Charles L. Ponce de Leon: Review of Douglas Brinkley's "Cronkite"

Roundup: Books
tags: book reviews, Dissent, Douglas Brinkley, Cronkite, Walter Cronkite

Charles L. Ponce de Leon, an associate professor of History and American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is completing a book on the history of television news.

More than thirty years after his retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News—and over three years after his death in 2009—Walter Cronkite remains an iconic figure. He appears in the opening montage of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, and his name is routinely evoked in laments about the “decline” of broadcast journalism, which invariably remind us that he was the “most trusted man in America,” a courageous truth-teller committed to objectivity and “hard news.”

Douglas Brinkley’s long, absorbing biography of Cronkite does little to alter this impression. He tells us lots of interesting things about the man, but relatively little about how he became a mythic figure. Nor does he say very much about the particular kind of journalism that Cronkite and his colleagues produced. This is too bad, since Cronkite was at the center of a fascinating moment in the history of American mass media, and the television news that he came to embody was fleeting and highly unusual—an attempt to produce serious journalism in a medium associated with escapism.

Cronkite joined CBS in 1950, after a distinguished career as a wire-service reporter with United Press. He was one of many print journalists drawn to the new medium of television, and he remained committed to a relatively straightforward, just-the-facts approach to the news that made him a favorite of CBS executives, especially news division president Sig Mickelson. His first assignment was to explain developments in the Korean War to viewers of WTOP, CBS’s affiliate in Washington, D.C. Using maps, models, and other ingenious low-tech visual aids, he proved a master at the task. Soon he was hosting WTOP’s evening newscast and contributing short reports on the war to the fifteen-minute newscast that CBS produced in New York and fed to its growing number of affiliates.

During the 1950s, Cronkite was the network’s jack-of-all-trades. He narrated documentaries, “interviewed” actors impersonating famous personages like Joan of Arc and Benedict Arnold at the scene of groundbreaking historical events on the program You Are There, and even briefly hosted The Morning Show, an ill-fated attempt to duplicate the success of NBC’s Today. His most important job, however, was serving as the anchor of CBS’s convention and election coverage, a new role that Mickelson conceived for him in 1952. A quick study with an unusual ability to ad-lib, Cronkite was ideally suited for the assignment, as Mickelson and CBS officials immediately recognized. They made him the anchor of virtually all special live broadcasts, including the network’s coverage of space flights. It was a job that gave Cronkite lots of airtime and allowed him to “own” a story that was popular with the public. In April 1962, with the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards well behind NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report in the Nielsen ratings, Cronkite became the program’s new anchor and managing editor, a joint position he held for the next nineteen years....