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Walter Cronkite, and the Way the News Media Is Now

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.

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