New Biography of CBS Newsman Walter Cronkite Dents His Halo

Walter Cronkite. CBS Photo Archive-Getty Images

In the early 1970s, the most trusted man in America did a very untrustworthy thing.

Unbeknownst to the millions who tuned in religiously to the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite cut a deal with Pan Am to fly his family to vacation spots around the world. Together with a handful of friends, they roamed from the South Pacific to Haiti, with Cronkite snorkeling, swimming, and drinking, thanks to a friend at the airline. According to Douglas Brinkley’s sweeping and masterful biography Cronkite, the news division president, Dick Salant, was upset at what he deemed a blatant conflict of interest, but took no action against his star anchor.

This was not the Cronkite I grew up admiring from the time I watched his image flickering on a small black-and-white set, the voice of authority in an age when we still revered, without a trace of cynicism, those who spoon-fed us the news.

I got to know Cronkite after his anchoring days as a charming, hard-of-hearing, slightly stodgy spokesman for old-fashioned news values against the encroachment of tabloid entertainment. There was a certain sadness about him, an old warrior who sorely missed being in the trenches. He was a creature of a simpler time, telling me in 2002 that the network newscasts should be all headlines and no features, seemingly ignoring the rhythms of the Internet age.

In reading this first major biography of Cronkite, I came to realize that the man who once dominated television journalism was more complicated—and occasionally more unethical—than the legend that surrounds him. Had Cronkite engaged in some of the same questionable conduct today—he secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 GOP convention—he would have been bashed by the blogs, pilloried by the pundits, and quite possibly ousted by his employer. That he endured and prospered, essentially unscathed, until his death in 2009 reminded me of how impervious the monopoly media were in those days, largely shielded from the scrutiny they inflicted on everyone else.

“Nobody wanted to go after Walter Cronkite,” Brinkley says. Within CBS “he became a force of nature. He could almost dictate anything he wanted. He was the franchise.”

The book, written with the cooperation of Cronkite and his family, recounts the remarkable career for which he is justly revered: the forging of a no-nonsense newscast that began as a mere 15 minutes; the tireless (bordering on worshipful) chronicling of the space program; the dogged reporting in Vietnam that helped turn the country against the war; the lengthy segments on Watergate that elevated the scandal to a national obsession. Cronkite was a rigorous newsman, trained at the venerable United Press and blessed with the ability to expound extemporaneously on television.

But he was far more liberal than the public believed, and he let it show in unacceptable ways. Had Cronkite pulled such stunts today, I would probably be among those calling for him to step down.

Barry Goldwater distrusted him from the start, and with good reason. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Cronkite nodded his head in thinly veiled contempt when handed a note on air that the Arizona senator had said “no comment.” Goldwater was attending his mother-in-law’s funeral that day.

“Whether or not Senator Goldwater wins the nomination,” Cronkite told viewers another day, “he is going places, the first place being Germany.” Although Goldwater had merely accepted an invitation to visit a U.S. Army facility there, correspondent Daniel Schorr said he was launching his campaign in “the center of Germany’s right wing.” During Goldwater’s speech at the 1964 convention, some conservatives fed up with the networks gave Cronkite the finger.

Four years later, after Cronkite had belatedly turned against LBJ’s Vietnam War, he met privately with Robert Kennedy. “You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war,” he said in Kennedy’s Senate office. Soon afterward, Cronkite got an exclusive interview in which Kennedy left the door open for a possible run—the very candidacy that the anchor had urged him to undertake. (Kennedy announced three days later.) I am shaking my head at the spectacle of a network anchor secretly urging a politician to mount a White House campaign—and then interviewing him about that very question. This was duplicitous, a major breach of trust.

Once Richard Nixon took office, his unscrupulous aide Chuck Colson launched an investigation of Cronkite’s record in hopes of exposing him as a Kennedy liberal. And he struck pay dirt in examining Cronkite’s CBS radio broadcasts, where the anchor was far more opinionated and regularly dished what Brinkley calls “over-the-top commentary full of pro-Democratic partisanship.” Cronkite asked, for example, why more Americans weren’t livid with the administration for covering up the My Lai massacre.

“I thought that some day the roof was going to fall in ... I don’t know why to this day I got away with it,” Cronkite is quoted as saying years later. But he often gave himself deniability with linguistic hedging. Cronkite once told me his liberalism “affected how I looked at the world” but not his reporting.

cronkite-fe04-kurtz-2ndary Cronkite denied charges that CBS brass ordered newscasters to “go soft on Nixon.” CBS Photo Archive-Getty Images

Cronkite’s public persona was that of a pipe-puffing family man. But after covering Nixon’s historic visit to China, he let loose with a night of partying in San Francisco. Cronkite and a colleague went to an infamous topless bar, and he was later spotted dining with a go-go dancer in a miniskirt and plunging neckline. Cronkite drew a bit of tabloid attention for his exploits; I can only imagine what TMZ would have done with the inevitable paparazzi shots.

There were more serious infractions as well. In what would likely be deemed a firing offense today, Cronkite blatantly manipulated an interview with LBJ shortly before Johnson died. According to Brinkley, his producer spliced the footage in unflattering ways, reshooting Cronkite asking the questions so it appeared that he was nodding or raising his eyebrows in disgust when Johnson talked about Vietnam. LBJ saw a rough cut and pronounced it “dirty pool”; I would call it a video version of lying. Under pressure from the former president’s team, CBS undid the misleading editing, so the public never learned of the deception.

