Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Walter Cronkite and the Decline of the Evening News

As a reader pointed out to me, the summer is the beginning of a publishing season as well as a movie season.  As publishers release new nonfiction books, the media has lavished attention on the new volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.  This week, however, marks the release of a new work by another popular historian, Douglas Brinkley, who wrote Cronkite, a biography of the late CBS news anchor.  Following upon the “American Masters’” documentary on Johnny Carson, Brinkley’s book will likely give new insight into another giant figure from the pre-cable age and provide a window into the era before 24-hour cable and the Internet, when the nightly network news was the most important source of information for most Americans.

After covering World War II for United Press International (UPI) and working for CBS during the 1950s, Cronkite became anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1962.  At the time, the program was only 15 minutes long, but expanded to 30 minutes in 1963.  Cronkite, along with his rivals at NBC, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley, dominated the evening news market (ABC was a distant third).   Many observers cite the television coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 as the seminal moment when the medium surpassed print.  Cronkite famously struggled to hold back tears as he announced JFK’s death to the nation (See video below).

After trailing Huntley/Brinkley in the ratings during the early part of the decade, the CBS Evening News became #1 in the late 1960s.  “Uncle Walter,” as he was sometimes called, guided the nation through the turbulent decade and like Carson, his Middle American upbringing helped him connect with both rural and urban viewers. Cronkite largely reported the government’s view of the Vietnam War from 1965-67, but grew more suspicious as it continued without a clear victory.  Responding to public disaffection about the conflict, the Johnson Administration went on a public relations blitz about the military’s success in the fall of 1967.  When the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the massive Tet Offensive in January 1968, many Americans were shocked, including Cronkite, who privately declared, “What the hell is going on.  I thought we we’re winning the war.”  He traveled to Vietnam and studied the issue, concluding that the war had reached an impasse.  Returning home, he famously editorialized in a CBS special that “It seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam will end in stalemate (Grand Expectations, 680).  Watching in the White House, LBJ supposedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (Flawed Giant, 506).  Such was the perceived power of one anchor in this era.  Most historians, however, believe Cronkite and other reporters were catching up with the public mood, rather than shaping it (Vietnam, 561).

Intensely interested in the space program, Cronkite routinely covered launches throughout the 1960s.  He became emotional as he narrated the Eagle’s landing at Tranquility Base on the moon on July 20, 1969 (his broadcast before the launch of Apollo 11 can be heard during “Men in Black 3”).  Cronkite dearly wanted to go into space himself and participated in NASA’s “Journalist in Space” program, which was terminated after the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Cronkite led the ratings battle between the Big 3 network news broadcasts throughout the 1970s, retiring in 1981.  After leaving the anchor desk, Cronkite kept a relatively low profile, except for appearing at political conventions for CBS and hosting the occasional special.  By contrast, former rival Brinkley went to ABC and had a second act in television, reinventing the Sunday morning news show with “This Week with David Brinkley.”

The ratings for the evening news have gradually declined over the last two decades, as cable news and the Internet have eaten into their market share.  No anchor emerged as a dominant figure during the 1980s and 90s, though NBC’s Tom Brokaw came the closest.  Like Cronkite, Brokaw seemed to have the heartland manner that many Americans preferred to the urbane (ABC’s Peter Jennings) or the weird (CBS' Dan Rather, Cronkite's successor).

The remaining evening news viewers are older, as can be seen through all the arthritis ads that air during the broadcasts.  I was too young to watch Cronkite as an anchor, but have fond memories of listening to his narration of “Spaceship Earth,” the flagship ride of EPCOT Center.  Though I grew up watching the network news with my parents in the 1980s, I can’t remember the last time I watched any of the three programs.  Just as there will never be another Carson, there will never be another Cronkite.  And that’s the way it is.

Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (New York, 1998)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York, 1997)

James Patterson, Grand Expectations, the United States, 1945-1974 (New York, 1996)


  1. Hey - I'm actaully working on an exhibition which deals with photojournalism from the 60s - mid-70s. Do you have any citation for this:

    Cronkite, who privately declared, “What the hell is going on. I thought we we’re winning the war.”

    I'd like to read more about it - I'm interested in the roll of tv journalism versus photojournalism.

  2. I quoted that from James Patterson's Grand Expectations, which is listed in the sources for the piece. I would urge you to check out Brinkley's book on Cronkite and Andrew Huebner, Warrior Image (UNC, 2007). There is also an entire book on the press coverage of the Tet Offensive; not sure of the title. Check back here as I may think of more sources for you.