Douglas Brinkley’s detailed new biography portrays an individual far more complex than we imagined.
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.
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.”
Second, Brinkley provides many interesting details about Cronkite’s personality that have not emerged before. At heart, Cronkite was an ambitious and dedicated news hound who would work stories aggressively. For example, Cronkite was in Los Angeles during the Northridge earthquake in 1995. Once his hotel stopped shaking and notwithstanding the fact that he had been retired for 14 years, he immediately jumped into a cab and rushed to the epicenter to assess the damage and interview the victims. He had a terrific sense of humor and loved off color jokes. But he could be petty, was a fairly heavy drinker, and often feuded with CBS colleagues. Particularly notable is Brinkley’s detailed assessment of Cronkite’s contentious relationship with his Evening News successor, Dan Rather. But despite these and other critical observations, Brinkley’s detailed analysis serves to humanize this legendary figure and he emerges from these pages as a real, living, breathing human being.
Unfortunately, while this important and interesting book shows enormous research, it is undermined by a lack of attention to editorial detail. There are factual errors (the movie “Foreign Correspondent” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, not Billy Wilder), proofreading errors (“Anti Pefamation League”), and strange metaphors are commonplace (“But the blowback was like a bazooka shot to the gut” and later “Cronkite looked like a rejected model auditioning for an L.L. Bean catalog”).
There is an excessive reliance on colloquialisms and slang. New jobs are repeatedly referred to as “new gigs” and television is “the tube.” Other examples, to cite a few, that you don’t usually see in works by professional historians include; “doofus,” “snooze fest,” “phony baloney,” “your biggest and baddest dude,” “pissing match,” “goofy,” “mano a mano,” “Go figure,” “The answer was ... you betcha,” and “slo-mo Sundays.” The writing can be repetitious: for example, readers are told twice in 40 pages that Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland” in a 1961 speech. Sometimes we get the slang and repetition together as when he describes the Vietnam War’s Operation Thunder as “a half-assed bombing campaign” and a paragraph later he calls something else “ass-covering bullshit.”
Cronkite was a seminal figure in American media and Brinkley’s biography gives us a good sense of what made him tick. The book also takes us back to a recent but very different past when a small number of men (and they were all men) dominated the media and large portions of the public still believed that “objective journalism” was possible and desirable. In this sense, the book is as much about a totally different media era as it is a biography of Cronkite. In both cases, however, readers would have been better served by tighter editorial control.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.