The nicest thing I can say about Walter Cronkite is that he was no Eric Sevareid.
Cronkite tried never to become part of the story. Sevareid commandeered precious minutes for bombastic commentaries that neither provided news nor provoked thought. When Sevareid was on the air, it was safe to check out what NBC was covering.
On a newscast stocked with star reporters who competed for airtime, Cronkite kept himself out of the way. When he did an interview or a report from the field, the focus was always on the subject, never on Cronkite. When Cronkite said the Vietnam War appeared destined for stalemate, we did not see him as a hawk or a dove, a Democrat or a Republican, a conservative or a liberal. We just saw him as a newsman reporting what was in front of him.
Even Baby Boomers who vowed to “never trust anyone over 30” trusted Cronkite. He told us what we needed to know, not what we wanted to hear or what he wanted us to hear. He fought, publicly but in vain, to get CBS and its affiliates to expand the nightly newscast to 60 minutes (less 16 minutes for commercials). In the age of assassinations, Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis, Cronkite tried to tell us the way it was in just 22 minutes every night. He never pretended that this was enough.
All sides of an issue got a fair presentation on Cronkite’s broadcast. Even on something as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (in my opinion, the most transformative American legislation since the Bill of Rights), Cronkite did not need to offer his own position, and, to my knowledge, he never did. All he had to do was introduce correspondents who, at great personal risk, gave us pictures of policemen attacking peaceful demonstrators with dogs, clubs and fire hoses.
War tore the country apart, cities erupted in flames and riots, a president resigned in disgrace. Through it all, ideas and substance were the hallmark of Cronkite’s broadcast. We could not get all the news in those 22 minutes, but we got a lot of it.
Cronkite was no pretty boy. You could say he had a face made for print reporting, where he got his start writing for the old United Press. Wire service news requires clean and efficient presentation of the facts, as I learned at The Associated Press. Though I never met Cronkite, he had a big influence on me as a young journalist. I consciously used his simple, direct style as my model when I wrote for The AP’s broadcast wires. Broadcasters sent appreciative notes to my bureau chief.
CBS made a terrible mistake when it selected Dan Rather instead of Roger Mudd to succeed Cronkite. Rather already had shown too great a tendency to insert himself in his stories. He drew attention by reporting from the Galveston oceanfront in the 1960s. In the 1970s he famously clashed with embattled President Richard Nixon. At one press conference Rather stood up to ask a question about Watergate, prompting Nixon to ask, “Are you running for something?” Rather tartly replied, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” It was not easy at that moment to generate sympathy for Nixon, but Rather’s disrespect succeeded.
So it was no surprise when Rather, on assignment with Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, made himself look ridiculous by wearing native garb on camera. The credibility Cronkite bequeathed him was destroyed. The CBS Evening News fell to the bottom of the ratings heap under Rather, and it remains there today.
Today’s broadcast news has many Sevareids, full of opinions and self-importance. They go by names like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly and Nancy Grace. We have multiple 24-hour news channels, rendering Cronkite’s quest for a 60-minute broadcast moot, but at many times of the day I still cannot find a U.S.-based channel to give me any real news.
These outlets feel the need to remind us how “fair and balanced” they are, apparently because we would not know this from watching them. Meanwhile, the audience votes with its eyeballs. Republicans watch Fox News, Democrats watch CNN. It is fine for everyone to have his own opinions, but it worries me when everyone has his own facts.
Cronkite anchored a corner of American journalism at what may have been its apogee, a time when Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, young people and old, got their news from the same trusted source. And that’s the way it was.