The Most Trusted Man in America

The Most Trusted Man in America

Walter Cronkite was at the center of a fascinating moment in the history of American mass media, and the television news that he came to embody was fleeting and highly unusual—an attempt to produce serious journalism in a medium associated with escapism.

by Douglas Brinkley
Harper, 2012, 832 pp.
More than thirty years after his retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News—and over three years after his death in 2009—Walter Cronkite remains an iconic figure. He appears in the opening montage of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, and his name is routinely evoked in laments about the “decline” of broadcast journalism, which invariably remind us that he was the “most trusted man in America,” a courageous truth-teller committed to objectivity and “hard news.”

Douglas Brinkley’s long, absorbing biography of Cronkite does little to alter this impression. He tells us lots of interesting things about the man, but relatively little about how he became a mythic figure. Nor does he say very much about the particular kind of journalism that Cronkite and his colleagues produced. This is too bad, since Cronkite was at the center of a fascinating moment in the history of American mass media, and the television news that he came to embody was fleeting and highly unusual—an attempt to produce serious journalism in a medium associated with escapism.

Cronkite joined CBS in 1950, after a distinguished career as a wire-service reporter with United Press. He was one of many print journalists drawn to the new medium of television, and he remained committed to a relatively straightforward, just-the-facts approach to the news that made him a favorite of CBS executives, especially news division president Sig Mickelson. His first assignment was to explain developments in the Korean War to viewers of WTOP, CBS’s affiliate in Washington, D.C. Using maps, models, and other ingenious low-tech visual aids, he proved a master at the task. Soon he was hosting WTOP’s evening newscast and contributing short reports on the war to the fifteen-minute newscast that CBS produced in New York and fed to its growing number of affiliates.

During the 1950s, Cronkite was the network’s jack-of-all-trades. He narrated documentaries, “interviewed” actors impersonating famous personages like Joan of Arc and Benedict Arnold at the scene of groundbreaking historical events on the program You Are There, and even briefly hosted The Morning Show, an ill-fated attempt to duplicate the success of NBC’s Today. His most important job, however, was serving as the anchor of CBS’s convention and election coverage, a new role that Mickelson conceived for him in 1952. A quick study with an unusual ability to ad-lib, Cronkite was ideally suited for the assignment, as Mickelson and CBS officials immediately recognized. They made him the anchor of virtually all special live broadcasts, including the network’s coverage of space flights. It was a job that gave Cronkite lots of airtime and allowed him to “own” a story that was popular with the public. In April 1962, with the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards well behind NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report in the Nielsen ratings, Cronkite became the program’s new anchor and managing editor, a joint position he held for the next nineteen years.

Cronkite took over the broadcast at a propitious moment in television history. By the early 1960s, approximately 90 percent of American households had at least one TV, and television had become the nation’s most popular source of entertainment. Supported by advertising and specializing in programs that were inoffensive and appealing to a broad audience, the networks were making enormous profits. They were also being prodded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Kennedy administration to improve the quality of their programming, which FCC chairman Newton Minow had famously called a “vast wasteland.” Sensitive to the new mood in Washington, the networks struggled to come up with a strategy that would appease the FCC yet allow them to continue to broadcast the sitcoms, Westerns, crime dramas, and variety shows that were so popular with viewers and, by extension, advertisers. Their solution was to broadcast more news.

The networks began to pump money into their news divisions. Network chieftains rationalized this investment as a necessary expense that would build goodwill and fulfill the FCC’s requirement that they serve the “public interest.” News division executives hired more reporters, producers, engineers, and other technical personnel. They added fully staffed bureaus in the United States and abroad and built an extensive news-gathering infrastructure. And, most important of all, they introduced new technology that, over time, allowed journalists to deliver live reports from virtually anywhere in the world. Drawing on seemingly unlimited network funds, CBS and its two rival networks developed a highly sophisticated brand of television journalism that assumed a variety of forms: vivid reports from the scene of breaking news stories; expertly crafted “packages” tailor-made for broadcast on the evening news; longer stories, often the fruit of considerable research and legwork, that appeared as segments on news magazines like 60 Minutes; and compelling long-form documentaries. News division budgets mushroomed from about $20 million in the early 1960s to well over $200 million by the time of Cronkite’s retirement in 1981, a sum that far exceeded the advertising revenues generated by their programs and made them perennial money-losers for the networks.

