Birth of an Anchorman: The Ethical Example of Walter Cronkite

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Political contributions by journalists paint a glaring contrast to the professional standards of a legendary industry pioneer.

Just as Henry Ford was born to assemble automobiles, and George Patton was charged to command soldiers, Walter L. Cronkite, Jr. is the mold of the news broadcast anchorman. Identified as “The Most Trusted Man in America” during his twenty-year career as managing editor of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite consistently adhered to basic rules of journalism to deliver straight forward information night after night.

What began as a doctorate dissertation for Doug James culminated in the 1991 publishing of Walter Cronkite: His Life and Times, an insight into a body of journalistic excellence that spanned fifty years. According to James, Cronkite evolved into the consummate professional journalist in response to the tumultuous national landscape in which he lived.

Born in 1916, Cronkite spent his childhood in Houston, Texas where he learned two valuable lessons that would accent his life. The first was the horror and ugly stain of racism, and the second, an admonition by his mother that forged his journalistic dogma. “It’s one of those gray areas, Walter. Be careful of gray—it might be grime.”

That lesson served him well throughout a distinguished career as he presented whole truths to his audience, never settling for half the facts that were easily available. James admits a struggle with objectivity in portraying a man with whom he has so much admiration, but reconciles to the fact that so many in the nation share his own sentiments.

The journey that would bring the conflicts of the globe and mysteries of outer space into the American living room began at the Houston Press, where Cronkite left college to report on developments in the state legislature. Several jobs later he was on the African continent with fellow journalist Ernie Pyle providing WWII coverage of the Allied advances against Rommel for United Press.

As the story crossed the Atlantic Ocean into Europe, Cronkite joined a military unit that hang-glided under the veil of darkness into the London countryside. There he aligned with Ed Murrow and Eric Sevareid, amidst the nightly German bombings, to relay the latest action back to a voracious American public. The D-Day beaches of Normandy led Cronkite and a select group of reporters down a Who’s Who road with Patton, Eisenhower, and Churchill that led to the war trials of Nuremberg.

In 1962 Cronkite assumed the anchor desk for CBS television to convey some of the most dramatic events in U.S. history. His calming influence comforted a nation distraught by the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His expert, down-to-earth analysis of the 1969 moon walk was the result of intense study and preparation that included gravity research inside a NASA simulator.

An investigative trip to Vietnam in 1968 influenced an administration. In a special report, Cronkite challenged optimistic White House reports of the U.S. mission in Southeast Asia and expressed skepticism for the war effort. After viewing the broadcast, it is reported President Lyndon Johnson said, “Well, if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

During the political scandal of the Nixon administration, Cronkite defended the First Amendment rights of the press against liberal allegations. “Our job is to hold up the mirror–to tell and show the public what has happened and then it is the job of the people to decide whether they have faith in their leaders or government.” This stance delegated the press as “watchdogs” for the American public.

“That’s the way it was” in the storybook career of a broadcast journalism pioneer. My, how times have changed.