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Cronkite

Douglas Brinkley’s detailed new biography portrays an individual far more complex than we imagined.

By Terry Hartle / July 17, 2012

Cronkite By Douglas Brinkley HarperCollins 832 pp.

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Walter Cronkite was the most widely recognized television journalist of the 20th century. For nearly 20 years he was such a comforting presence on the nightly news that he was popularly known as “Uncle Walter.” But “the most trusted man in America” was, according to Cronkite, Douglas Brinkley’s detailed new biography, a far more complex individual than was widely realized with plenty of imperfections. 

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Cronkite was born in Missouri but moved to Houston at age 10. He dropped out of college and began a series of newspaper jobs. Most importantly, in 1937, he joined the staff of United Press International (UPI) and went on to become one of the leading reporters in the European theater. He flew bombing raids with a B-17 crew, covered the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Holland and Belgium, and later, the Nuremberg trials

After two years as UPI’s man in Moscow, he went to work for CBS where he handled a number of assignments including a morning show where he discussed current events with a puppet named Charlemagne. In April 1962, he succeeded Douglas Edwards as anchorman of the Evening News and CBS soon expanded the show from 15 to 30 minutes. Brinkley notes that this was a huge change because it meant that the network went from simply reporting the news to gathering it and therefore required a much larger news operation.  

Cronkite may be best remembered today for his deft handling of a number of high-profile events that occurred during his tenure, starting with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Brinkley describes these in detail. In 1968, Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to investigate the war himself and, upon returning, declared it “a stalemate.” So great was his credibility by this time that President Johnson allegedly said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” He covered the US space program so avidly that he became a cheerleader for it. He devoted considerable attention to civil rights, environmental protection, and the Watergate break-in. In all cases, Brinkley notes, Cronkite’s careful and detailed attention to the issue helped drive public opinion. 

Two things in particular make this book fascinating. First, Brinkley’s detailed research identifies media practices that could not and would not be tolerated today.  Brinkley makes clear that Cronkite had liberal sympathies and that these influenced his coverage of the news in a way that would be unacceptable on a “nonpartisan” network today. Cronkite accepted free trips from Pan Am Airways for his family, something that would now be regarded as an impermissible conflict of interest. In 1952, Cronkite secretly recorded the Republican credentials committee meeting under the rationale that it was “good for democracy,” an act that Brinkley correctly labels a “dastardly invasion of privacy that could have landed CBS in serious legal trouble.” 

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