Good-Bye to The Magic | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Good-Bye to The Magic

Television news has always been a war between the reporters who care most about journalism and the corporate suits who care only about the bottom line.  It was so when Edward R. Murrow was the star of CBS in the 1950’s, and it remained so when Walter Cronkite became the most influential newsman in America, sometime around 1968.  What made Cronkite uniquely important was his status as the last anchor man in America with the clout and the judgement to make that permanent conflict a fair fight–most of the time.

Since his death last week Cronkite has been rightly celebrated for his two greatest moments of courage: his special report from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive–“Who, What, Where, When and Why” he called it–and his two lengthy reports about Watergate in October of 1972, when the only other news organization that was giving that story the attention it deserved was The Washington Post.   

Even as Cronkite was calling Lyndon Jonhson’s war a failure, Cronkite’s boss, CBS president Frank Stanton, was still giving LBJ endless technical advice, in a futile effort to make the Texan look better on TV.  Stanton even helped to redesign the presidential desk in the Oval Office to try to make it look more telegenic.

But because Cronkite was both the most serious and the most profitable anchor in the history of TV news, even as his bosses assiduously cultivated the president, Cronkite was usually able to keep his network straight.

Everything about TV news was more serious back then–from the 20 hours of documentaries CBS Reports routinely produced every year, to the quality of the correspondents in the field–men like Charles Collingwood, Robert Schackne, Morley Safer, Fred Graham, Mike Wallace and–especially–Roger Mudd.   Most TV men and women (including Cronkite) got their basic training at newspapers, at a time when their brains were still considered more important than their haircuts.  And the networks actually paid attention to criticism from the print press, not only because the TV types were more serious about the news then, but also because the criticism from people like New York Times TV critic Jack Gould was vastly more sophisticated than anything being written today.

The CBS support team you didn’t see was just important as the one you did.   Producers like the legendary Mark Harrington were always nearby–or during the conventions, actually sitting in a hole at Cronkite’s left, from which Harrington passed up a steady stream of cue cards with minute pieces of astute political analysis.

Cronkite had amazing timing–and nothing is more important for a newsman than that. He had the good fortune to be the most important face on TV during every major event from the assassination of JFK in 1963 through the evacuation of American hostages from Iran in 1981.  And through every kind of mayhem, he was cool, calm and intelligent.

To those of us who first “met” Cronkite as the anchor of “You Are There,” a history program for children which re-enacted great events, he entered our psyches as a literally omniscient reporter, a time traveler who was able to interview everyone from Paul Revere to Thomas Edison.  And when “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the battle cry of the Vietnam generation, Cronkite remained nearly alone on the other side of the generation gap as the man who never lost our confidence, and our reverence.  When everything was exploding in the ‘60’s, in the streets at home and on the battlefields half way around the world, Walter was the only public figure who still had the capacity to unite us.

What we called “youth culture” was hardly a staple of the CBS Evening News, so a piece about Don McClean’s “American Pie” jumped out at you as a rare concession to youthful tastes.   But that kind of resistance to pandering was just another pillar of Cronkite’s extraordinary authority.     

Like the front page of the New York Times (especially in its heyday), Cronkite’s news had a capacity to bestow seriousness on a subject that was unmatched by any of his competitors.  So it was enormously important to the Washington Post when Cronkite gave his blessing to the efforts of Woodward and Bernstein at the height of Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.

It was a political year, and everyone was saying, ‘Well, it’s just politics, and here’s the Post trying to screw Nixon,” former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee remembered this week in Newsweek.   “We were the second-biggest newspaper in the country trying to scramble for a good story—whereas Cronkite was the reigning dean of television journalists. When he did the Watergate story, everyone said, ‘My God, Cronkite’s with them.’” But even Cronkite’s powers were limited.   When Nixon hatchet man Chuck Colson screamed at the corporate suits after the first 14-minute piece aired, the second one was cut back to (a still remarkable) 8 minutes.

When Cronkite was pushed out, at the age of sixty-four, to make room for a younger man, CBS had the perfect successor in Roger Mudd, a superb newsman and a natural anchorman who had been Cronkite’s substitute for years during his many lengthy vacations.   But Mudd was a terrible office politician, and Dan Rather was a brilliant one, so the job went to Rather instead–a bombastic reporter whose demeanor was the antithesis of Cronkite’s soothing calmness.   That disastrous choice was the beginning of the end of network news as we had known in, from the dawn of Huntley and Brinkley, who debuted on NBC in 1955, until Cronkite’s departure from his anchor seat in 1981.

What Cronkite was, really, was an old-fashioned newsman with old-fashioned values, the perfect blend of middlebrow intellect and superb showmanship–the kind that’s so good it’s never even identified as craft.   In Cronkite showmanship was the opposite of  flashiness: it was an innate capacity to look more comfortable in front of a camera than anyone else ever had before.  Indeed, his delivery was so admired within the network, his moments alone in front of the teleprompter were known simply as “the magic.”

Those of us who grew up with him will always miss that magic, and his seriousness.  And like him, we will always bemoan what Glenn Greenewald rightly identified as Cronkite’s greatest failure.

 “What do I regret?” Cronkite asked an interviewer in 1996.  “Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick.  We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.”

The news business and our democracy have never stopped bleeding because of that failure.

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