Uncle Walt and the Lost Era of Network News
Somewhere near the far turn of this absurdly long and generally fawning biography of the “most trusted man in America,” it seems that something of real importance suddenly dawned on biographer Douglas Brinkley. Amid all of the clashing of inflated egos and show biz stories, Brinkley realizes that it apparently never occurred to the Walter Cronkite, the “biggest TV news star in U.S. history,” that he might have been part of a serious “cultural problem.”
This problem, as Brinkley defines it, was that news as entertainment had done little to educate the American people and much to make them putty in the hands of clever politicians. Fair enough. But there is little evidence in this biography that there might be another piece of this problem, namely that the American people were also potential putty in the hands of television networks and their celebrated anchors. Had both halves of this problem been front and center in Brinkley’s mind all along, his extensive efforts might have resulted in a much more tightly focused study of an historical figure of some importance, an era that is long gone, and a problem that admittedly isn’t quite as worrisome today, if only because network news isn’t nearly as powerful as it once was.
There was a time when Walter Cronkite was the dominant figure of network news (although it took him a good while to overtake Huntley and Brinkley). There was also a somewhat longer time when network news dominated the country. Both those times are long gone, and neither the era nor a Cronkite-like figure is likely to return any time soon, if ever.
All of which gives us a good reason to look back on the career of Mr. Cronkite. After all, the heyday of network news virtually coincided with his elevation to the CBS anchor’s chair in 1962 and ended not long after he passed the baton (but not the chair) on to his arch-rival and soon-to-be arch-enemy, Dan Rather. Not the chair? As they say in the news biz, stay tuned.
A print reporter first, college dropout Cronkite cut his radio teeth as one of “Murrow’s boys” during World War II. Cronkite lacked the Murrow tone and cadence, but he did possess a reassuring voice that was distinctly his own and well-suited for radio.
With television looming and his ambitions rising, the dentist’s son from Kansas City soon left radio behind. In short order listeners-turned-viewers discovered that the Cronkite visage matched the voice, and Cronkite in turn discovered that he had been fortunate twice over. The good fit for radio was a perfect fit for television.
Far from being a pretty boy, Cronkite lacked the craggy gravitas of an Eric Sevareid or the urbane polish of a Charles Collingwood. But he had something that was distinctly his own, namely a comfortable presence. Mustache in place, he soon became everybody’s Uncle Walter—and at a point in his life when he was barely old enough to play such a role.
But play that role he did as he went about the business of convincing his audience—and himself—that his was the voice of detached objectivity. For the most part, he pulled it off, thanks to that presence and a lot of hard work. Cronkite was always thoroughly prepared, but, unlike Murrow, he refused to memorize. Instead, he was the master of the rehearsed—and unrehearsed—ad-lib.
Oh, there were moments when the real Walter Cronkite was unashamedly on display in American living rooms. There was nothing remote or rehearsed about the Cronkite who fought back tears and fiddled with his glasses while trying to tell us that President Kennedy was dead. And there was nothing neutral about his undisguised and unabashed enthusiasm for the American space program.
There was also the indignant Uncle Walter launching into a minor tirade as Chicago’s finest waded into crowds of his virtual nieces and nephews outside—and inside—the 1968 Democratic national convention. Then there was the virtuous Uncle Walter who was determined to do what he could to advance the cause of civil rights. And lest we forget, there was the aggrieved, even betrayed, Uncle Walter, who broke with President Johnson’s Vietnam policy after the Tet Offensive, having concluded that he’d long been lied to by the administration about the state of American progress, or lack thereof, in that war.
Other than all of that, the virtual Uncle Walter managed to keep the real Cronkite pretty much under wraps. In truth, this wasn’t difficult to do, since the differences between them were fairly minimal. When Cold War liberalism was ascendant, both Cronkites were essentially Cold War liberals. When that liberalism cracked and floundered over Vietnam, both Cronkites moved into the camp of antiwar McGovernite liberalism. And as liberalism moved leftward during his retirement years, the real Walter Cronkite could pretty much drop the Uncle Walter façade and head leftward all by himself.
In the years that remained to him, Cronkite became what Brinkley labels the “defiant liberal.” Such a stance dictated an occasional break from his twin passions for sailing and the New York celebrity life in order to combat what he deemed to be the “four major dangers to civilization”: pollution, nuclear proliferation, depletion of natural resources, and world hunger. That each of the four might have been listed by any number of less-than-defiant, liberal New York celebrities is probably not an accident.
In a Playboy interview Cronkite once tried his hand at explaining the leftward bent of the news media. It seems that journalists were “inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions”—including, no doubt, the authority of the institution that was CBS News. In any case, if this was the inclination that tilted his profession leftward, Cronkite used that reassuring voice of his to add that he didn’t think there were many who were “far left.” Such a relief! One is left wondering which is worse: the herd-like mentality of Cronkite and his colleagues or the simple-mindedness of his (and their) thinking.