Much of this investment went into the flagship evening newscasts, which had large audiences and were able to attract advertisers and earn a substantial profit. When Cronkite took over for Edwards, the program was still only fifteen minutes long and little more than a headline service. Producer Don Hewitt had begun to include more reports by correspondents in the field, but most of them were on 16 millimeter film and took time to develop and incorporate into a package. The gradual shift to videotape and CBS’s increasing reliance on satellite transmission made it possible for network journalists to do more. In September 1963, inspired by survey data that revealed that increasing numbers of Americans were getting their news from television, CBS and NBC, the two richest, most competitive networks, expanded their evening newscasts to half an hour; ratings laggard ABC waited until 1967.

Comfortable with their authority as professional journalists, they resolved to provide viewers with news about things that they ought to know—on the assumption that this would make them more informed citizens. This unabashedly “elitist” mission informed the content and format of the CBS Evening News and its competitors throughout Cronkite’s tenure. Cronkite and his staff identified the stories they thought were most important and then reported them in ways that would enable viewers to see how they were connected to the “drama” of our national life. It was an ambitious, distinctly educational project, directing their audience’s attention outward, beyond the provincial and familiar, to encourage understanding of a distant and complex public world. Often this meant making viewers aware of things they might not know about—for example, the extent of white resistance to the civil rights movement in the South, the prevalence of industrial pollution, or the economic and social problems plaguing American cities. Programs like Cronkite’s CBS Evening News or NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report became important “agenda-setting” institutions. They didn’t just report the news: they helped to define its boundaries and establish frames that encouraged particular ways of understanding how events were related.

Not surprisingly, their priorities reflected the centrist consensus politics of the era. Like most professional journalists during the Cold War, Cronkite and his peers saw no conflict between reporting the “truth” and supporting the American effort to contain communism. And if their reportage exposed problems within the United States, as it often did, they were confident a full accounting would encourage the public and its elected representatives to have a national discussion and come up with constructive solutions. They struggled to maintain ideological balance, were careful to give Democrats and Republicans roughly equal airtime, and were particularly supportive of bipartisan cooperation. By contrast, they were disdainful of “extremists” of the left and the right and often cast them in a highly unflattering light. The networks’ treatment of Senator Barry Goldwater, for example, convinced many conservatives that they were bastions of liberal bias, a charge that would soon become a right-wing shibboleth. Their coverage of left-wingers, especially unabashed radicals, was even worse and contributed to the New Left’s view that the networks were little more than propaganda organs for the “Establishment.”

Their effort to stay in the middle of the road became more difficult in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when bitter political and social conflict polarized the nation and evidence of government mendacity encouraged network journalists to become more independent and, at times, adversarial. Yet as the conservative drumbeat against the networks’ supposed liberal bias increased in intensity—encouraged in part by the cynical machinations of the Nixon administration—the networks quickly regained their bearings and continued their dogged and ultimately futile campaign to encourage compromise and consensus. They sought, for example, to incorporate the new conservatism into the political mainstream, and pulled out all the stops when events like the nation’s Bicentennial celebration provided an opportunity to remind Americans of all the things they presumably shared.

Though Cronkite and many of his network peers may have been liberal in their personal political beliefs, these beliefs rarely influenced the stories that appeared on their broadcasts. Cronkite was particularly good at keeping opinion out of the news—a factor, as Brinkley notes, that was vital to his continued popularity. But it wasn’t just professional scruples that kept opinions out of network news. Most stories on the network newscasts in particular were made to fit a rigid point-counterpoint format that ensured the airing of “contrasting viewpoints.” And network conventions, inspired by the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, forbade Cronkite and his correspondents from evaluating or commenting on the views and perspectives presented by sources in their stories—even if they were patently false. Producers of documentaries and investigative reports had a bit more latitude, but fear of controversy and being branded liberal made many of them reluctant to state clear-cut conclusions. In the late 1950s, Bill Paley and the other network presidents had made it very clear that “crusading”—the derisive term for taking sides—didn’t belong on network television, and most of the programs developed by their news divisions during the 1960s and 1970s, even those that sought to expose injustice, were careful not to convey this impression.

The only exceptions were “commentaries,” special segments within programs that were bracketed from the rest of the news. The most common were those that Eric Sevareid, a veteran correspondent, delivered on the CBS Evening News. Cronkite was not happy about giving up two minutes of his program for opinion, but Sevareid was a favorite of CBS News president Richard Salant, and his commentaries were popular with well-educated viewers and gave the broadcast a more distinguished air. In February 1968, during a primetime special on Vietnam, Cronkite himself stepped out of his usual role as reporter and issued a commentary, declaring the war a “stalemate.” This incident has become central to the myth of Cronkite as courageous truth-teller. But he was following public opinion rather than leading it, and it was a highly unusual deviation from his habitual devotion to moderation and objectivity.

