It seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Walter Cronkite's consistency and integrity transformed television from a novelty into the primary news source for millions of Americans. TV returned the favor by transforming Cronkite from an obscure radio and wire service reporter into the most trusted man in America.
During Cronkite's 19-year tenure as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," his trademark sign-off, "And that's the way it is," became more familiar to many Americans than the Lord's Prayer. Art Buchwald once called him "the only honest face on TV"; Cronkite's turn against the Vietnam War in 1968 is said to have influenced President Johnson's decision five weeks later to announce he would not run for reelection; Cronkite's interview with Anwar Sadat triggered the Egyptian president's historic 1977 visit to Israel. And as recently as 1990, a poll ranked Cronkite as America's number one broadcaster--despite the fact he had retired nine years earlier.
But today, Cronkite has discovered to his dismay that there's a limit to his influence. Specifically, he can't get people to turn off their sets. Although his name and face are still used to introduce news specials and documentaries, America's most famous anchorman is increasingly apprehensive about the power of the medium he endowed with such credibility that 50 percent of U.S. adults now feel no need to read a daily newspaper.
In the face of rising competition from cable, videocassettes, and more aggressive local newscasts and tabloid shows, the Big Three newscasts "frequently go too soft," Cronkite says. "Their features aren't interpretive to the day's events, and the time could be better used."
He blames the tabs, especially. "It is
part of the whole degeneration of society in my mind," he says. "We've always known you can gain circulation or viewers by cheapening the product, and now you're finding the bad driving out the good."
At the local level, he adds, "the consultants [have] convinced all these stations that they had to have action in the first 45 seconds--any old barn-burning or truck crash on the interstate would do. There is no attempt to cover any of the major stories of the town in depth--the school board and city hall and that sort of thing."
Cronkite--who was a United Press European editor when CBS hired him in 1950--has always recognized the medium's limitations. In his first stint as an anchor in 1952, he once recalled, "I wanted to end every broadcast saying, 'For more details, see your local newspaper.' " In retirement, he seems to feel much more liberty to speak his mind--even though he maintains an office on the 19th floor of CBS headquarters in Manhattan and is officially a special correspondent for the network.
At 77, Cronkite is heavier and his legendary moustache is grayer than when he left the anchor desk, and he now wears a hearing aid. But otherwise he seems remarkably fit--a condition he attributes to the regimented life he led as a newsman. "For 20 years I didn't have to go to cocktail parties, because I didn't get off until 7:30 or 8:30 by the time we talked about the next day's show."
Today, by contrast, Cronkite suffers from an excess of opportunities. Besides publishing three books on sailing (he keeps a 48-foot yacht at his summer home on Martha's Vineyard), he is in the midst of a three-year contract with cable's Discovery and Learning channels to host and produce 12 documentaries on global issues such as immigration, joblessness and gambling, another 12 on influential books, and a still another dozen on understanding science. He speaks often on First Amendment issues and emerging technologies and recently even contributed his grandfatherly voice to a Steven Spielberg-produced animated movie, "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story."
Not surprisingly, it took repeated efforts, to reach Cronkite for this article (he was apologetic). "With all the choices laid before me every day to do this film or that speech, to travel here or travel there, 'Go around the world and do a piece for us,' " he says, "all these offers, for gosh sakes, they drive me crazy."
What really bothers Cronkite, however, is the way some news operations, especially many at the local level, have degenerated into a circus of what he has called "the coiffed and the vacuous." In the winter of his life, Cronkite says he sees clearly all that has gone wrong in television--even if, one could argue, he sometimes fails to perceive what has gone right.
The decline of the benevolent hegemony of news operations at the networks (their audience share has dropped from 90 percent of viewers a decade ago to less than two-thirds today) isn't necessarily cause for alarm. After all, decentralization has spawned such by-products as CNN, C-SPAN and all sorts of specialized information and debate on public and cable channels.
But in Cronkite's view, TV journalism has been whipsawed by two developments. First, the financially pressed networks have cut news budgets, he says, "so that practically an amputation has taken place. The reduction of the foreign bureaus is a crime. It is simply not possible for anybody to intelligently and adequately cover a distant foreign beat without living there."
