Speaker In the 1960s, CBS was the Sterling network was a network that seemed to be the pacesetter, certainly in news. NBC was equally important. ABC at that point was being considered. It was usually called the Almost Broadcasting Network. It didn’t particularly count. The network news organizations together had enormous viewership compared to what they get now. In the late 60s, early 70s, at the dinner hour, three quarters of the viewing public would be tuned to one of the evening news broadcasts. That’s down by something like half now. They were. That was what people had to watch. There were no other alternatives. The networks most people had a television set with 12 numbers on the dial and most of them were not in use. There were no cable networks that were of any importance. There was there was no competition there. They ruled in part because they were the only ones there. But they took seriously in the news divisions, the idea that they needed to perform a public service. Some of their news was fluffy. Some of it was silly. There were always features on the news. But they also felt that the news organization, the news bureau within the network, was sort of protected from the kind of bottom line pressures that other divisions felt. The news was not considered something that needed to make a profit.

Speaker What happened with that mentality? What happened that changed? Yeah.

Speaker In the nineteen eighties, the major networks all went through either acquisitions or threatened acquisitions. All of them became. All of them were under new ownership. ABC was bought by Cap Cities, which was then bought by Disney, and NBC was bought by G.E. and no longer did they seem to have that privileged place where they could be permitted to do public service in return for not making a profit. Suddenly now the news bureaus were supposed to turn as good a profit as any other part of Disney is any. As any, you know, Donald Duck doll. It was the mentality of the 80s, which was a buccaneering corporate time when there were enormous mergers and acquisitions and acquisitions and concentrations when when Wall Street was was was triumphant. That attitude spread toward the news divisions and they lost that protection that they had traditionally had.

Speaker And what about the 70s? We talked about the 60s. But what happened during?

Speaker Was there anything the 70s, in the 1970s, Roone Arledge began to change the way that news was being done. ABC. Until then of poor third among the big three networks had been trailing miserably. And Arledge, who came from the sports side and had gimmicked up sports with lots of of stop action in slow motion and all was brought in to change the news division at ABC. Some people thought this was a great idea. It was going to shake up what had become a hidebound conventional viewing experience. Others thought this was going to be the beginning of the end. But once Arledge began to change the ABC broadcast to make it sharper, sexy or more vivid, more user friendly, more popular, more populist, the others fell in line as well. Once one divisions, one network starts doing something. The other’s almost always have to react in some way, either to copy it or to stake out a place by saying we’re not doing that and we’re with CBS and all of this.

Speaker They’ve sort of fallen to that or did they?

Speaker CBS maintained its reputation as the Tiffany network throughout the 70s. Basically, as long as Cronkite was there, CBS seemed to be untouchable. But he left at the beginning of the 80s, which is when the trend toward more profit making, toward larger companies, toward more mergers and acquisitions in the buccaneering economic trend. His departure coincided there, and CBS began to feel the same pressures and went. That followed in the same footsteps as the other networks.

Speaker Now, do you have any insight into what happens when Cronkite left in terms of Dan Rather taking over?

Speaker You know, people were concerned when Dan Rather came on. They thought that he was the anti Cronkite. Some of them that Cronkite had. Cronkite was a cool and serious and unflappable anchor. Some people felt that Dan Rather was unpredictable, was a little hot to be an anchor. They were afraid that it would change the sense of what the man sitting in that seat was like and what he should do. Rather’s background had been different. He had been involved in different kinds of stories. He had gotten his start as covering hurricanes, as a storm chaser and and seemed to be more a part of the news to insert himself. He seemed to be more of a personality than Cronkite was. And for some old news hands that seemed to betray a news tradition that was important.

Speaker You don’t know about the story of what happened with rather. I don’t know enough about that now.

Speaker Do you feel that people have changing Spartech expectation of the news from the 20s to the 30s and 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s? Do you think that as as the news was changing, you think that the audience also had a change of what they expected from.

