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Walter Cronkite, and the Way the News Media Is Now

July 20, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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It's been more than a quarter century since Walter Cronkite retired as anchor of the CBS Evening News, but his impact on journalism persists. Robert MacNeil and Todd Gitlin of Columbia University speak with Gwen Ifill about Cronkite's reporting legacy.
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GWEN IFILL: For decades, Walter Cronkite defined broadcast journalism. If he said it was so, that’s the way it was. If he was enthusiastic, we were enthusiastic.

ASTRONAUT: The Eagle has landed.

GWEN IFILL: If he was somber, so were we.

WALTER CRONKITE: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.

GWEN IFILL: Cronkite became the most trusted man in America during a time when a single broadcaster’s voice could change the course of history. In 1968, when he returned from a reporting trip to chronicle the Vietnam War, he determined the war could not be won.

WALTER CRONKITE: For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

GWEN IFILL: The commentaries were a rare departure for a journalist known for impeccable impartiality.

WALTER CRONKITE: At first, it was called the Watergate Caper.

GWEN IFILL: Later, shortly before Richard Nixon was re-elected, Cronkite turned a critical eye on the Watergate scandal, unraveling the complicated tale in two consecutive newscasts, the first installment 14 minutes long.

WALTER CRONKITE: … charges that Watergate was only part of, in the Washington Post’s words, a broad campaign of political espionage and sabotage against the Democratic Party.

GWEN IFILL: Cronkite started out as a wire service reporter covering World War II, joined CBS in 1950, and took over as anchorman in 1962.

CHARLES GIBSON, host, “ABC World News Tonight”: He’s always in the back of your mind as you do this job, because you try to live up to the standards of the people who came before you. It’s not always possible, but you try to do that. And so the standard that Walter set is always in the back of your mind.

GWEN IFILL: But the standards and the number of people devoted to watching evening newscasts have shifted. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, as broadcast news viewership has declined, losing a million viewers a year for the last 20 years, traffic on the top 50 news Web sites increased 27 percent last year.

In 1987, six years after he retired, Cronkite said he could see the handwriting on the wall about the future of network news. He spoke with the NewsHour’s Robert MacNeil.

ROBERT MACNEIL, former NewsHour anchor: Do you think there are going to be, 5, 10 years from now, nightly network news programs of the kind that you spent much of your career in playing as important a role in the public affairs of the country as they have in the past?

WALTER CRONKITE: Well, going from back forward, forward back, back forward, the important role, probably not, because of this proliferation of access, available sources. So, therefore, they won’t be quite as important as they were in the past. Their share of audience will be smaller.

The style that they’ll have, I think that likely remain fairly much as it is, but it could change.

And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th…

GWEN IFILL: But with Cronkite’s passing also comes the certainty that some things will change forever.

WALTER CRONKITE: Good night.

Legacy to journalism

Robert MacNeil
Former NewsHour co-anchor
He didn't become an anchorman and then become a journalist. He became an anchorman after he'd had a very solid career as a reporter.

GWEN IFILL: And joining me now to reflect on Cronkite's legacy and the news business he left behind are Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He's also the author of 12 books on media and society.

And one of our own, Robin MacNeil, the former co-anchor of the NewsHour.

Welcome to you both.

Robin, I want to pick up with what Mr. Cronkite said to you all those years ago, looking back forward, forward back, at our news business. Where does Walter Cronkite fit in that continuum?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, I think he's unique. He came of age when television was coming of age in journalism. He brought unique credentials to that. He didn't become an anchorman and then become a journalist. He became an anchorman after he'd had a very solid career as a reporter.

He didn't have to pretend to be anything he wasn't. And he came at a time when the three network news shows virtually held the entire nation's attention every evening at a time when still lots of families gathered at suppertime in a family conclave.

Also, each city in the country had only two or three, sometimes four VHF television stations, occasionally an educational station, as well, and television was brand new. People were buying their first television sets. And television was very exciting, a novelty.

All those things, the exclusivity of the VHF stations and how alone the three network news shows were at suppertime are things that can never be replicated now.

GWEN IFILL: Todd Gitlin, it's kind of amazing now to look back and see that one anchorman could make a commentary like he did on Vietnam or on Watergate and cause -- and for it to be such a big deal. Is that ever going to happen again?

TODD GITLIN, Columbia University: Well, it's important to realize that he did it that time because he hadn't been in the habit of doing it. This was one of those momentous moments. You save up a lot of capital before you do something like that.

And I don't think there's anybody in the same position today, leave aside the question of whether people who hold those positions at the networks would be willing to take the chance. I think Cronkite must have reckoned that, given his background, given his gravitas, given his authority, given his record, that it behooved him to get out of the chair and go out to the field.

And, no, I don't think there's anybody who occupies a position that would then cause so many people to say, "My god, if so-and-so thinks that, then we're not really getting the straight scoop from the government, and we should revise our thinking."