Instead, he notes that the Big Three have discovered newsmagazines--nine at last count--are an inexpensive way to "give a semblance of public responsibility without bothering with the vast expense of original newsgathering."
Second, Cronkite sees the dissemination of television news evolving away from the networks into something more along the pattern of newspapers. That is, "the local station really does all the news--some international, some national, some local." And many local journalists, "simply by the nature of the beast--smaller market, smaller money--are not as good as those on the network."
In theory, Americans should react to these developments by reading more newspapers and magazines, but in practice most are hooked on the tube. "We've got a great percentage of our population," Cronkite sighs, "that, to our great shame, either cannot or, equally unfortunate, will not read. And that portion of our public is growing. Those people are suckers for the demagogue."
Cronkite doesn't go so far as to regret he ever went into television--"that would be kind of introspectively churlish." But he does blame technology, including TV, for seducing many Americans into the delusion that reading is no longer necessary.
"Today there's the checkout-counter syndrome," he says. "You run a package across a meter and it rings up on the register. That's the fadeout of the 20th century. It just goes back to Thomas Jefferson: The nation that expects to be ignorant and free...expects what never can and never will be."
Nevertheless, demagogues such as Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s, not to mention Peter the Hermit in the 11th century, managed to flourish without television's help. And just as anchors are compared unfavorably to their predecessors today, so too was Cronkite by viewers who found him too sedentary compared to the peripatetic style of Edward R. Murrow.
Despite Cronkite's misgivings, perhaps the declining influence of CBS, NBC and ABC is just part of a natural business cycle in which tired and complacent companies are replaced by hungrier upstarts. During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, the networks' highly paid celebrities were consistently out-hustled by the uncoiffed but aggressive reporters of CNN. And many consumers see the current fragmentation of news sources as an exciting (if painful) transition to a world in which they don't need to depend on the networks or the New York Times to determine what is and what is not important.
But Cronkite remains unconvinced that today's media chaos will lead to a better educated public. The wired city of tomorrow, when everyone receives 500 channels with interactive functions such as banking and shopping, worries the former anchor. Will channels and other outlets specialize to such a degree that we'll all develop tunnel vision?
If your sole concern is baseball scores or stock prices, he notes, "at least you've got to turn the pages of the newspaper a little bit, and so you're exposed to a headline that might capture your interest. Or the TV viewer sits there waiting for the stock market returns and sees something else during the course of time. But if you sit at home and just punch your telephone keypad to get any information you want, breaking it down not just to the stock market itself but to the particular stocks, breaking down the scores not just to the entire National League but to the Cincinnati game, what happens at that point? It's like kids who only watch cartoons and never see anything of basic educational value."
In his spare time, Cronkite lends his voice to battles against government secrecy. "The Germans applauded when Hitler shut down the newspapers and radio stations, so they became guilty at the moment they agreed they didn't need to know what the government was doing in their name," he says. "By the same token, we're guilty if we don't fight for the right to know." And he crusades against what he calls the modern Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: pollution, overpopulation, energy depletion and nuclear devices. But his gloomy critique of modern times ("We're running out of space; we're running out of air; we're running out of water") leaves the disquieting impression that this symbol of American optimism has evolved into, dare we say it..a pessimist.
"I'm beginning to be less optimistic, if not pessimistic," Cronkite concedes. "In our past days there was optimism; there was this conviction on the part of nearly all people in all walks of life that you could make a better life if you were willing to work for it." Today, he says, "I don't see us tackling these problems with anything like the imagination or energy that would be required."
Which brings Cronkite back, not surprisingly, to the uses and abuses of television. "Like so many of our problems today," he says, "it all starts with education. We need to teach [children] how to read a newspaper, how to listen to radio, how to watch television, how to understand a film, so that they become properly skeptical. If a public understands the limitations of television, the limitations of print, deadline pressures, all the rest of the things that go into the making of a newspaper or broadcast, then that public will be far less likely to fall into a demagogue's trap when the demagogue attacks the press for its unfairness."
Can such sophistication really be inculcated through classroom lessons? Or will Cronkite's model of healthy skepticism emerge inadvertently when Americans begin to cope with TV systems that transmit hundreds of fragmented channels? In other words, is it conceivable that without an omniscient Uncle Walter to turn to, Americans will learn again to think for themselves?