Opinion: Carolina Critic

‘Most Trusted Man in America’ Didn’t Always Deserve That Mantle

• Douglas Brinkley, Cronkite, New York: Harper, 2012, 819 pages, $34.99.

RALEIGH — In the 1976 movie “Network,” news broadcaster Howard Beale hears a voice telling him to oraculate like some mad prophet. Beale asks “why me?” and the voice says, “because you’re on television, dummy.”

Walter Cronkite was one of the first to hear that line, in a private screening of “Network” with director Sidney Lumet, who had worked with Cronkite on a TV show. Cronkite laughed at the movie, in which his daughter Kathy plays the Patty Hearst character, but he also considered the story prophetic. Douglas Brinkley says the film “hit close to home” and that “much about TV newsgathering was a sham.” Cronkite gets into that, and a lot more.

Readers familiar with the trusted sage will meet a “lackadaisical” student who missed classes, never learned a foreign language, and squandered his chance at a college education. Cronkite caught the news bug, hooked up with United Press, and got the call to cover World War II. As a news correspondent in Europe, he played by the rules.

“Many of his dispatches from Eindhoven were propagandist,” Brinkley writes, “claiming that the U.S. paratroopers had routed the Germans when they hadn’t. Arnem stayed in German hands no matter how Cronkite spun it.” He would have other opportunities to spin the news on television, where he served as host of a quiz show and also became was the first “anchorman,” a position with true star power.

“A theatergoer might see the magnetic Richard Burton once a year on Broadway or the charismatic Edward G. Robinson at the movies twice a year,” Brinkley writes, “but Cronkite was going to be on five nights a week.” The timing was right.

A full 30 million people saw the televised hearings on organized crime that made a star of Sen. Estes Kefauver. Media types and politicians alike took notice. Political conventions were also an ideal forum for television.

Cronkite wound up coaching John F. Kennedy about makeup, dress, and diction. “Getting across” on television, Cronkite told JFK, “was all in the eyes.” It might have been an acting instructor teaching the Method.

Cronkite believed that television itself had an X-ray quality to reveal insincerity. Brinkley, who has read cultural critic Neil Postman, knows that “the power of truth itself belonged to cameramen as they chose their shots; it belonged to the network news producers; and at CBS, it belonged to Cronkite in his role as managing editor.” In that role he proved creative.

Long before the Nixon administration bugged the Democrat National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel in 1972, Cronkite “orchestrated the secret tape recording of the Republicans’ credentials committee meeting.” Before he became the most trusted man in America, Cronkite “had a CBS technician wire the committee room under the shady rationale that the covert act was good for democracy.”

Brinkley includes the view of CBS news boss Sig Michelson that “ethical considerations did not deeply disturb us.” That lapse was also evident in the treatment of Lyndon Johnson.

After an interview with LBJ, CBS reshot Cronkite making different facial expressions, a ruse intended to convey, and elicit, a different response. Media types called it “reprehensible,” and Brinkley says, “it was a real black eye to Cronkite.” He was not fired and prevailed as a symbol of trust despite occasional cases of foot-in-mouth.

“He’s got one of the best brains of anybody I’ve known.” Cronkite said that of Jimmy Carter, a president not known for profundity. The anchorman also told Playboy that “I think newsmen are inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions. And this sort of pushes them to the left.”

Brinkley could use more skepticism toward the “smelly orthodoxies” (Orwell’s phrase) of his time. He gives Cronkite credit for opposing the Red Scare (upper case his) by proxy and for working with blacklisted writers such as Walter Bernstein and Abe Polonsky. But the author provides none of their Stalinist back story.

Some viewed Cronkite as a Cold Warrior who changed his tune after reporting from Vietnam, the first conflict in American history, as David Halberstam put it, whose end had been announced by a commentator. After the Cold War ended, Cronkite was claiming that the USSR “wasn’t ever a dangerous threat” and that “fear of the Soviet Union taking over the world just seemed as likely to me as invaders from Mars.” The newsman sometimes forgot his ability to be “pontifical and wrong.”

Brinkley bundles in the history from D-Day and the Nuremburg Trials through the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the Apollo Missions, the first Earth Day, the Iranian hostage crisis, and more. Cronkite may prompt further study on these themes and also serves as a helpful TV Guide. Don Hewitt, Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney, Connie Chung, Roger Mudd, Christiane Amanpour, Morley Safer, Bill Moyers, and many others jostle in these pages. Their snits and quarrels offer some comic relief from the generally worshipful tone.

Walter Cronkite was the only wealthy television celebrity to gain “a respect that surpassed even that of some U.S. presidents.” Brinkley’s massive work confirms it while providing evidence that Cronkite, in the role the British call a “news reader,” did not deserve such respect. He may have wrapped his regular broadcast with “that’s the way it is,” but sometimes it wasn’t. As one wag put it, when you watched Walter Cronkite you not only saw CBS, you heard it too.