It was 40 years ago on March 6 that news anchor Walter Cronkite signed off “The CBS Evening News” for the final time, stating his tag line, “That’s the way it is.” The phrase was more than just a signature ending of his nightly newscast. It was a statement that his newscast was designed to, as he put it, “hold up the mirror — to tell and show the public what has happened.”
Holding up the mirror meant focusing on actual news, steering away from advocacy, and nailing down facts. There was a reason that polls of the era listed Cronkite as the most trusted man in America. He projected a fatherly personality and professional image. He spoke in a slow, deliberate manner. He imposed strict standards for accuracy and objectivity into his broadcasts. Every writer and producer on his team knew the perfectionist’s expectations and knew not to stray into personal bias or activism.
The journalism world could use more of the Cronkite method today.
Cronkite had Midwestern roots, growing up in Missouri. He started college at the University of Texas, but left before graduating — for a reporting job. He developed his professional standards for accuracy in the real world, primarily as a reporter for the wire service, United Press. Wire services of that time put a premium on keeping reports fact-based and free of bias.
Cronkite covered World War II for UP in North Africa and Europe. He crash landed in a glider while in Europe, on a mission with the 101st Airborne. CBS’s Edward R. Murrow tried to hire Cronkite during the war, but Cronkite stayed with UP, the more prestigious job at the time for a real journalist. Murrow finally convinced Cronkite to join the broadcast news world in 1950, and Cronkite began his move into broadcast immortality.
He assumed the CBS evening anchor desk in 1962. By 1967, Cronkite’s ratings surpassed NBC’s legendary Huntley-Brinkley team. He would remain first in the ratings until his retirement in 1981. Cronkite’s broadcasts reached an estimated 27-29 million viewers per night, when the nation’s population was just over 200 million. That’s more than the combined audiences now for the evening news broadcasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC, with the nation’s population now exceeding 320 million.
Together with Huntley-Brinkley, Cronkite presided over the era in which television overcame newspapers as the source where most Americans got their news. The news agenda that sparked water cooler conversations was set largely by CBS and NBC at 6:30 each evening, providing a common and generally measured baseline from which to understand and debate the nation’s issues. News consumers didn’t have media echo chambers in which to retreat. National and international news came from network television or from wire service accounts in local newspapers. Cronkite’s broadcast rarely had news of pop culture, as he preferred to keep the focus squarely on hard news.
The media landscape was much different in the time of Cronkite. There were fewer competitors for the national news audience. The average news consumer never saw social media, partisan websites, or cable news.
It was a time, too, when professional journalism standards mattered. News outlets were run more to meet the public interest needs of the nation than to crassly generate profits. News organizations didn’t play to niche audiences or alienate news consumers with polarizing content. Commentary was labeled and kept separate from regular news.
The CBS hierarchy offered Cronkite the opportunity to do commentary in his nightly newscasts — but he declined.
Cronkite believed doing commentary was inconsistent with his news anchoring duties and would diminish his credibility with viewers who wanted just the news. He strayed from this position on two noteworthy occasions.
One was after his visit to Vietnam in 1968, in the wake of the Tet offensive. In a special report during prime time, Cronkite provided his analysis that the Vietnam conflict was headed toward a stalemate and not going as well as the LBJ administration was asserting. But his commentary was brief, to the point, and separated from the actual reporting by commercial breaks. He also made a point to tell viewers his commentary remarks were speculative and personal.
Cronkite’s other venture into opinion was in 1973 upon the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew had been point man for the Nixon administration’s criticism of the news media. Cronkite opined briefly that a “free press must fight any attempt to intimidate it,” as he said Agnew had tried to do.
The news industry overall was more trusted in that era because, like Cronkite, it focused on actual news, avoiding blatant attempts to shape narratives and ride hobby horses. Cronkite once said, “It is our duty to be sure that we do not permit our prejudices to show. That is simply basic journalism.” Just 40 years after Cronkite’s final sign-off, that notion seems like it is from the Stone Age.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.