Walter Cronkite (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite, who died five years ago this week at age 92, was often cited as “the most trusted man in America,” based on a 1972 poll. For 19 years, beginning in 1962, the newsman sometimes called “Uncle Walter” was the face of the CBS Evening News, the country’s first nightly half-hour news program, according to Poynter. In the early years, Cronkite’s broadcast was regularly beaten in the ratings by the NBC news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. “‘CBS Evening News’ overtook ‘The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season,” according to The New York Times. CBS would continue to rank No. 1 until Cronkite retired in 1981.
Cronkite began his distinguished journalism career during World War II, taking on potentially dangerous overseas assignments for United Press. He covered the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day landing. Switching to television, he reported on some of the biggest events of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Legacy.com remembers him by recapping some of those stories and commentaries:
1. The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963. The news clip of a clearly emotional Cronkite taking off his glasses and, with watery eyes and a shaky voice, announcing Kennedy’s death is one of the defining images from that day. On the day of Kennedy’s funeral three days later, Cronkite shared his personal thoughts with his viewers in closing remarks that began, “It is said that the human mind has a greater capacity for remembering the pleasant than the unpleasant. But today was a day that will live in memory and in grief. Only history can write the importance of this day: Were these dark days the harbingers of even blacker ones to come, or like the black before the dawn shall they lead to some still as yet indiscernible sunrise of understanding among men that violent words, no matter what their origin or motivation, can lead only to violent deeds?”
2. Vietnam War Coverage, Including Commentary Given February 1968. After Cronkite and a colleague went to Vietnam to cover the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, both wrote editorials about what they saw. Cronkite chose to read the colleague’s editorial about the war on the air, ending, “…it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out, then, will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.”
3. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 1968. When colleague Dan Rather was knocked down on camera by security, Cronkite commented, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.” He was clearly angry, later criticizing security for beating on reporters. In a 1973 magazine interview, Cronkite said he regretted the comments, noting that – while they made him “more human in the eyes of the public … that I’m not just an automaton sitting there gushing the news each night” – each network “ought to have someone who really is above the battle.”
4. Death of President Lyndon Johnson, Jan. 22, 1973. Cronkite was on the air when a phone call from a top Johnson aide came and, breaking habit, he answered it. Holding a white phone receiver that now seems huge to his ear and listening quietly, Cronkite holds up one finger to the audience in a sign to wait. He then says, “Thank you very much, Tom. I’m on the air right at the moment. Can you hold the line just a second?” He then tells America that the president has died.
5. Civil Rights Struggles, 1960s. In a 2005 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Cronkite noted that “during my career, probably no story challenged my ethics of journalism more than the civil rights story.” Tensions within the network began in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in public schools. Many on the business side worried about losing Southern affiliates with broadcasts that could be seen as boosterism.
6. Apollo 11 Lands on the Moon, July 20, 1969. “Cronkite was a starry-eyed spectator as man landed on the moon,” wrote David Barron of The Houston Chronicle in Cronkite’s obituary. In his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life, Cronkite called the event “the most extraordinary story of our time.” On live television, Cronkite is seen struggling for words to describe the moment. As he later wrote, “‘Oh, boy! Whew! Boy!' These were my first words, profundity to be recorded for the ages.”
7. Assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968. In 1963, Cronkite covered the March on Washington, calling it “a kind of climax to a historic spring and summer in the struggle for equal rights.” On the day of King’s death, Cronkite led the broadcast with the assassination of an “apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement.” He provided details of King’s death, including one witness account of the fatal bullet exploding in King’s face. In an appreciation written after Cronkite’s death, The New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley described the broadcast and how it was viewed: “America went into shock while staring at Mr. Cronkite as he read the bare facts aloud. His face, subdued, grave but studiously unemotional, was reassuring in a way that President Johnson, who that night gave a speech urging people to stay calm, was not.”
8. Watergate Reports, 1972. The Washington Post broke the story, but Cronkite is often credited for bringing the news to a much wider audience. As Nixon administration officials attempted to bury any Watergate reports, Cronkite aired a detailed report on the scandal just before the 1972 election. More media outlets then began to follow the cases. As Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee noted, "It was as if the story had been blessed by the Great White Father.” Cronkite also was on the air when President Richard M. Nixon resigned Aug. 8, 1974. The New York Times noted in Cronkite’s obituary, "Mr. Cronkite sometimes pushed beyond the usual two-minute limit to news items. On Oct. 27, 1972, his 14-minute report on Watergate, followed by an eight-minute segment four days later, 'put the Watergate story clearly and substantially before millions of Americans' for the first time, the broadcast historian Marvin Barrett wrote in Moments of Truth? (1975)."
9. Iran Hostage Crisis, 1980 to 1981. For years, Cronkite ended his broadcasts, “And that’s the way it is.” On the 50th day of the hostages being held, he added a line keeping track of their plight: “the (50th, 100th, etc.) day of captivity for the American hostages in Tehran.” He did this until day 444, when the hostages were released. As professor and author Todd Gitlin noted in a 2009 article in The New Republic, while Cronkite did challenge official government positions, in this instance his “conventional patriotic persona went back to work.”
10. Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Leak, March 1979. In the midst of the Cold War, news that the Pennsylvania power plant at Three Mile Island was in partial meltdown and had leaked radioactive gas into the surrounding communities sparked fears of sabotage. Cronkite began his evening broadcast, “The world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the Atomic Age. And the horror tonight is it could get much worse.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."