Friday, July 31, 2009

Cronkite in Context: Walter, CBS or the Era?

July 31, 2009, 12:30 p.m. (August 19, 2009 Don Hewitt addition)

Insights from Cronkite's Success
Shed Light on Today's Media Failures

(brought to you by*)

This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of The CBS Evening News; for me, it's a moment for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that. But those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. . . . And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers, . . .. Furthermore, I'm not even going away! I'll be back from time to time . . .. And that's the way it is . . .. I'll be away on assignment, and [others] will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.
Embedded in Dan Shelley, "Commentary: Cronkite & The CBS Broadcast Center; Legendary Newsman's Aura Permeates Every Inch Of Building," WCBS-TV &, July 18, 2009.

That was how Walter Cronkite left us the last time, in 1981. Change "last broadcast" to "last day," "two decades" to "nine," and it works pretty well for his most recent departure two weeks ago. Had he witnessed our response to his passing I suspect he would say again, with equivalent modesty that "those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid have made too much."

And it would be neither inaccurate nor immodest of him to prophesy that "I'll be back from time to time." After all, he was known to most Americans as but an image on a television screen, and given the wonders of videotape and other storage media those images can always return. And, to quote Dan Shelley's headline, above, this "legendary newsman's aura" will continue to permeate not only the newsroom at WCBS-TV, but newsrooms of all media, and journalism classrooms, for decades to come.

Like the thousands who have written about his passing, I too acknowledge his greatness -- as a human being as well as a journalist. Like others whose lives intersected with his, I too have my personal stories. Like all Americans with access to a radio and later a television set during the last half-century or so, I also looked to him to tell me "the way it is."

But I've hesitated to leap into my own commentary because it seemed to me there was an even bigger story here. I'm not confident I'll ever fully understand what it is, but I certainly have a greater insight after two weeks' thought than I had on July 17. How much of "Walter Cronkite" was "Uncle Walter," how much "CBS," and how much the times, the era, in which he emerged?

But first, a sampling of some of my own Walter Cronkite and CBS stories.

We were both born in the midwest, he in St. Joseph, Missouri, and I in Iowa City, Iowa. We both attended the University of Texas, he about the time I was born, I about 18 years later. (In later years our pictures were both hung in the UT Journalism Building, along with that of Bill Moyers, as DeWitt Carter Reddick Award recipients.) Although my own accomplishments and prominence were those of a pygmy compared to Walter Cronkite, our most public times overlapped -- his as anchor of the half-hour "CBS Evening News" (1962-1981), mine in Washington from 1963-1979 (three presidential appointments, including Maritime Administrator, FCC commissioner, presidential adviser to President Carter, a congressional race, and chairing the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting).

Cronkite knew of my interest in journalism in general, and television news in particular, and offered me a standing invitation to visit the set and control room whenever he was doing the news from Washington. These were days of film -- occasionally arriving only minutes before the show went live -- and the tension surrounding what would and would not be processed in time to air, along with the split-second commands to the camera operators (and Walter) made the scene, from my perspective, about as exciting a place to be as any I could imagine.

Earlier, as Maritime Administrator, I had learned the power of his broadcast. One of my responsibilities was moving shiploads of wheat to India. There were disputes with the unions, and various government agencies, that made this task something between very difficult and impossible. Cronkite mentioned the problem one evening in a newscast; the next day the orders came down from the White House, following which the ships promptly sailed. It was an insight and lesson that stayed with me when later confronting the power of the mass media as an FCC commissioner.

At the FCC I tried to focus public and congressional attention on the importance and responsibility of broadcast journalism. Broadcasting's greatest failing, I said, was not so much the harm that it did (though there was plenty of that) but the good it could do for America that it failed to do.

In 1967, the second year of my seven-year term on the FCC, CBS launched a new program called "60 Minutes" which I praised as a step in the right direction. It wasn't long, however, before the show's low ratings were cited by those who thought the experiment had failed and the program should be canceled. I urged the network to stick with it, give it time, that it takes awhile for a show to build a following. Not that my urging had anything to do with it, but the program was kept on the air and for many years thereafter reigned as number one in the ratings -- not number one among news programs but number one, period.