In the late 1960s, the CBS Evening News overtook the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the ratings. And after Huntley’s retirement in 1970, Cronkite built a comfortable lead, which he maintained for the rest of his career. Cronkite’s success, as Brinkley notes, was attributable in part to his peculiar gifts as a broadcaster, especially his ability to exude authority yet still come across as a humble and down-to-earth Midwesterner. It was also attributable to the quality of CBS’s producers, front-line correspondents, and the network’s deep and highly talented “bench.” These were the program’s best years, when Cronkite and his staff sought to produce television journalism that would earn the respect of well-educated viewers and the print journalists who worked for prestige publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time. They filled their broadcast with hard news—stories about Washington politics and policy making; news from overseas, especially Europe and the Middle East; and detailed, often probing accounts of domestic issues and trends. They also included some lighter fare, like Charles Kuralt’s popular “On the Road” features. In general, however, soft news appeared infrequently and received little airtime, and much of it revolved around high culture and the fine arts, subjects that would disappear from network news by the 1990s. Throughout the 1970s, Cronkite and his staff remained committed to the public service mission that had dominated CBS News since the days of Ed Murrow—to provide viewers with what journalists understood to be news, with little regard to the preferences of their audience.

The most remarkable thing about the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, however, was its enormous audience. Millions of Americans watched Cronkite’s broadcast nightly, and millions of other people watched the equally serious newscasts produced by NBC and ABC. In the mid-1960s, approximately 90 percent of televisions in use at the dinner hour were turned to one of the network newscasts. And by 1980, their combined audience peaked at 52.1 million viewers. By contrast, in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, only about 22 million viewers watched them, and their share of the television audience at the dinner hour had declined to 29 percent. This is why the Cronkite era is widely regarded as television news’s “golden age.” While he occupied the anchor’s chair, many more Americans watched news programs broadcast by the networks, and those programs were more serious and substantive than television news today.

The reasons for this are complex. The first is essentially cultural. In the age of Cronkite, many Americans viewed following the news—in print or on television—as a civic obligation. They weren’t necessarily “news junkies,” and much of the public consumed tabloid-style newspapers that weren’t very different from the “infotainment” that would eventually dominate TV. However, during the Second World War, a powerful imperative to be at least vaguely aware of important things occurring in the nation and the world began to spread throughout the United States. It was encouraged by government officials, educators, and journalists and gained additional urgency during the early years of the Cold War as part of a larger campaign to build public support for an interventionist foreign policy and domestic initiatives that would keep the nation unified and prosperous. The development of national newscasts by the networks made it easier for many Americans to fulfill this obligation and contributed to the development of a TV news “habit” that still persists among many older Americans. Equally important, viewers had few choices in the age of Cronkite. During the 1960s, many television markets had no more than a handful of stations, and the network newscasts were usually broadcast at the same time. Viewers were essentially a captive audience, and many of them felt obliged to watch network news because a chorus of cultural authorities told them it was important to do so.

Yet even before Cronkite’s retirement things had begun to change. Improvements in TV reception and the establishment of independent, non-network stations on the now viable ultra-high-frequency band gave viewers more options. With the spread of cable, those options proliferated, providing Cronkite and the other network anchors with real competition. In a shrewd act of counterprogramming, Ted Turner’s WTBS, the first nationally disseminated cable “superstation,” scheduled reruns of Star Trek at exactly the same time as the network newscasts. Its success led other cable and independent over-the-air stations to schedule entertainment programs opposite network news. By 1980, the combined share of the audience commanded by the three network newscasts had already fallen to 75 percent.

Entertainment programs were not the only things that drew viewers away from the network newscasts. By 1980, local stations, including many network affiliates, had built substantial news departments and were demanding the right to broadcast breaking news that the networks preferred to showcase on their flagship evening newscasts. They gained additional leverage when Turner created CNN and established reciprocal agreements with individual stations, allowing them to cover news in their region for CNN and giving them CNN’s feed for any news outside of it. To meet this threat, the networks were compelled to provide their affiliates with live pictures throughout the broadcast day, so that by the time the networks broadcast their evening newscasts, many people had already seen the latest video headlines on local stations or perhaps even more detailed reports on CNN. Once this occurred, there was little reason for many Americans to make an “appointment” for watching the network newscasts when they aired at the dinner hour, particularly as Americans worked longer hours and the new service economy made it possible to run errands and attend to family responsibilities well into the evening. Even worse, by the 1980s many younger Americans had stopped following the news, a trend that accelerated during the 1990s and made the network newscasts an unattractive buy for many advertisers.