In any case, none of this bothers Douglas Brinkley. “Everyone knew he was a liberal,” shrugs Cronkite’s biographer. Brinkley might just as well have summed up his subject’s professional life with a variation of his subject’s signature farewell: “That’s just the way he was.”
And that was also just the way Walter Cronkite had pretty much always been. As a young man, reports Brinkley, Cronkite “exaggerated his pacifism” to avoid military service. After the war he was convinced that the “old ways of militarism” were history. In 1952 he became a Stevenson man, because of Ike’s association with “right-wing Republicans.” At the GOP convention of that same year Cronkite orchestrated the secret taping of the credentials committee and later justified the covert act as being “good for democracy.”
Twelve years later he dismissed Barry Goldwater’s appeal as “covertly racist.” In fairness to Brinkley and Cronkite, Uncle Walter was no Daniel Schorr. To Brinkley, Schorr’s strained effort to link Goldwater to the Nazis was “ugly stuff.” Still, Brinkley insists, as far as Walter Cronkite was concerned Senator Goldwater “lived on some far right wing side of the planet that he never cared to visit.”
Curiously, even though the Cronkite of the 1980s was well to the left of the Cronkite of the 1960s, the elder Cronkite was much kinder to Ronald Reagan than his middle-aged counterpart had ever been to Goldwater. To be sure, Reagan was sunnier and more successful than Goldwater, and Cronkite always appreciated both sunniness and success. When interviewing Reagan as he geared up for his 1984 re-election bid, Cronkite coaxed from the president this strategy for victory over Walter Mondale: We’ll just “tell [the voters] what we’ve done and what we’re going to do and pretend that [the Democrats] aren’t there.” It was a simple and winning strategy.
Whenever he interviewed the high and the mighty, Cronkite tended to be the kindly Uncle Walter. As such, he was sometimes derided by his (perhaps jealous) colleagues for being the king of the softball question. Brinkley tends to agree. Even Mayor Richard Daley got the easy treatment from a deferential Uncle Walter in the aftermath of his tirade against the Chicago police.
If there was an American president Cronkite neither liked nor trusted, it was, naturally, Richard Nixon. George W. Bush was a not-very-distant second, with LBJ a very distant third. Not surprisingly, Cronkite remained a fan of the Great Society and its war on poverty long after he decided that Johnson’s other war had been a disaster.
In another Vietnam War-related non-surprise, Brinkley tells us that the ever-unctuous Bill Moyers had the temerity to suggest that Cronkite and CBS should have been more courageous by way of criticizing the 1965 Vietnam buildup, thereby sparing the country (and Moyers) the consequences of his boss’s blunders. The generally reserved Brinkley calls such blame-shifting by its proper name: “ass-covering bullshit.”
In retirement, however, Cronkite himself engaged in a similar speculation: had the networks not gutted their foreign bureaus in the late 1980s, the conflict in the Middle East might never have happened. Did the Walter Cronkite truly believe that he and his pals were that powerful? That would explain why they took themselves and their roles so seriously—and why they battled so much among themselves for “face time.” Many of these many, many pages are devoted to in-house spats among the CBS talking heads, the most enduring of which was the Rather-Cronkite imbroglio.
If cat-fights among academics are so intense because the stakes are so low, how are we to account for what went on when CBS was riding high? The low point of all this was Rather’s refusal to use Cronkite’s chair when he assumed Cronkite’s role in 1981. We learn from Brinkley that the two men never got along—and never reconciled. We also learn something Brinkley claims Cronkite knew nothing about, namely Rather’s collusion with Martin Luther King, Jr. to help assure that the latter’s nonviolent protests would receive favorable treatment by CBS News.
Why Cronkite would have objected to such collusion is left unexamined. Given what we know about his sympathies, he likely would have approved. After all, when you have what Brinkley calls the “truth-telling camera” on your side, why not use it? But is the camera always and inevitably a truth teller? Brinkley, Cronkite, and Rather all seem to think so.
In any case, the power of that camera in the hands of CBS News and its network rivals is clearly not what it was. This shift might have many consequences. Nostalgia for the good old heydays of CBS News might boost sales for this book. Given their plummeting ratings and revenue, future in-house conflicts among network talking heads might actually intensify to academic levels, thereby someday spurring interest in a Cronkite-sized book on Katie Couric. But best of all, the diminished clout of the networks might actually bring about a result that Cronkite claimed to have had in mind when he surreptitiously taped those GOP conventioneers at work in 1952. In sum, the decline and fall of CBS News in particular and network news in general might well prove to be “good for democracy.”
John C. Chalberg teaches American history in Minnesota.
Posted: March 10, 2013