“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
— President Lyndon Johnson, 1968
Top journalists came together in Washington recently to remember the life and impact of news anchor Walter Cronkite, a journalist once known as “the most trusted man in America.”
For decades, Cronkite defined broadcast journalism. He was the anchor who told America about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the death of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first walk on the moon. He was the reporter who brought the Watergate scandal to a national audience when other networks were too afraid, and the one whom citizens believed when he said we couldn’t win the Vietnam War.
The CBS Evening News anchor set the tone from 1962 to 1981 for future broadcast journalists across the nation. He wasn’t just a television news anchor; he was a familiar face welcomed into the American home. Like an uncle to many, he was gentle and reassuring but knew when to be authoritative. He wasn’t afraid to challenge those in power. Cronkite was the rock the American people looked to in times of crises.
“Cronkite came to be the sort of personification of his era and became kind of the media figure at the time,” said Senior PBS Correspondent Robert MacNeil. “Very few people in history, except maybe political and military leaders, are the embodiment of their time, and Cronkite seemed to be.”
Cronkite, known for his famous sign-off, “And that’s the way it is,” collected numerous awards for his commitment to integrity, responsibility, accuracy and objectivity.
“All news media have been transformed since Walter Cronkite left us—but his enduring values remain so important to all of us at CBS News.”
— David Rhodes, president of CBS News
Although it has been two decades since his death, Americans still remember Cronkite as the trusted voice of TV news.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, CBS News and Arizona State University’s School of Journalism, named after Cronkite, hosted a members-only event at the Newseum in his honor last month.
The two-hour gala brought in some major star power, including CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, who’s set to receive an award in Cronkite’s name; CBS News contributor and former “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer; “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl; and PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill.
Former Executive Editor of The Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr., who now serves as the Weil Family Professor of Journalism for ASU’s program, moderated the panel of celebrities and invited audience members to reflect on Cronkite’s impact on journalism: past, present and future.
“He really was a legend who could change the course of history through his news judgment.”
— Alicia Shepard, American journalist
The panel members each took turns sharing their favorite memories of Cronkite, spurring both tears and laughter from the packed Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater. They also spent time discussing some of the qualities that allowed him to be the unforgettable news figure he is today.
Some of the highlights:
Watergate: Four months after Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered President Nixon’s Watergate scandal in 1972, only half of Americans knew, according to an October Gallup poll — until Cronkite decided it was a story. He designed two pieces that ran two consecutive nights.
“It was an explosive thing for Walter to have done — it was so huge that Bill Paley said, ‘You’re not going to do that a second night,’ and Walter said, ‘Oh, yes, I am.’ The second night ran, but it was only seven minutes this time. Nevertheless, our audience in those days was enormous. Walter was the most popular, and we had the highest ratings. Gigantic people watched, and that was their first education about Watergate — it was before the hearings. Walter made it acceptable for the rest of the media to get involved.
— Lesli Stahl, CBS "60 Minutes" correspondent
Vietnam War: Cronkite was one of the first anchors to leave the desk to do his own on-the-ground reporting. Following the Tet offensive, he went to Vietnam and reported in an editorial-style documentary. For the first time, he took a stance as a news figure — delivering one of the most powerful commentaries of all time. He told the American public he didn’t think we could win the war.
“The thing that made Walter’s commentary so powerful is that he never took sides. Ed Murrow wrote commentaries, and he became a great journalist because he did express opinion—but Walter became famous because he didn’t. So it made it even more powerful when he did decide to take a position on that.”
— Bob Schieffer, retired host of "Face the Nation"
Assassination of President Kennedy: Cronkite was the first on the air to report Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. He calmly announced that the president had been shot, and kept his composure throughout the morning — until a dispatcher confirmed Kennedy’s death. In perhaps one of the most monumental moments in TV news history, Cronkite succumbed to emotion on air. He pulled off his glasses, looked at the clock and wiped away a tear before continuing the broadcast.
“He was behaving like a newsman in person. He didn’t do anything fancy, and he was checking this stuff when they finally handed him the notes and said the president is dead. And he kind of blinked his eyes—and you all remember that moment. Again, Walter Cronkite remained a reporter until the end. He waited until he had the facts, and was absolutely certain, before he broadcast it.”
— Bob Schieffer, retired host of "Face the Nation"
Death of President Johnson: In 1973, Cronkite announced the death of former President Lyndon Johnson after interrupting his broadcast to take a phone call from the press secretary on air. He famously held up his finger to the camera, putting the audience on hold while they waited for him to deliver the news.
“Here’s what I love about that. Walter didn’t care anything about all the window dressing and ‘everything has to be perfect on television’ and the ‘format’s calling for this story and that story’—it was the news. And all he cared about was the news. And he had to be on the phone and tell the audience, ‘Hold on just a second.’ ”
— Scott Pelley, managing editor and anchor of CBS Evening News
Impact and Influence
“In some ways, it is hard to explain why Cronkite’s death matters today. If you came of news consumption age after the dawn of cable news and the internet, you have not known a time when commentators did not scream at each other, when they did not express political views, when shedding a tear when the president as gunned down was actually controversial because it showed emotion.”
— Al Tompkins, broadcast journalism coach, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies
Gwen Ifill says that Cronkite’s endless curiosity and desire to find answers is what continues to define quality anchoring today. Toward the end of the panel, she spoke about Cronkite’s ability to turn conversations on the street into interviews.
“That was his way of getting to know more in a situation that he might not have had otherwise,” she said.
Those are the type of opportunities that all reporters need to take, Ifill said, especially those “chained” to an anchor desk.
“Nobody looks at any one of us and says, ‘Whatever comes out of your mouth, I trust,’ ” said Ifill. “But the best of us are striving for that every single night, and we’re striving for it with Walter Cronkite’s face in our heads and with the idea that you believe us because it’s reported and backed by a fact.”
With experience in moderating political debates, she emphasized that great anchoring and reporting depend upon the ability to elicit meaningful answers, as Cronkite did, especially in the context of this 2016 election.
Downie used Watergate and Vietnam as concrete examples of Cronkite steering the news in a certain direction. He asked Pelley if “opinion” has more place in news today.
“There is a difference between pursuing the truth and the facts, and laying them all out there, and pressing a viewpoint,” said Pelley. “And that’s a line I don’t think we should cross—this is CBS DNA, and it’s because of Walter.”
However, Ifill was quick to point out that, with the rise of the internet and digital journalism it’s not possible to replicate a “Cronkite” today.
“Those were the good old days, but it could not happen like that again. There are not three networks that everyone is getting their news from,” Ifill said. “There are a zillion ways to get your information, including on your phone, including on your watch. So it’s nice to think about the good-old days, but it’s important to remember that it’s not quite duplicable.”
The Cronkite Celebration was just one of many Newseum events dedicated to Cronkite that will take place.
The Investigative Reporting Workshop will feature a conversation about Cronkite and journalism today between Leonard Downie and Workshop Executive Editor Charles Lewis at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 2 at American University. The event, in the McKinley Building’s second-floor theater, is free and open to the public.