He wasn’t evil, really, but he was immensely influential, often in very counter-productive ways. In fact, when his career was at its height, few people anywhere wielded the kind of power he did to shape the way in which Americans thought about the world around them. No single person today, in a time when the news media are so highly fragmented, comes close to having as much influence as he did.
His name was Walter Cronkite, and for almost twenty years, from 1962 to 1981 – though it feels like longer – he was the anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News.
It was an era when almost every American’s main source of information about the world was one of the three evening network news shows. And of the three, CBS, during the reign of Cronkite, was the undisputed champion. It had the biggest budget and the highest viewership. And it had Cronkite, who, year after year, was voted the most trusted man in America. It was long before the Internet, which helped people around the world to understand just how foolish it was to place their unreflecting trust in any single news source.
To careful observers, it was clear that Cronkite (who, born and raised in Texas, had been a war correspondent in Europe and spent several years at CBS before taking over the evening news) admired John F. Kennedy and favored Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. His reporting during the latter campaign was manifestly intended to reinforce LBJ’s message that Goldwater was a dangerous right-wing war hawk who might well plunge the nation into nuclear war.
Later, Cronkite played a pivotal role in shifting public attitudes toward the Vietnam War. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was really a U.S. victory, Cronkite spun it as a U.S. defeat, calling the war itself “unwinnable” and suggesting that American troops be withdrawn. President Lyndon Johnson famously said that by losing Cronkite, he had lost America. There’s no way to know what course the war might have taken had Cronkite stuck to reporting the news instead of commenting on it, but his verdict on the war caused millions of Americans to view it fatalistically and led many government officials to think not in terms of how to win but of how to back out honorably.
Similarly, in the early 70s, Cronkite’s relentless attention to the story of the Watergate break-in (he had always hated Nixon) helped to turn it into the political scandal of the century. Indeed, the glorifying of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by the movie All the President’s Men served to downplay the role of Cronkite and CBS in bringing down the Nixon administration. (After all, few Americans outside of the Beltway read the Washington Post.) In this instance, too, Cronkite may have affected the course of history.
Throughout his years at CBS, Cronkite – known affectionately to the nation as “Uncle Walter” – carefully maintained his pose as an impartial, hard-working reporter, digging for the truth and fearlessly following it wherever it led. After his retirement, he dropped the act and made clear his far-left leanings. Among much else, he attacked President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and his plans for a so-called “Star Wars” weapons system (which, in fact, actually ended up helping to bring down the Soviet Union). Cronkite was also an early eco-hysteric, reporting seriously on “expert” predictions that the planet was on the verge of environmental catastrophe. (Even so, as one critic has noted, “he thought nothing about hopping on the gas-guzzling supersonic Concorde.”)
In his later years, when he gradually morphed into a far-left crank, Cronkite said that he had always considered fear of the Soviet Union ridiculous and overblown, and called for a United Nations-run world government that would strike a balance “between capitalism and communism.”
And that’s the way it was. Alas.