Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of “The Most Trusted Man In America,” Walter Cronkite.
Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite is best known for the 19 years he served as the anchor for CBS Evening News, the first half-hour nightly news show on American network television, from 1962 to 1981.
Ted Koppel, the anchor for ABC’s Nightline from the program’s inception in 1980 until 2005, spoke of Cronkite in a recent interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. Discussing the lack of public trust in the media today, Koppel explained that:
The fact of the matter is – it’s hard to believe these days – but thirty years ago a television network anchor, Walter Cronkite, was the most trusted man in America. There is not a man today, yourself included, on television as an anchor who is trusted by anything approaching a majority of the American people.
Indeed, as Encyclopedia Britannica states:
His avuncular mien and adherence to journalistic integrity—exemplified by his sign-off line, “And that’s the way it is”—endeared him to the American public, and a 1972 poll named him “the most trusted man in America.”
He reported many events from 1937 to 1981, including bombings in World War II; the Nuremberg trials; combat in the Vietnam War; the Dawson’s Field hijackings; Watergate; the Iran Hostage Crisis; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr., and Beatles musician John Lennon. He was also known for his extensive coverage of the U.S. space program, from Project Mercury to the Moon landings to the Space Shuttle. He was the only non-NASA recipient of a Moon-rock award. Cronkite is well known for his departing catchphrase “And that’s the way it is,” followed by the broadcast’s date.
Cronkite is perhaps most known for his coverage of the Vietnam War, the first televised or “Living Room War.” CNN reports that “in 1968, after the Tet Offensive, Cronkite set the agenda for coverage of the Vietnam War.”
Douglas Brinkley, a historian whose book “Cronkite” tells the newsman’s life story, spoke to CNN in a 2012 interview.
“Cronkite got up from his anchor desk, and flew to Vietnam, and put on a helmet and flak jacket, and interviewed anybody and everybody he could,” Brinkley said.
“I was able to read his notebooks, his reporter’s notebooks, asking himself questions and talking to people, collecting facts. He came home with the very strong conclusion that war was unwinnable and that at best it would be a stalemate. And there were people on the left saying that and even great New York Times reporters saying it, but to be Walter Cronkite and be telling people that the war was at best a stalemate, it had a transformative effect on the country. People asked that old question, ‘What, am I sending my son to die in a stalemate?’ “
Brinkley is referring to the evening of February 27, 1968 when Cronkite departed from his usual objectivity shortly after his return from Vietnam where he had been covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive – a huge turning point in the war.
Staring directly into the camera, Cronkite told viewers:
It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies the invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
As Encyclopedia Britannica states: “U.S. Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson told his staff, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,’ and some held that Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection that year was a direct result of Cronkite’s reporting.”
Google Doodle celebrates Cronkite’s 100th birthday with Google Doodle Today reporting that Cronkite “perpetuated an objective reporting style rooted in justice and integrity: ‘Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society.'”
Cronkite was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Walter” by the American public, and Google Doodle Today reports that “as a fixture in our living rooms, Walter brought a calm dose of consistency during the most pressing times with his end-of-segment catchphrase: “and that’s the way it is.”
Entertainment website Watch Mojo put together a short clip detailing the Top 10 Walter Cronkite moments.