In the age of Twitter, text messaging and the Internet, it’s hard to grasp the stature of a TV news anchor during the golden age of the medium. Not only did Walter Cronkite’s career span that age, but he was an exemplar of the TV journalist, a gatekeeper whom Americans trusted to walk us through the often shocking, frightening and perplexing news of the 1960s and 1970s. From the two Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, to the moon walk, Woodstock, Kent State and Watergate, “Uncle Walter” authoritatively, clearly and accurately reported the news.
Mainers could understandably take some pride in Mr. Cronkite, who died last week, because he was fond of our state, with ties to Mount Desert Island, Ellsworth and Camden. Mr. Cronkite also had ties with another of Maine’s late, great imported journalists, James Russell Wiggins.
But beyond Maine, Mr. Cronkite was embraced by a majority of Americans because he cherished and earned journalistic integrity. He was a protégé of Edward R. Murrow, the first giant of television journalism. The two pioneers, Mr. Murrow bridging the radio era with the early days of TV, and Mr. Cronkite, establishing the nightly TV news as a family ritual, cemented CBS’ reputation for stellar news reporting.
Mr. Murrow, who made his career reporting during the bombing of London during World War II and continued through the McCarthy era, often took a perspective on the news. But when Mr. Cronkite ascended to the top at CBS, Americans got their TV news from just three networks. Because of that narrow news feed, Mr. Cronkite took great pains to avoid any slant.
And so when CBS granted Mr. Cronkite what amounted to an editorial on the evening news about his reporting in Vietnam, people sat up and took notice. The war was not winnable, he concluded. Watching the news that night, President Lyndon Johnson realized that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Shortly after that broadcast the president announced he would not seek re-election.
On Monday, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounted that she had dined with former Sen. George McGovern just after Mr. Cronkite’s death and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee revealed that he had wanted to ask the news anchor to be his vice-presidential candidate. Advisers talked the senator out of asking, but years later, when Mr. Cronkite learned that he had been considered, he said he would have enthusiastically accepted. One wonders what would have happened if the McGovern-Cronkite ticket had been on the ballot and won, instead of Nixon-Agnew.