Howard Kurtz: Walter Cronkite Was the Last of the Towering Anchormen

In an era before Twitter and cable, Walter Cronkite had singular influence.
In an era before Twitter and cable, Walter Cronkite had singular influence. (Cbs Via Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

It's been 28 years since Walter Cronkite last told America that was the way it is, more than enough time for him to fade from our collective consciousness.

The fact that he didn't speaks volumes not just about him, but also about an era when an anchor could presume to tell the country -- without contradiction from bloggers, Twitterers and other carping critics -- that what he had just presented was indeed a definitive picture of reality.

For those of us who were lucky enough to know him, the resonant voice, the mustache, the avuncular manner were so reminiscent of the television presence who was with us during all those moments of joy and tragedy. But his death also reminds us that there can never be another Cronkite -- not just because of the media's fragmentation, but also because Americans will never again trust journalists how they trusted him.

And that is a healthy thing. From the JFK assassination to the moon landing, from his Vietnam visit to the Iran hostage crisis, the old UPI guy was a reliable narrator of national and world events. But every journalist should be challenged and fact-checked, as now happens roughly every second of every day. Cronkite's liberal views emerged in his latter years as a syndicated columnist, proving that no sentient being can practice journalism without forming opinions that they then strive to keep out of their work.

It is hard to remember, in this age of niche cable channels feeding every obsession, how dominant CBS and NBC (and, much later, ABC) were in their heydays. Every senior member of Cronkite's news team -- including, at various times, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Bernard Kalb, Fred Graham, Daniel Schorr -- was a recognizable celebrity in his own right. (They were almost all men.) You got your morning paper, and then you watched Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley at night, perhaps while eating a TV dinner.

In later years, Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings -- and now Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson -- played important roles at traumatic moments in history. But Cronkite and his team, with an audience as large as 20 million -- nearly as large as today's nightly newscasts combined -- shaped the news agenda every day.

The last time I saw Cronkite, in 2007, in his Manhattan apartment near the United Nations, he was infirm, slowed by age, hard of hearing, but mentally sharp and still opinionated. He regretted that he had been forced to retire, at 65, which now seems relatively young. Cronkite had been promised an on-air role, but CBS never made much room for him in the Rather era, and Cronkite made clear that he was bitter about that.

Historians point to his 1968 conclusion, after a visit to Vietnam, that the war was hopelessly stalemated, as the best single example of his enormous clout. But I vividly remember the "CBS Evening News" of Oct. 27, 1972, when President Richard Nixon was cruising to reelection despite the Watergate scandal, which had not yet implicated the White House inner circle. Cronkite insisted on turning over two-thirds of the broadcast to a 14-minute piece that attempted to explain the intricacies of the scandal to a mass audience. The Nixon White House called CBS Chairman William Paley to complain.

Brokaw has called Cronkite the "gold standard," and at a time when journalism commanded a whole lot more respect than it does today, he was its undeniable symbol. Perhaps it was his wire-service training, at a time when print experience was still considered valuable for broadcast journalists. Perhaps it was his calm demeanor, his mastery of understatement, his disdain for on-air showmanship. Perhaps it was the era, before Comedy Central, when anchors were not mocked for missteps or pomposity.

In later years, as he watched from the sideline, Cronkite became a critic of the evening news. "Nobody's asked me, which is strange, but I think the networks ought to be doing the headlines -- compressed as they must be -- and no features," he told me in 2002. "Drop that 'Your Pocketbook and Mine,' 'Your Beauty and Mine,' 'Your Garbage Can and Mine.' "

He also decried the staffing cutbacks as the networks shrank their evening news staffs, saying: "It's a dollars-and-cents issue with the ownership. There's not the sense of responsibility of the old-timers who were taught this was their duty."

Generations of journalists revered him, though none could quite aspire to be him. When Williams, now the NBC anchor, was first hired by New York's WCBS, he asked a colleague to show him what he considered a shrine: the faded newsroom wall that had formed the backdrop for Cronkite's broadcast, by then relegated to a sad little back office.

Shortly before Memorial Day 2007, CBS aired a prime-time tribute to Cronkite. ABC's Gibson recalled being riveted by Cronkite's coverage of the 1952 conventions. Couric recalled that after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Cronkite reacted as a human being first and a reporter second. Cronkite would later pay Couric the honor of recording the introduction to her broadcast, keeping his voice on the program he made famous.

Cronkite's passing, in the end, is the passing of an era, an era of black-and-white television, of mass audiences, of a slower time when the country waited for the headlines at 6:30 in the evening. No anchor -- no journalist -- will ever wield that authority again.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company