Addition: August 19, 2009: Mike Hale, "An Appraisal: Don Hewitt, The Man Who Kept ‘60 Minutes’ Ticking," New York Times, August 20, 2009, p. C1 ("In the wake of Mr. Hewitt’s death on Wednesday, much will be written about how the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” his signal creation, paved the way for a good share of what we see on television today. . . . [A] moment should be taken simply to honor the success: no show in the history of television has been as widely popular for as long as '60 Minutes.'").

CBS had a Sunday morning show called "Face the Nation." On September 14, 1969, I was the guest. I recently accidentally came upon a "Face the Nation" transcript of my exchanges on that occasion with Mike Wallace and George Herman of CBS and Richard Burgheim of Time magazine. They were heated exchanges, and I was at my outrageous worst. Given that the show was not promoted, and the only listings had it at the wrong time, I was not surprised that one of the letters I received from a viewer explained that she had only seen it because she'd accidentally turned on her TV set while dusting it. (As the producer later explained to me, "You're not paranoid, Nick, you've got real enemies.") All told we had more than 7000 letters in my office (if I now remember correctly), and someone from CBS told me that the network got more mail about that show than any "Face the Nation" program prior to that time. (If you're interested in what was said, just click on the link above.)
[* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson]
Most of the occasions when I was the subject of a CBS' or New York Times' news item it involved my work. But years later, when I had long since settled into what would prove to be a 17-year period as a single man once again, Kathleen Nolan (then national president of the Screen Actors Guild) and I began dating and a personal item made Cronkite's newscast.

Kathleen had a friend with a small house on the north side of Oahu where we decided to spend a few days. Next door, among others, was a young boy who lived in a tree, could dive meters below the surface without a scuba tank, walk on coral, and smoked pot. (Asked why he wasn't in school, he replied, "Because the surf's too high.") When we considered a walk in the near-by forested mountain area he gave us suggestions and offered to accompany us. Since we didn't know the area, and assumed he knew it like the back of his hand, we followed him.

We climbed up a mountain under bushes with long thorns that permitted sliding under while going up, but would have torn the hide off of anything trying to go back down. We weren't concerned not only because we had our experienced guide, but because my mountain experience from Colorado and the Shenandoah was that there are usually animal trails along a mountain ridge that we could probably take back to our cottage. We were wrong on both counts. Our guide did not know this territory, and the trail along the top was very narrow, with drops on both sides precluding descent. Assuming we would ultimately get back down, we continued on only to find the trail ended with an equally impassible drop. We were stuck. We were supposed to have dinner with our friends Dorothy and John Craven (who was then running for Lt. Governor of Hawaii). When we didn't show, he got the Honolulu Fire Department helicopter out looking for us. Our guide, of course, came equipped with matches (though no pot, as I now recall), so we started a little (controlled) fire to alert the helicopter we saw coming for us. For some reason the fire did not get their attention, and they left us on the mountain overnight.

There followed a number of contradictory stories running on the wire services. We were lost in a forest. We had gone down in a small plane at sea. We were lost at sea in a boat. I later heard from some of the other women I was dating at the time of their concern -- both as to what might have happened to me, and as to whom I was with at the time.

The next day the helicopter sighted us, and we swung down in baskets from the mountaintop to the road below -- where the local TV cameras were ready to record our rescue. The reporters' first question to Kathleen: "What were you wearing?" (Dressed in shorts and climbing boots she sarcastically explained that she had been in a designer ball gown while climbing, but changed into shorts for the interview.)

And what does Walter Cronkite have to do with this misadventure? It was a slow news day apparently, so he included a report of our safe return on the evening news.

Another thing Cronkite said on his last day as anchor, quoted above, was "the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers . . .."

And that's the point I'm about to make about Walter Cronkite, CBS, and the state of broadcasting during the 1960s and 1970s -- as contrasted with today.

CBS was, as Cronkite himself said, much more than the anchor on the Evening News. And my relationship was with CBS as much or more than with Cronkite.