Cronkite’s retirement, then, was no less timely than his elevation as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Network news programs—especially the evening newscasts—had already begun to lose viewers. To arrest this trend, network journalists were forced to alter the format and content of their programs, making them more like local news shows, which were more popular and profitable than the newscasts produced by the networks. Roone Arledge, the brilliant producer who became head of ABC News in the late 1970s, was one of the first people in network news to move in this direction. Many of his innovations were derided by producers and journalists at CBS and NBC, but they were soon compelled to follow his lead. This would have happened even if Cronkite had remained on the job—and even if the corporate patriarchs who had built the networks and indulged their news divisions had not been replaced by new owners and managers who were determined to make the news pay.

Indeed, at CBS and the other networks there were many younger producers and journalists who had apprenticed in local news and were eager to bring some of its innovations to programs like the CBS Evening News. Unlike Cronkite and much of the network old guard, most of them had never worked as print journalists. They had grown up in TV news and were eager to create journalism that was better-suited to the medium. They recognized that while many viewers liked Cronkite personally, they found his program dull and too Washington-centric. They concluded that if network news was going to survive in the more competitive environment created by cable and especially CNN, it needed to become more “viewer friendly.”

Shortly after Cronkite’s retirement this younger generation began to gain influence, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, a handful of them—Howard Stringer, Andrew Lack, Rick Kaplan, and Neal Shapiro—had risen to positions of power at all three of the networks. The ascent of this younger cohort strengthened the hand of dissident veterans like Don Hewitt and ABC’s Av Westin, who had been arguing for years for a more innovative and engaging brand of television journalism. The critical and commercial success of Hewitt’s 60 Minutes (and NBC’s longtime hit Today) seemed to affirm the emerging orthodoxy that TV news was best suited for storytelling and dramatic interviews, not sober, analytical “process” pieces, and that programs worked best when they combined hard and soft news.

So when new owners took over the networks and demanded news programming that would keep viewers from defecting to cable, there were already successful models from which news division executives and producers could draw. And there were people in all the network news divisions who were willing to go along with this agenda—though not necessarily with the accompanying budget cuts that reduced or eliminated bureaus and pared back the news-gathering infrastructure that the networks had built over the previous three decades.

The economic reasons for making network news more viewer friendly were reinforced when the FCC came under the influence of conservatives and New Democrats committed to deregulation and increasing consumer choice. They repealed the Fairness Doctrine, relaxed the limits on station ownership and market share, and made it very clear that, as one FCC commissioner put, the public interest was what interested the public. The path was now clear for network journalists to produce programs that were more “useful” and “interesting,” and to move away from the pompous “Voice of God” style of broadcasting that had dominated the industry in the Age of Cronkite.

Network journalists never intended to dumb down the news, yet they recognized far more than Cronkite and the old guard that the TV industry had changed in fundamental ways. Cable had made the economics of network television more precarious, and the largesse that network executives had bestowed on their news divisions was a luxury they could no longer afford. The TV news habit was waning, and many viewers felt empowered as consumers to watch whatever they wanted—regardless of whether it was edifying or important.

Very soon, the competition for ratings became more intense, and modest efforts to make the news more interesting and relevant turned into a veritable race to the bottom. Eager for a competitive edge, many producers incorporated features from syndicated infotainment to liven their up programs. By the end of 1990s, the network newscasts offered far less international news, while hard news about politics and important social and economic trends was often swamped by crime stories and consumer and health news. And the network newscasts were, by far, the most substantive network offerings; the news programs the networks broadcast in primetime, with the notable exception of 60 Minutes, were a circus of crime, scandal, and celebrity interviews. Thanks to the “magic of marketplace,” television news had become another species of show business.

By the early 2000s, Walter Cronkite was a relic of another age, when television news was at least partially insulated from competition and “market discipline,” and news was regarded by many Americans as something more than just another TV show. Though it is easy to see this change as a recent development sparked by the spread of cable, perhaps the die was cast long before, in the industry’s infancy, when network leaders and the FCC decided that television should operate according to the same model as radio and rely on advertising to pay for program production and distribution. This made it virtually inevitable that TV would be dominated by entertainment programming, and that news programs seeking to do something other than entertain would be an awkward fit. Once viewers came to regard TV as a source of entertainment—something that took people out of their ordinary lives and offered aesthetic and visceral pleasures—it became a lousy platform for news, and Cronkite and others who sought to produce serious television journalism were swimming against an irresistible current. The wonder is that they got as far as they did.

Charles L. Ponce de Leon, an associate professor of History and American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is completing a book on the history of television news.