At some point a year or two ago, I bought a whole bunch of books for not very much money; can’t remember where. They sat on my bookshelf en masse, all but untouched until I got into this recent reading binge. First up had to be the 1996 autobiography of Walter Cronkite (November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009), for he was my all-time favorite news anchor.
The early chapters, about him growing up in Kansas City and later Houston, I found to be a bit bloodless, even as he tells about murderous racism. It seemed very “that’s the way it was.” His World War II retelling was somewhat livelier. When he described being stationed in Moscow for CBS News, he realized “how effective lies can be when the truth is suppressed,” so that his Russian driver was convinced that the Soviets had invented baseball and the Jeep.
When he gets to the issue of television, though, he lets his personality, and his opinions, shine through. He believes that the press’ focus on the “sizzle rather than the steak” of politics created a cynicism that resulted in an “international embarrassment” of low voter participation.
During Cronkite’s tenure as anchor, US government officials were looking for the network to take a more supportive role toward the Vietnam war. He replied, “It is not the journalist’s job to be patriotic. How can patriotism be determined anyway? Is patriotism simply agreeing unquestioningly with every action of one’s government? Or might we define patriotism as having the courage to speak and act on those principles one thinks are best for the country…?”
My favorite parts of the book are the insights about the early days of television, where folks established in radio and print figuring out the new medium, including his tenure as a morning show newsreader having dialogues with a lion puppet and Dick Van Dyke. Later, he recognizes that he had become an “800-pound gorilla” of news trying not to upstage his news colleagues. When he retired, he developed disgust with the new CBS News ownership of the early 1980s over its concern with profits over content.
Of course, he tells about reporting the important events of the times, including the John Kennedy assassination and the landing on the moon. He namechecks his college physics teacher, who would be amazed how well Cronkite explained the technical aspects of the space missions.
I think that the state of television news, from the time he wrote this book until he died, must have filled him with despair for his chosen profession. Still, it was a most interesting read by a most stellar individual.