Our next door neighbors, and probably closest family friends, in Bethesda, were the Pierpoints; Bob was then the CBS White House correspondent. Although I never met Edward R. Murrow (who died in 1965), I enjoyed a dinner with his widow, Janet, one evening in Pat and Bob's home. My sister, who started her career in television broadcasting while in high school ("Let's Pretend" and "It's Fun to Find Out" on award-winning WMT-TV, Cedar Rapids, were her creations), had gone on to work for NBC, CBC, BBC, and others. Before moving on to other things, she also worked with Cronkite and CBS News as both a researcher and on-air reporter. And as
was necessarily the case for someone in my position at that time, I had an acquaintance with a number of CBS reporters and other personnel.

Which brings me to what is perhaps the broader significance of the "CBS era" in broadcasting. Its success was a tribute to more than just the "team of journalists" -- however professionally skilled, ethical, and hard working they may have been.

It was a tribute to CBS' owner, Bill Paley (whom I never met), its president Frank Stanton (whom I did meet), its general counsel, Dick Salant (with whom I publicly tangled in print), CBS News President Fred Friendly (whom I knew in a variety of his roles). It was they who made the decisions to spend more on CBS News than any other network was willing to spend, far more than the FCC would ever have required. They who lived the admonition, "with great power goes great responsibility." They who exercised that responsibility to all America as best they knew how. They who took pride in the creation and operation of one of the world's preeminent television news organizations.

Looking back the 40 years to those days it's ironic that I should ever have included CBS in my criticisms of the industry. They somehow seem, by comparison with today, the "golden years of responsible television journalism."

And so I'm left to wonder, "why?" What happened during the last three decades to create the state of the broadcast media we see today?

Certainly a part of the answer is the "Wall Street cancer" that infects the majority of American capitalism. Capitalism used to be run by capitalists. Now it's run by bankers and multi-million-dollar hired hands.

You knew who owned CBS in those days; where the buck stopped -- and where the bucks came from. It was Bill Paley. He was driven by forces other than the goal to become "the richest man in the cemetery." He took personal pride in CBS' accomplishments. (And as he once told Edward R. Murrow, when trimming his sails, he also felt it in the pit of his stomach when, in his judgment, CBS was stepping over the line.) But the result was that profit maximization was not paramount; the money spent on CBS News was money that would otherwise have been in Bill Paley's pocket.

Today's news judgments, and news budgets, are made by Wall Street financiers with little respect for journalism or sense of national responsibility. They know, as the saying has it, "the price of everything and the value of nothing." They not only want profits (and the multi-million-dollar bonuses they make possible), they want ever-increasing profits. Hard times? Fire the journalists, reward the executives.

Dick Salant was ferocious defender of CBS' First Amendment rights. I disagreed with him often, but always respected him. Journalism was serious business; it was no place for music or other promotional nonsense. When President Lyndon Johnson complained to Frank Stanton (LBJ's Austin station was a CBS affiliate, I believe) about CBS' Vietnam coverage Stanton never even mentioned the conversation to the reporter the president disliked. When Cronkite thought the Vietnam war unwinable, he simply said so. Unlike today's lapdog media, CBS never felt it had a responsibility to be a cheerleader for war for the White House.

Necessarily, TV reporters and anchors in those days had come up through print journalism (Cronkite with UPI). There were no TV stations to train them. My sense (devoid of data) is that at least some of today's TV's "reporters" have had neither that experience, nor its equivalent, in either journalism school or prior employment. (As a communications study student once told me, the reason he was choosing broadcasting rather than newspapers was because he didn't really like to research and write.)

Another factor, in fairness to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the others, is that we no longer have what we used to call a "two-and-a-half-network economy." We have hundreds of channels on cable, and even more from the online Internet sites (including blogs). There's a little more competition than there used to be -- and a lot less inflation-adjusted revenue.

The reasons we do not, today, have a Walter Cronkite are many. But among them is the fact that, even if there were a potential Cronkite out there somewhere there is no media operation that would hire him or her -- or place where such a journalist would stay for long even if hired.

"That's the way it is" -- and a significant part of the story of Walter Cronkite's life, and death, that didn't receive the attention it might have during our grieving and memorial services.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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