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Amy Henderson: That’s The Way It Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite

With 2012's national party conventions and subsequent coverage upon us, curator Amy Henderson looks back at the most trusted man in news

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This post is part of our ongoing series in which ATM invites thoughts and commentary from among the Smithsonian Institution’s scientists, curators, researchers and historians. The National Portrait Gallery’s cultural historian Amy Henderson recently wrote about Olympic athletes. Today, as the political conventions get underway—the Republican National Convention in Tampa from August 27-30, 2012, followed by the Democratic National Convention September 3-6, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Henderson recalls the era when national conventions were first broadcast on television.

National Portrait Gallery curator Amy Henderson is a regular guest contributor to Around the Mall.

Who do you trust?

In 1972, an Oliver Quayle Research survey reported that CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America”—more trusted than anyone else in public life, although, that’s not including such 1970s pop stars as Cher or Paul Newman.

Trust. Today, it is an eye-popping notion that a network newsperson would have that kind of status. How many of us even watch nightly network news? The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports that between 1980 and 2011, the three commercial networks lost 28.4 million nightly news viewers, or 54.5 percent of their audience. Does Swanson still make TV dinners? Do people even know what a Swanson TV dinner is?

The man embraced by postwar audiences as “Uncle Walter” is the subject of historian Douglas Brinkley’s new biography, Cronkite. It is a richly detailed chronicle of a media figure who both personified his era and who radiated an unblinking authenticity in years before “trust-but-verify” became the nation’s cultural watchword.

During World War II, Cronkite was a war correspondent for United Press International. He was not one of the “boys” Edward R. Murrow nurtured to prominence during the war, but instead he joined CBS in 1950 and distinguished himself by covering the first televised political conventions in 1952. Brinkley writes that Cronkite was tagged the first national “anchor” when the CBS press office needed a word to describe what he would be doing at the conventions. They decided to say “he is going to anchor for us,” and from then on he was routinely referred to as their “anchorman.”

The museum’s portrait of Walter Leland Cronkite by Robert Vickrey, 1966. courtesy of NPG/SI; gift of Time magazine

The “cool medium” proved a highly-receptive stage for Cronkite’s calm and reassuring personality, and his on-air convention coverage helped make television a major influence in American politics. Cronkite was also a riveting storyteller. He could hold his audiences’ attention for sometimes as long as seven hours at a stretch. Brinkley enthuses, “Cronkite blazed like a meteor,” and just as Murrow “had linked Great Britain to America with his voice during the Second World War, Cronkite brought the Chicago conventions into the living rooms of America.” Few Americans had ever been to a political convention, and now watched enthralled as the avuncular Cronkite demystified the machinations of convention politics.

For the next 30 years, Walter Cronkite reigned as an iconic broadcast news personality. Compared to today’s media mash-up of raucous 24/7 competition. Cronkite was a pioneer in a time when “the broadcast media” consisted of just the three commercial television networks—NBC, CBS and ABC and television was just finding its way into American households—in 1950 only 11 percent of American families had one, but by 1960, 88 percent did. Cronkite was there as the medium recast the American political landscape to fit its visual demands: how did a candidate “look” on TV? What “image” did the small screen transmit into people’s living rooms?

Looking back, it is amazing how networks were once pinioned for “monopolizing” news reporting: unlike today, the issue 50 years ago wasn’t about network political affiliation or persuasion, but about the exclusive power held by the three major networks. In The Making of the President, 1960, Theodore White quoted journalist Walter Lippmann warning how the Big Three endangered freedom of the press by monopolizing the dissemination of broadcast news—a mind-boggling concept in 2012.

Of course, we all know how the story goes. Fissures in the broadcast news monopoly began appearing in 1980 with the formation of CNN as the first 24-hour news network. Over the next few decades, the exponential growth of cable and Internet outlets transformed news delivery from a system that “broadcast” to a large, mainstream audience, into a vast web of “narrowcast” channels focused on audiences with niche interests.

Television news today is a world that lacks, and perhaps, doesn’t need a “Walter Cronkite.” The nation experienced vast political and social changes under his 30-year watch, from landing a man on the moon, to the assassination of a sitting president, to the war in Vietnam. His clout was such that when he reported from Vietnam in 1968 that the war was “a stalemate,” President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

The year Cronkite was chosen “most trusted” was the year a bungled burglary at the Watergate changed the trust landscape forever. At the same time, technologies were expanding audience access to an exploding multiplicity of channels. New access meant new rituals: there is little demand today for the TV dinners of the 1950s and Cronkite’s signature signoff—“and that’s the way it is.” But in all fairness, there was little demand back then for baby arugula or Greek yogurt.

The loss of the evening news ritual is partly the result of a democratic hunger for information. Unfiltered and 24/7, media is an unmediated cosmos.

Today, who do we trust? We trust the person holding the smart phone, the iPad, the remote—the person facing the screen, not the one beaming back at us.  And that’s the way it is.

View several portraits of the famous newscaster at the National Portrait Gallery, including one with astronaut John Glenn and journalist Daniel Ellsberg.

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About Amy Henderson
Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, is a cultural historian specializing in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham.

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