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“Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley Seems A Must Read

June 27, 2012

Walter Cronkite was my kind of journalist, reporter, thinker, American. 

I can not wait for Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley to land in my mail box.

Brinkley’s treatment is generally sympathetic but at the same time demythologizing. His Cronkite is rendered, in human scale, as a figure of enormous ability and core integrity (with a few lapses) but also colossal ambition and decided political opinions.

DB: There were very many similarities between Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite as personalities. Both were from the Midwest, both had alcoholic fathers, both had to make up sports coverage [as offsite radio broadcasters, riffing off wire-service accounts of the games], both had to disarm people with charm. Both wore well with people, and both are beloved in America.

PS: Did he deserve the “most trusted man in America” moniker?

DB: What a TV network decides to run as news—by nature it has some form of bias. Cronkite pushed for civil rights, the environment, women’s rights. He made a decision that Watergate was a real big story. I ended up believing that he was a journalist to trust, but he was also part and parcel of his times.

PS: What about his role as a cheerleader for NASA and the space program?

DB: On NASA boosterism, he is either praised or guilty as charged. He was seeing it as a big special-event story. So the question is whether he is right to be focusing on space and pushing that story narrative. I feel [the answer is] yes.

PS: You also note in the book that, in 1968, Cronkite privately urged Robert F. Kennedy, a dove on Vietnam, to get into the presidential race to take on LBJ, who in the end decided not to run for another term as president.

DB: I call foul on that. He should have come clean and let the public know that. Vietnam tore everyone’s compass apart. Cronkite was no exception.

PS: Notwithstanding Cronkite’s roots in wire-service reporting, he also, as you write in the book, “opened the floodgate for the line between commentary and news to be blurred.” The groundbreaking example is that special report, on Feb. 27, 1968, dissenting from LBJ on Vietnam. (Cronkite concluded, on air, that “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.”)

DB: I would see February, 27, 1968 as the beginning of what you now see as the news anchor on cable, editorializing nonstop, and when breaking news happens, they come on to be the fact-finder. The brand of the TV personality is now what carries weight. People are tuning in for the personality, not the news itself. That is part of Cronkite’s legacy, for better or for worse.

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