GWEN IFILL: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

TODD GITLIN: Well, it's probably on balance some of each. It's a good thing that nobody has that -- I think that kind of magnetic authority. I think we've seen damage done when people are too credulous or too obsequious facing power.

But on the other hand, when you have such a situation, when the powers of government are as strenuous and compelling as they are, then it's useful to have somebody who could step up to the plate, somebody with that sort of majesty, if you will. We, sad to say, don't have it.

View of contemporary news

Todd Gitlin
Columbia University
I think that he...would have wondered, what's wrong with the rest of the news business.

GWEN IFILL: Robin, you came to know Walter Cronkite over the years as a colleague and a competitor. After he left the business, was he disappointed with the direction it headed in?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, yes. May I say -- and I don't think it's in bad taste to say -- that one thing that hasn't been said about Walter Cronkite was that he really admired this program and frequently said so in public.

He had tried to get an hour on CBS and repeatedly failed. Once, he had the entire text of a CBS half-hour show reprinted as though it were on the front page of the New York Times and it covered less than three columns, which he thought was very illustrative of how little information could actually be given, however important it was in context at the time.

Also, Cronkite was there before the arrival of tabloid values in television journalism. The networks had been very careful coming out of the quiz scandals of the late '50s, very careful to bring to their television journalism a great seriousness and earnestness, a little humor, as well, but basically very sticking to the staid codes of the best print journalism. That's the way they wanted to appear.

Now, with the arrival of cable news and the increasing resort to tabloid values of hyperventilation over particular stories and so on, that's an area Cronkite did not have to live through as an anchorman himself. And I think he would have found it very hard to fight it.

His own show, his own -- the show he left started reporting, for instance, on the O.J. Simpson thing as the top story every night for a while, simply because the cable networks were doing it.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Gitlin, you know, we talk about tabloid journalism and shout shows and all the things that Walter Cronkite said he did not like. We also now have fake news, Jon Stewart and the like.

Is it too much to hope that any -- that the public at large are going to trust journalists and, in particular, broadcast anchormen in the way that they ever trusted Walter Cronkite? Is trust too much to hope for?

TODD GITLIN: I don't know that Walter Cronkite would have looked askance at Jon Stewart. After all, before he anchored the CBS News, Walter Cronkite stood up in front of a show called "You Are There" and tried to convince Americans playfully that he was present at the battle of Waterloo, the signing of the truce of the Appomattox end of the Civil War and so on.

I think that he, I think, would have wondered, what's wrong with the rest of the news business, that it doesn't purport to be doing fake news, but is doing, instead, trivial news, gullible news.

Jon Stewart, I think, is the least of our problems.

Cronkite the celebrity

Robert MacNeil
Former NewsHour co-anchor
He loved being Walter Cronkite. He wasn't at all bashful about it or embarrassed by it. He loved it.

GWEN IFILL: And, Robin, as someone who was friends with Walter Cronkite, do you have a personal memory you'd like to share about your time knowing him and all those years?

ROBERT MACNEIL: Well, he had a kind of celebrity which exceeds even that of Hollywood stars and probably hard to replicate now. My wife and I were invited to go to the Kentucky Derby once with the Cronkites, with the same hosts, and we left the stands and went down into the paddock to look at the horses.

I know nothing about horses, but, anyway, it was packed there. And somebody noticed it was Cronkite leading our little group, and they began to turn around and turn around and part as though it was Moses splitting the Red Sea. It was really extraordinary.

I mean, if George Clooney had walked through there, somebody might have said, "Is that George Clooney? Is that" -- everybody knew it was Walter Cronkite.

GWEN IFILL: How did he respond to that?

ROBERT MACNEIL: He loved being Walter Cronkite. He wasn't at all bashful about it or embarrassed by it. He loved it.

GWEN IFILL: Todd Gitlin, how about you? What is the biggest...

TODD GITLIN: Well, I think...

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

TODD GITLIN: I think that the kind of celebrity he was had a kind of -- I used the word "majesty" before. It's the one that comes to mind. I mean, he was, in a way, like Eisenhower or Edward R. Murrow.

What he was reputed for was not glamour, not even his nifty little moustache. It was a certain kind of character. And it's hard for us to believe in those sort of people now. It's very difficult from being a fly-by-night, you know, feature of -- flavor of the month on the cover of People magazine.

GWEN IFILL: But he loved being Walter Cronkite. Todd Gitlin...

TODD GITLIN: Well, I think...

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

TODD GITLIN: I would assume that he loved the thought that not only was he famous, but he was famous for doing some valuable...

GWEN IFILL: And worthwhile.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Absolutely.

TODD GITLIN: He's an old-fashioned man who believed that people deserved the truth, and he was glad to have a part in it.

GWEN IFILL: Todd Gitlin, Robin MacNeil, good to see you both.

TODD GITLIN: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Again, on our Web site at newshour.pbs.org, you can watch Robin MacNeil's 1987 interview with Walter Cronkite. And there's also a report about Cronkite's push to provide free airtime for political candidates.