Speaker In the 20s, in the 30s, people looked to the news often to give them the hard stuff. They didn’t know. People expected the news to be hard. They expected it perhaps to be a little boring. The change that came in the 60s and more so in the 70s and 80s, the pressures big with more and more competition from other kinds of television programming, from other kinds of news programming. From gradually from as. As the computer became, as the Internet later became more important. People began to expect more and different things of the news. And news programmers began to feel uncomfortable with the old idea of news as something that was eat your spinach. Some news programmers. It was it was working in tandem with viewers and programmers. A pressure toward making it more fun, more interesting, softer, more featuring, less less punitive of you should you should you should have fun watching the news rather than go away enlightened about foreign relations. You should learn something useful in your life. You should learn something that will help you raise your children better.

Speaker I mean, if you look at Cronkhite and the during the coverage of Vietnam in the sense, you know, the journalists became sort of like the Cassandra at the same time, you have the moon, the moon reporting, which was sort of the hopeful.

Speaker Can we talk about Cronkite and his reporting on space?

Speaker Space was one of the great hopes of the United States in the 60s, space was going to be the way that the United States was going to outstrip the Soviet Union for once and for all, was going to make its mark on the universe, was going to show that America was great. And on top of the world. And the space program had a lot of attention from anchors and from Walter Cronkite, who I think saw it as one of the great exciting stories of scientific achievement, American achievement, human achievement. He made that story his own and made his viewers excited about it. And it really was thrilling to watch the moon landing. People wanted to see it and they wanted to see it with Walter Cronkite, the man who had told them that Kennedy was dead, in part because Kennedy had been so influential in getting the space program underway. But because the space program seemed to be one of the last vestiges of that hopeful, young, striving, optimistic America that seemed to have gone away with Kennedy and the Association of Cronkite. With all of that, I think was was very involved and intricate, as well as his own enthusiasm for the story.

Speaker It seemed like he, unlike so many other people, really took interest, the space program. He really studied and was able to articulate and articulate to the public a couple of things in a way that people understood seemed to be something that he had a gift.

Speaker Cronkite was always good at making stories clear and obvious and open and plain to viewers. And I think that with something like science, that could be scary and complicated to have someone of Cronkite intelligence and enthusiasm for it. Describe it. Take us along. Explain what was going on. Share his enthusiasm about it.

Speaker Give us give us inside information we didn’t we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Share his insights with his of his extensive reporting on it. He was clearly well informed about it. It was a story that was deeply identified with Cronkite. And because he did such a good job with it, because he was so clearly excited by this great story.

Speaker How did reporters change from the essentially working class educated people to highly educated media stars? Cronkite came out of a middle class family.

Speaker His heroes, I asked him the question, who were his yes, heroes. Were other journalists in the town that he was growing up in? Mm hmm. And he was mentored by those journalists. And they were his teachers. They were his heroes.

Speaker Tell me a little bit about how that shifted a little bit about the nature of reporting and how it changed up until World War Two.

Speaker And afterwards, reporters tended to be guys with dirty fingernails, perhaps reporting attracted mostly men, some women who wanted adventure, who didn’t want to be pinned down behind a desk, who maybe didn’t have the kind of education they could have had in another era, but who wanted excitement, who were smart, had native intelligence, had ambition, had drive. It was a great job for a guy without a lot of other advantages because it gave him a place to be pushy and ambitious without requiring a lot of connection or money or skill to set up or training special training to setup. That began to change after World War Two, in part with television. I think when reporters on television needed to be not simply good reporters with good shoeleather skills who could go out and get a story but needed to have other skills of being articulate, of being polished, of looking good. It became important to be attractive. There was a premium put on people who were young. There seemed to be other ways of getting into journalism, then going out and following the old guys around who could show you how to do the police beat. It required it to get into reporting was different. You didn’t. You no longer hung around the police station anymore. It was the beat. The beats were different, but especially if you wanted television, it was not quite as accessible. You needed some other way in.

Speaker And specifically, can you talk about Cronkite and.

Speaker You just hear Cronkite’s background was perfect for the beginning of television news. I wonder whether he would have gotten as far if you were to to be entering television news. Now, he was coming from a background that was a good, solid middle class background that was very much like the background of many of his new viewers. They felt comfortable with him.

Speaker They felt they knew him. They felt they understood who he was coming into it. Now, many reporters, many television journalists come out of.

Speaker Fancy journalism schools or come into it through connections of their own social connections, other kinds of connections. It’s it’s it’s a little harder. I think it’s a little different to break into television journalism now. It requires different skill sets. And I’m not sure that Cronkite would have been recognized as possessing the important skills of a television journalist. Given given the current climate.

Speaker Dan Schorr called it the national sales, South America was the same three networks really at the same time.

Speaker Can you lay out for us what was national sales when there were only two or three networks? Most people watched them together, and especially in a time of crisis like the Kennedy funeral. Something like more and more than 90 percent of the American viewing households tuned in to watch the coverage of Kennedy’s funeral in the weekend after the assassination. All of them sitting around watching television in their separate homes, but feeling a communion because other people were doing the same thing. And because since there were only two networks for the Kennedy funeral, they were pooling their coverage. People understood that what they were seeing is what the neighbor down the street was seeing was what their brother in California was seeing was what people they had never met before, but who were also grieving were seeing. It was people have called it the national campfire, a sense that we’re all round this, learning the same things, going through the same ceremonial ritual. That’s changed with with the expansion of the television universe now. No longer is there going to be that critical mass of people watching exactly the same thing at the same time that the highest viewership of any television program ever, I think still stands. The last episode of MASH in 1983 had 50 million viewers. I’m not sure now with 500 cable channels whether anything, anything could get 50 million viewers because there are so many other possibilities.

Speaker Now, do you? Is there any other period in the history of television like the Kennedy assassination? Is there anything else that brought the country together?

Speaker I mean, the same kind of thing feeling of that campfire type. Watching the moon landing was very much a feeling of sitting around the campfire, lots of people watched that. And it was the interesting thing about that was nobody knew how it was going to turn out. It was a little different than the Kennedy funeral, which was a ritual and a mourning. And people needed to feel the comfort of being in a crowd for the moon landing. People wanted that sense because no one knew it was going to happen, because it was possible there would be some horrible emergency, some tragedy, some crisis. People were watching and feeling the suspense and needing to feel that others were sharing that suspense and enjoying the excitement and the thrill and the suspense, but also bracing themselves for a possible a possible disappointment or crisis.

Speaker Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Speaker They through the 60s out, there’s several large media events that gathered American television. Yes. John F. Kennedy, the death of Robert Robert Kennedy, the Watergate hearings, the impeachment hearings. How did these events bind people and television? How did this wall to wall coverage change the way you. These events, I think we’ve done candidly talk about Watergate. And also the changing role of journalists during that.

Speaker The Watergate hearings drew enormous audiences as well. The Senate Investigative Committee, chaired by Sam Ervin and then the Judiciary, the House Committee on Impeachment. The networks did rotating coverage. PBS did a lot of coverage there. And that helped establish PBS as a as a player on the scene. So there were some there was some wariness and concern about allowing television cameras into these these closed sessions of Congress in deliberating an important and difficult and controversial crisis. But for many people, that’s what lent it the legitimacy because they could watch it on television, because television allowed them to share this deeply difficult, controversial, upsetting national crisis because it was not done behind closed doors, because we watched the members of the House committee deliberating agonizing. We saw them think it through. We saw them change their minds. We listened to them describe the anguish of coming to their decisions. I think it helped make the the the.

Speaker Richard Nixon’s resignation less traumatic than it would have been otherwise, because people felt that they had been part of the process. They had seen and understood it. It had worked democratically rather than having some smoke filled room come out and say, yep, well, he’s out.

