This is a big one, though not an unexpected one, since he had been ill for some time. But Walter Cronkite is dead at the age of 92.
No TV news anchor will ever again reach as many people as Cronkite did, for better or worse. Cronkite’s hosting of the CBS Evening News started the same year The Beverly Hillbillies started on TV, and there’s actually a point to bringing that up: just as The Beverly Hillbillies is still the most-watched TV comedy of all time, Cronkite’s CBS duties had more influence than any single news show could have today. He epitomized the function of TV news in a three-channel universe with a still-un-fragmented audience. The point was not so much to be objective — the pretense to objectivity was there, of course, but it is in all TV news-anchoring . (The Cronkite era may have been the last era when the “liberal media” charge actually had a point; there is hardly any “liberal media” on network TV today, but Cronkite worked from what might be called the old New Deal Consensus, and certain assumptions underlay his work, assumptions that had been more or less dominant in both U.S. political parties in the ’50s.) The point was to have authority, and also to appeal to the widest possible audience.
The same principles that hit scripted shows started from — broad appeal, a sense of being just hip enough to appeal to the young and just square enough to appeal to the old — also applied to TV news, and Cronkite was the most famous anchor of that generation because he was the best example of what a successful news host had to be. There will never be another host like him because a single television show can never again have the broad reach it had in the ’60s and ’70s. There are good and bad things about that, but what’s certain is that Cronkite was very good at what he did.
One more thing that’s notable about Cronkite’s CBS Evening News is how incredibly low-tech it was. This was back when TV news departments functioned as though they were semi-independent of the network’s entertainment arm, and part of that was the contempt for production values: no flashy graphics, little music, and very crude video and audio for the correspondents’ reports. Today, there’s no local news show that would have so little showbiz glitz. Of course, this production style helped the show by re-enforcing the idea that the anchor was telling it “the way it is,” that he wasn’t just an entertainer.
Here is the opening of a Cronkite episode from March 17, 1977:
And here is Cronkite anchoring the 1956 Democratic presidential convention:
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.