At the beginning, he wavered between print and radio.
For radio, the main qualification was a voice, and to the program director at KCMO in Kansas City, the 19-year-old Cronkite had “the best radio voice” he’d heard. Infant radio news had no standards, but young Cronkite had learned a little before dropping out of the University of Texas, bored by two years of engineering classes. He’d written for the college paper, freelanced for the Houston Press and was a campus reporter for KNOW, the largest radio station in Houston. He picked up some serious notions about journalism with the Austin bureau of the International News Service, Hearst’s wire service, and then as a rewrite man for the Houston Press.
But a visit home to Kansas City pushed him back to radio. Hired by KCMO for $25 a week, Cronkite made an early deposit in the bank of integrity: insisting on the facts. His boss’s wife called, saying three firemen had been killed in a fire in the city hall. Ordered to go on the air, Cronkite refused until he had checked. The program manager went on the air himself, while Cronkite discovered that the fire was minor and no one had died. The next day he was fired for insubordination.
Print lured him back, first to the Kansas City office of the United Press, later to UP New York and ultimately to London, where his World War II reporting won him many accolades and eventually opened the doors at CBS.
As his fame rose, he loved being Walter Cronkite and wasn’t shy about it. In the study of his brownstone on East 84th Street in New York, one wall was devoted to framed magazine covers bearing his face. When the Cronkites moved to an apartment at U.N. Plaza, some of his Emmy awards were on display in the living room. He loved going into top New York restaurants, always getting a table and very attentive service.
I admit some partiality in discussing Cronkite. For the last 15 years of his life, he was exceedingly generous, privately and publicly, in praising the “NewsHour” on PBS. He had tried to expand the “CBS Evening News” to an hour, but the network affiliates wouldn’t go along, so it pleased him that public television could make it happen.
Brinkley’s version of TV news history is, inevitably, quite CBS-centric. But what other figure in the same period of TV journalism would justify such a hefty biography? Even Edward R. Murrow did not retain the legendary status that the nation conferred on Cronkite.
Yet in today’s media world, seething with change and uncertainty, fame is fleeting, as Brinkley illustrates in a story about Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s “Nightline.” Koppel asked young interns hoping for a career in broadcasting if they could tell him anything about Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds, Chet Huntley or John Chancellor. He got blank stares or “not a twitch of recognition.” Koppel added, “Walter Cronkite may be glad to learn that a lot of young people still have a vague recollection that he once worked in television news.”
How long will that be true? Perhaps Brinkley’s book will add some years.
worked for Reuters, NBC and the BBC, culminating with 20 years on PBS as executive editor and co-anchor of the “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”