Speaker Now, Cronkite took that story up. I mean, it was being reported. And you’re getting dribs and drabs. And Cronkite and his producers decided it was time to broadcast. I mean, he went out on a limb again to make those broadcasts. And can you talk about that?

Speaker The effect that when Walter Cronkite went out on a limb to make an assessment, to analyze to to shouldn’t betray an opinion, to take what seemed to be a stand on a controversial issue.

Speaker People paid attention because he was such an authority figure, because he was so credible, because he had built up through his careful work and and and dedication, he had built up this aura of trustworthiness and credibility when he chose to deploy it on a story that was controversial. He had enormous weight. People watched. People thought. People did not instantly dismiss it as just an opinion.

Speaker They they because it was such an occasion, they paid attention. They gave it weight.

Speaker So are you saying that, in fact, what Cronkite did was that he didn’t really editorialize? He took the facts that he was able to get from probably most put it together, these two reports. But the fact that he decided to put so much time in the news and the half hour news broadcasts. Do you think that the act of making that selection gave it that kind of power?

Speaker I think that when Cronkite chose to pay attention to Watergate, it became an important story in the early months. The Washington Post was covering it extensively, but very little television attention was being focused on it. Cronkite was very early among television journalists to pay that kind of attention. And it was it was a statement. It was a very clear statement that said, look at this. This is important. You need to you need to notice this.

Speaker Can you talk about the two journalists who really focused on your background to you?

Speaker Oh, what was her name?

Speaker Just because I think we need to give them a little credit.

Speaker Yeah.

Speaker The Watergate story was really broken by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, who were two metropolitan reporters who caught the story and dug and dug and dug and did an amazing investigative job keeping this story alive when very few other organizations of any kind, television or think, were paying any attention to it at all.

Speaker Television changed the events coverage, especially politics. But other things as well. I think we covered that.

Speaker Yeah, something more. Well, I mean, another example is the 68 demonstration outside the Democratic. Yeah.

Speaker In 1968 when the Democrats were holding their presidential nominating convention to nominate Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president. There was there was an enormous demonstration outside the hall in Chicago, mostly directed against the war policies. And the demonstration was planned in order to get get television attention. Demonstrators were provoking. By some accounts, the police, in order to draw attention to their to their demands, which is a standard tactic of over anybody who wants to do this kind of political activism. When the police fought back in a violent and brutal way with the connivance of Chicago’s Mayor Daley, it turned into a shocking and frightening television that I don’t think even the demonstrators had expected. They never expected it was going to escalate into such an ugly and violent confrontation. It may have helped win some sympathy for the demonstrators. They would not have gotten otherwise because there were still lots of Americans who didn’t think that long haired hippies should be taking to the streets complaining about what the government was doing militarily. It may have won them more, more sympathy than they would have had otherwise when the cops turned on them in front of the cameras.

Speaker Objectivity in journalism, especially for CBS. Why? Why wasn’t Walter Cronkite’s Vietnam editorial comments on the president’s race outside strict objectivity?

Speaker Television always tried to be. Television news tried to maintain the old journalistic tradition of objectivity. From the beginning of broadcasting, broadcasters were very concerned about looking neutral and on opinionated. There was a real fear in the beginning of radio. Nobody knew that radio was not going to influence people in nefarious ways. People were afraid of the power of this brand new medium. So from the very beginning, government regulation and an internal industry regulation put a lot of put put put Raines on the expression of opinion, the Fairness Doctrine, the Mayflower doctrine, a. editorialising doctrines were all in place where all regulations in place to try to keep in check what might be the awesome power of the human voice. And later, the human face to influence gullible viewers. So television had a long tradition of doing that. And as the 70s and 80s and 90s went along, and as more and more people began to feel that objectivity was hopeless and useless and nobody could hold to it. So why not just chuck it completely in our great postmodern convulsion? Many people began to think it’s silly even to pretend, but television has tried to stick to it. The mainstream television, the evening news networks, the flagship broadcasts have tried to stick to it, maybe out of desperation, maybe out of habit, maybe out of a fear of what they what what floodgates might open if the anchor could go up there and say, boy, you know, boy, wasn’t the president a real jerk today. It’s gone in other places, of course. Obviously, cable news is made that’s perfectly permissible and expected in cable news. But there does seem to be that last place, that last redoubt to told to the old idea of objectivity, which means that any time an anchor in a position like that, any time Walter Cronkite delivered himself of an opinion about the war in Vietnam or a president, it took on all the more weight because it was unexpected, because it really jarred people, because it made them stop and think, oh.

