18 July 2009

Walter Cronkite

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with Permission

The job of network news anchor requires a certain amount of constant, fond self-regard combined with a lot of chutzpah. It’s not a job for the shy and retiring, and the mistake Walter Cronkite made — and regretted — was to retire from the anchor chair, in 1981.

I daresay it’s a shock to shift abruptly from telling people, “And that’s the way it is,” and knowing that this sweeping statement will be accepted as authoritative, trustworthy, and true — to having to scramble to make your voice heard on the air, and to push for invitations to serve as an éminence grise at nominating conventions and special events. One day, the world hangs on your every word; the next, your little science program has been cancelled after two years for lack of viewers. In such circumstances, maintaining a sterling character probably was impossible.

Cronkite was not notably gracious to his successor at The CBS Evening News. I don’t know whether Cronkite himself was involved in the periodic palace coups that attempted to restore him to the anchor chair, but certainly plenty of his partisans plotted in his behalf. When these attempts failed, Cronkite fell back to the board of CBS, while his salvos against Dan Rather grew more bitter and more personal. Long after any chance had vanished that Cronkite might take back the anchor chair, he continued these attacks.

For Cronkite had learned that badmouthing Dan was an almost certain means to get his name in the newspaper. Attention-starved, he made a habitual practice of popping off. Dan admired Cronkite, spent decades seeking Cronkite’s approval, and daily confronted challenges Cronkite never knew and frankly couldn’t imagine (such as a universe in which 500 rival television stations are only one of the forms your competition takes). Walter showed no mercy, though; he seldom missed an opportunity to piss on Dan, from heights that were, in his own estimation but also in Dan’s, Olympian. And as Walter knew, there wasn’t damned much that Dan could do about it.

I met Cronkite many times, mostly at funerals but also when he was invited to the set to comment on the events of the day. He wasn’t terribly at ease on these occasions (why would he have been?), and he presumed (rightly) that I was the most pro-Rather guy in a generally pro-Rather newsroom. As a result, he revealed little of the charm others describe in him, and even his journalistic and analytic skills seemed to desert him. (The best-known example is probably a rambling anecdote about a rambling anecdote that his cab driver had told him on the way to the studio, one night during the first Gulf War. Cronkite the anchor wouldn’t have had much patience with Cronkite the visiting expert.)

That’s why I’m sorry I never worked in the newsroom when it was his: he was a titan, and I wish I’d known a better side of him, in the years when he did his best work — in the years when he worked at all.

Today’s audiences are less accepting of authoritative pronouncements like “And that’s the way it is.” If a news anchor were to say such a thing now, thousands of viewers might balk and change to another news channel, or log onto a Media Watchdog site to protest, or begin to compile lists of ways in which, no, “it” is not this way, appended to a list of things Walter left out of his report, never mind the statements that were contradicted by other news outlets — and then we’d post that list like the Diet of Worms on the church door of our blogs. Provided that we are watching the news at all, though it’s increasingly likely that we are not.

No one alive today will ever know power that Walter Cronkite wielded, or the challenge that he faced after he left the job that made him famous, simply because no one alive today will ever have a job quite like his. Cronkite’s stature, like that of Michael Jackson, can’t be replicated in today’s environment. He was more trusted than the President, more admired than the Pope, but something short of an Angel.


Kevin said...

Did he in fact choose to retire? On CNN last night, his retirement described as a forced one: basically Bill Paley insisting on his policy of 65 and gone.

In any case, for all I know, Rather might have been a better journalist, but CBS News could never again reduplicate its status during the Cronkite era, for all the reasons you indicate. What I remember from my childhood is Cronkite announcing the toll of casualties in Vietnam at the end of every week, and the kind of impact it had on me: "that's the way it is." I stopped even being able to watch Rather at all at some point --was it after 9/11?--when he started more or less running the flag up the pole and saluting it every broadcast. I don't blame Rather personally for this--just seemed to be part of the increasingly hysterical nature of American patriotism as the American Century drew to a close. Cronkite belonged to a different era.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insightful commentary but the previous poster is correct. I always thought Chronkite had to retire as that was the Paley policy at that time. Both Chronkite and Sevareid taught me alot about journalism, good writing, and a personal power and persona sorely lacking in todays pseudo journalism. I m glad I was a teenager in the turbulent 60s so I can recall and share.


William V. Madison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William V. Madison said...

Everything I've seen in the coverage of Walter Cronkite's death indicates that stepping down from the anchor chair was indeed his choice, and that he didn't believe at the time that he was retiring altogether, merely taking on a lighter workload. (He was 64.)

Indeed, he didn't retire from CBS after leaving the Evening News. He maintained an office and a staff ("the Cronkite unit") on 57th Street for many years, including most of those years that I worked for the News Division (1987–99), and I must presume he drew some sort of salary.

The obituaries I've seen for him confirm what I heard when I worked at CBS, though I'm honest enough to remind my readers that I wasn't in Cronkite's camp and may not have had access to all the information. If anyone has any harder facts to support a different interpretation of the story, I'm prepared to hear 'em out.

It is true that Eric Sevareid was forced to retire from CBS when he turned 65, and he was none too happy about that. Unlike Cronkite, he was tossed onto the sidewalk by the network. I wrote about Sevareid here, on the 15th anniversary of his death: http://billmadison.blogspot.com/2007/07/eric-sevareid.html

Dan Rather has written quite generously of Cronkite in USA Today this morning, 21 July 2009: