, we learn from Brinkley’s exhaustive research, was far from a saint. He was extraordinarily competitive, could cut his colleagues off at the knees, loved bawdy jokes and arguably became too much the cheerleader for the space program and NASA. And, later in life, Cronkite simply quit trying to mask his liberal political opinions giving his detractors reason to question whether he had always played the news straight down the middle.
Still, the Cronkite that emerges at Brinkley’s hands is a pro, a well-read, well-sourced reporter who wanted to be first, but more importantly wanted to be right. Cronkite also had a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of television news. He knew he couldn’t match the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and didn’t try, but still based almost an entire CBS Evening New broadcast on the print reporting Woodward and Bernstein had done. Cronkite’s coverage of the Nixon resignation in 1974 is still riveting television.
At the same time, Uncle Walter knew that taking a reporter and camera along as U.S. GI’s hunted the Viet Cong in the rice paddies of South Vietnam was exactly the story that television could report with brutal and uncomfortable honesty. CBS with Cronkite as the Managing Editor, a newspaper term and role at he completely embraced, helped make Vietnam the living room war. Cronkite’s 1968 special on Vietnam – he declared the war at a stalemate – was a decisive political and media moment in that awful period of our history.
For most Americans younger than 40 Walter Cronkite and his brand of television news are ancient history, no more relevant to modern America than Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Edison. But Cronkite, who died in 2009, is relevant precisely because there is no one like him now.
No one, really, picked up the Cronkite mantle when he left the anchor desk, prematurely he would conclude, in 1981. Cronkite came, it is now clear, from the greatest generation of television news, as did Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and many others from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. But there was only one Cronkite and now we have a book that remembers his story and his greatness, warts an all, even as some of us search for a place to turn in the vast television wasteland that measures up, even a little, to his standards.
“He seemed to me incorruptible,” said director Sidney Lumet, “in a profession that was easily corruptible.”
Cronkite would joke when someone referred to him as the “most trusted man in America,” that it was clear “they hadn’t checked with my wife.” But that title fit then and it seems all the more special – and retired – today.