Speaker Was really the living room war, did we really have soldiers at that time?

Speaker The coverage of Vietnam legendarily is the book. Television brought the war into our living rooms. We saw it in all of its horrible bloody glory. We saw Vietnam. We saw the people of Vietnam. We didn’t actually see a lot of combat footage. There was a concern as there still is. Journalists of all kinds have always been still for photographers as well as as as film as broadcast, have always been wary of the power of the image, concerned about the effect on morale. Concerned about the effect on families of seeing wounded soldiers. So it is not terribly common and it’s never been terribly common for people to see bleeding soldiers as they’re sitting there over their dinner watching the evening news. I think something like less than a quarter of the footage in the early years of Vietnam, less than a quarter of the footage showed combat at all. And often it was just little clips, you know, random flashes of fire.

Speaker Do you think the press lost the war in Vietnam?

Speaker The canard is that the press lost the war in Vietnam. The press actually came to the conclusion well after the public did, that the war was a mistake. Polls show that by October of 1967, a plurality of Americans were thinking the war was a mistake and that John and they were disapproving of Johnson’s handling. It was not until after the disastrous Tet Offensive of early 1968 that the press began to feel more free to criticize the war. And it never completely turned against the war. All along, until the very end, there were press organizations that were refusing to be critical of a war effort simply because that’s a difficult thing for journalists to do. So no. In this case, the press followed public opinion.

Speaker I just want to can we stop tape? I just want to just go through some.

Speaker No, nothing I can think of.

Speaker You have a story where a story that sort of brings people together. Then with Watergate, in some ways, television helped push that into a kind of more limelight in the limelight. And then you have a situation where Cronkite does an interview with on or Sa’adat, where he sort of challenges him to say, well, you’ve been saying you will go visit. Jerusalem. But when are you going to do it? And and here’s here’s in a way that television actually pushing something forward. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, specifically about Cronkite.

Speaker His participation in bringing Sadat and Begin together remind me of I don’t know the details of that. When was that?

Speaker That was. And so that is.

Speaker And Cronkite was interviewing Sadat and pressed him to meet with.

Speaker Well, they were. I mean, if this is not something that you can talk about, then I have another.

Speaker What do you think is his contribution and his importance?

Speaker Cronkite helped to define television journalism edits in its very infancy. It has since moved on to something else, and I’m not sure that we should be entirely happy that it has.

Speaker When he helped to define what it meant to be a television journalist in a in a very different world, it seemed it seemed clear the role of a journalist seemed clear. The role of a television anchor seemed clear. The role of television news seemed clear. It seemed. I hesitate to use the word, but sort of dignified. It seemed serious. It seemed public spirited. Those are things that are less evident in newscasts.

Speaker Now, I’m not saying that they vanished from them, but they are not what is showcased. They’re not what a news organization would go to an advertiser and say, this is what we do.

Speaker This is why you should advertise with us, because we the feeling about it is very different. And he made it a very influential form at a time when it was. Well, maybe it’s no longer possible for a network newscast to be that influential, given everything else that it’s competing with. But he was a person. He was the right person at the time. That television news could be influential to be carrying a banner.

Andie Tucher
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Andie Tucher , Walter Cronkite: Witness to History" American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). April 18, 2006 ,
(1 , 1). Andie Tucher , Walter Cronkite: Witness to History [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Andie Tucher , Walter Cronkite: Witness to History" American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). April 18, 2006 . Accessed March 20, 2023


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