It turns out that the most trusted man didn’t always tell the truth. In 1974 Cronkite got into a spat with the rebellious Schorr, flatly denying the charge that CBS executives had ordered the evening news to “go soft on Nixon” as the president was resigning. But Cronkite’s denial was misleading. As Salant later acknowledged, “we in CBS management ... telephoned the correspondents who would be covering the story that night to remind them that it was not a time, no matter how any of them felt ... for gloating remarks or for editorial attacks.” So Cronkite’s outrage was bogus.

If his reputation as the nation’s top-rated anchor was unassailable, that may be because he guarded it so fiercely. Back in 1962, he had agreed to narrate a Pentagon propaganda film called The Eagle’s Talon, warning that “an aggressive Communist tide has spread in Europe and Asia to engulf its neighbors” and that China “has plans to dominate Asia by mass murder.” As Brinkley writes, “There he was, a civilian broadcaster, dressed in the full uniform of a U.S. Marine colonel, narrating gobbledy-gook about the ‘Red Threat.’”

A decade later, Cronkite learned that his embarrassing role was going to be highlighted in a Roger Mudd documentary for CBS, The Selling of the Pentagon. He complained bitterly, demanding that the section about him be removed. But Salant, the news chief, refused, and he was right: the network would have been denounced as hypocritical for protecting one of its own.

Looking back, Cronkite’s virtual immunity as a public figure is troubling. But I see an upside as well: he wielded his enormous clout on behalf of muscular journalism. As Vietnam and Watergate eroded public confidence in government, Cronkite emerged as a new kind of authority figure, his public image unsullied by the grime of politics. What a stunning contrast to the corrosive distrust of the news business today.

As everyone from presidents to astronauts catered to him, Cronkite used that access to drive unflinching coverage of civil rights, corruption, and especially the morass of Vietnam—when his own reporting led him to declare that ill-fated conflict a stalemate. When LBJ said that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” he was acknowledging that a single newsman had the power to change a national narrative. Cronkite hadn’t gone further than many other commentators, but he alone had the standing to move public opinion.

That aura made him a player on the world stage. When Cronkite prodded Anwar Sadat into saying he was willing to visit Israel and Menachem Begin into saying he would welcome the Egyptian leader, he emerged as a Middle East power broker. When Cronkite asked Gerald Ford at the 1980 Republican convention whether there would be a “co-presidency” if he agreed to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate, Ford’s failure to challenge the characterization blew up any chance at a joint ticket. Cronkite even floated a trial balloon that year that he might run as independent candidate John Anderson’s running mate.

But at times his emboldened sense of importance made him a conduit for the establishment. I remember watching him with the newly elected Jimmy Carter near an Oval Office fireplace, serving as master of ceremonies as he fielded radio calls. It was very cozy; all that was missing were hard-hitting questions.

Cronkite came to regret handing the anchor reins to Dan Rather in 1981. “Rather and company shut me out from doing anything,” he complained. I remember listening to him rail against Rather in his Upper East Side apartment, his anger still palpable after so many years.

On the day that CBS chairman Les Moonves fired several people over Rather’s botched story on George W. Bush and the National Guard—having already deposed Rather as anchor—Cronkite barged into Moonves’s office and congratulated him on doing the right thing. Moonves was able to sleep that night, he recalled, because “Walter said it was OK.”

Cronkite, of course, had been ruthless when he needed to be. But unlike Rather, who was frequently savaged by an army of critics and bloggers, Cronkite was an unassailable icon, America’s Uncle Walter, his occasional misconduct and bouts of bias shielded from public view.

Brinkley’s book will undoubtedly tarnish the Cronkite legacy. But my admiration for the man is only partly diminished. Perhaps it is too easy to judge him by today’s standards, any more than we should condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves. Perhaps he simply reflected his times, when some journalists and politicians quietly collaborated, when conflicts of interest were routinely tolerated, when a powerful media establishment could sweep its embarrassments under the rug. Cronkite thrived as television came of age, always protecting what we would now call his brand. That’s just the way it was.

Fade To black.

Cronkite retired with his reptutation intact, but some other TV journalists were not so lucky.

Dan Rather

Ousted as CBS anchor in 2004 after using suspect documents to accuse George W. Bush of going AWOL from the National Guard.

Michael Savage

Fired by MSNBC in 2003 for telling a caller to the show that he was a "sodomite" who should "get AIDS and die."

Marv Albert

Fired by NBC in 1997 after pleading guilty to assault and battery charges involving the biting and abuse of an ex-girlfriend.

Peter Arnett

Reprimanded by CNN in 1998 for a project with Time that accused the Army of using nerve gas against U.S. soldiers. The report was retracted.

Michele Gillen

Demoted by NBC, which also fired three producers, over a 1993 Dateline broadcast that staged the fiery explosion of a GM truck.

Lilia Luciano

Fired by NBC in 2012, along with a producer, over deceptive editing of the George Zimmerman 911 call in the Trayvon Martin case.

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