It takes moxie to become the most trusted man in America, and the late CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, one of America’s premier broadcast journalists, had it in spades!
For context, it was 40 years ago this month, on Friday, March 6th, 1981, that Cronkite chose to retire on his terms after an illustrious 19-year career at CBS News.
As a young boy of only 12, I can vividly remember watching live his last broadcast sign-off in his iconic stoic fashion. Here is that clip:
However, on November 22nd, 1963, when CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite delivered the devastating news, our young and vibrant 35th President, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was dead!
Over nearly a full agonizing hour, Cronkite broke into “As the World Turns” live broadcast to deliver updates. First, the president had been shot. He was rushed to the hospital. The outlook was grim. And finally, confirmation that our 46-year-old President, John F. Kennedy Jr., had been officially pronounced dead!
He took off his glasses, cleared his throat, and carefully composed himself while intoning in his familiar cadence, explaining carefully all that had happened and all that was about to happen. His voice offered calm and even comfort to a nation plunged suddenly into grief and uncertainty. America – indeed the world – clung to his every word!
If by chance you have never watched this 2-minute clip, it is one of the most famous clips in all of American broadcast journalism; please watch below:
So it was for decades. When people wanted to know what was happening and how to make sense of it, they turned on the evening news and listened to Cronkite’s explanation. From war to politics to entertainment, they knew Cronkite would deliver facts and context in a way they could understand.
“As anchorman of the CBS Evening News, I signed off my nightly broadcasts for nearly two decades with a simple statement: ‘And that’s the way it is.’ To me, that encapsulates the newsman’s highest ideal: to report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue,” Cronkite said.
It takes moxie to become the most trusted man in America, and here’s how Walter Cronkite displayed it over his career.
Moxie is forged in fire.
Cronkite began his career as a radio sportscaster in Kansas City before joining United Press International as a war correspondent assigned to the European Theatre of World War II.
His assignments took him on bombing raids over Germany about a B-17 Flying Fortress and the Bulge’s Battle. His colleagues and competitors included legends like Edward R. Murrow and Hugh Downs.
For many, they were the face and voice of a war happening on the other side of the world and yet as intimately close to home as the boy next door. Americans listened in rapt attention, desperate for news of how their boys might be faring so far away.
Cronkite’s path to the anchor chair was not an easy one. Though he was a pioneer of television news, he washed out as an early anchor of “The Morning Show” and was passed over as host of “Face the Nation.” In addition, his coverage of the 1964 Republican National Convention was so poor that another team replaced him.
Before he could earn the trust of the viewing public, Cronkite had to earn network executives’ trust. It took time, but he won them over!
Moxie earns trust.
War forged Cronkite’s credibility during the Vietnam War. Years later, when Cronkite covered the Vietnam War, his clear-eyed assessment of the conflict as a “stalemate” marked a turning point in America’s perception of the Vietnam conflict.
Upon hearing Cronkite’s report, some claim that President Johnson declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson decided after that point not to seek re-election.
“Not only do we have a right to know, but we also have a duty to know what our Government is doing in our name,” Cronkite explained.
While Cronkite was being honored for his career, television executive Fred Friendly remarked, “At a time when everybody was lying — fathers, mothers, teachers, presidents, governors, senators — you seemed to be telling the truth night after night. Of course, they didn’t like the truth, but they believed you at a time when they needed somebody to believe.”
Cronkite’s willingness to report the truth earned him the moniker “the most trusted man in America.”
How do you remember Cronkite?
Walter Cronkite’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Cronkite
CBS Evening News Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBS_Evening_News
CBS New’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBS_News