Walter Cronkite "stepped down," as he puts it, from the lofty anchor chair of the "CBS Evening News" in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. So it's likely the vast majority of today's very young television news viewers never saw him and that many who did may since have forgotten that polls once showed him to be "the most trusted man in America."
Cronkite, as he makes clear in his lengthy memoir, has not forgotten. He often recalls it--most dramatically when he repeats the story that when then-President Lyndon Johnson saw CBS' dim assessment of the Vietnam War in 1967, Johnson reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Cronkite is entitled to boast--especially in a book that is less surprising for its hubris than for the bitterness with which it ends. After almost 400 pages of great stories, unforgettable characters and impressive journalistic achievements at CBS, Cronkite complains that ultimately he was "driven from the temple where for 19 years . . . I had worshiped the great god News."
However dubious the "most trusted man" polls may have been, Cronkite by 1967 really was important enough to influence affairs of state. Television had become the nation's dominant source of news. CBS had the best reputation and the highest ratings. Cronkite was the first news reader to be called "anchorman." (In Sweden, he tells us, such people for years were called "cronkiters.")
Cronkite claims credit for shaping not just the "CBS Evening News" but the very image of a news anchorman as simultaneously omniscient and reassuring. His insistence that he be managing editor, as well as on-camera news reader, however, seems historically ironic. Originally designed to insulate Cronkite from management meddling and advertiser pressure, the title has been misappropriated at local stations, he now complains, by lesser lights who don't meet the journalistic standards he brought to his network job.
Concern about such pretensions is one expression of a recurring preoccupation in Cronkite's book: his dissatisfaction with a contradiction that is inherent in commercial broadcast news. The inevitable conflict between the values of journalism and those of advertising and entertainment is a source of continuing anguish for him; in this post-Marshall McLuhan era, he remains bemused that the medium so easily triumphs over the message.
There is no doubt that the values Cronkite wants to be identified with are those of journalism. He has called his autobiography "A Reporter's Life." He proudly describes how he earned his spurs in print, with service on newspapers in Houston and Kansas City, Mo., and with United Press International. His most vivid writing involves his apprenticeship in city rooms and his coverage of combat during World War II. Those stories benefit from a memory still infused with the enthusiasm of a young man learning his craft while immersed in the defining events of his generation.
But these early pages also introduce a kind of defensiveness that becomes pervasive as the book goes on. Since the values of journalism will be under assault, Cronkite's devotion to them has to be established. Too often, this results in sententious moralizing and simplistic lectures that sound like Journalism 101. "My mother and father drilled honesty into me," he assures us, paving the way for a newsroom mentor who "made clear there was a sacred covenant between news people and their readers."
Such precepts, however, were soon violated. At about the same time he was learning about the "sacred covenant" at a radio station in Kansas City, two uniformed policemen employed by the notorious Pendergast machine escorted Cronkite to polling places so he could vote under false names--twice on the same election day. But that great story could not be told at the time because Cronkite's employer was friendly with the Pendergast organization.
Cronkite also reveals that he faked live radio broadcasts of football games just as "Dutch" Reagan once did. He even suggests that President Reagan later stole and passed off as his own a story Cronkite told him about the day the wire services broke down, forcing Cronkite to manufacture an entire quarter of play by play, without the benefit of printed reports.