Sig Mickelson-An Early Visionary

Sig Mickelson AP

Television news pioneer Sig Mickelson died Friday at the age of 86. Here, his accomplishments are remembered by CBS.com's Gary Paul Gates.

More than anyone else, the man who deserves the credit for launching the national television career of Walter Cronkite was an obscure news executive named Sig Mickelson, who died last Friday night at the age of 86.

To appreciate the enduring contribution Mickelson made to the growth and success of TV journalism, we need to turn the clock back to the early 1950s.

At the time, television was in its infancy, a wobbly foal if there ever was one. Radio was the medium that still ruled the airwaves, and nowhere was this more clearly the case than in news broadcasting.

Radio news had reached a new level of maturity and prestige during World War II, thanks largely to the pioneering work of the legendary Edward R. Murrow and other talented reporters he had hired to help him cover the war in Europe for CBS.

By the time the war was over, Murrow and his distinguished colleagues - Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, et al - were justly regarded as the giants of broadcast journalism. Yet to them, that meant radio, and only radio.

They knew that television would soon be emerging as the next huge breakthrough in communications - but they wanted no part of it. To a man, they disdained the new medium as a glitzy and cumbersome interloper. Sevareid more or less spoke for the entire Murrow team when, to a friend, he lamented: "That damn picture box may ruin us all."

But the corporate Pooh-Bahs at CBS took a less alarming view. They also recognized that television was destined to become a dominant force in American culture, and they were determined to make it a suitable medium for news, just as radio - in its early days - had eventually established its own distinctive journalistic voice.

The man they chose to guide and oversee that transition was Sig Mickelson, who had done a solid job as news director at WCCO, a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. In 1951, at the age of 37, he was brought in to New York to develop the network's embryonic TV news operation.

Because television had not yet begun to draw big advertisers - who continued to pour their money into print and radio - Mickelson had to make do with a very tight budget and a skeletal staff of 14.

But Mickelson and his allies were convinced that history was on their side, and that the time was fast approaching for television news to make its big splash. In fact, they targeted the political conventions in the summer of 1952 as the events that would put TV journalism on the national map, big time.

Those conventions were the first that could be telecast live from coast to coast, and Mickelson was able to persuade his bosses to commit CBS to television coverage of the proceedings every day from start to finish - or "gavel to gavel," as he put it.

Mickelson also proposed that the CBS television team break way from the traditional radio style of reporting a major live event, the roundup technique that Murrow and his colleagues had established - with such great success - during the war.

Instead of bouncing around from location to location, with a key correspondent reporting from each site, Mickelson suggested structuring the television coverage around a strong central presence. And in an effort to clarify what he meant by this dominating figure, he coined a term that would go on to become a permanent fixture in our language - "anchorman."

But Mickelson had no luck in persuading any of the star CBS journalists to take on this challenging new assignment. Murrow, Sevareid and the other radio diehards made it clear they had no interest in covering the 1952 conventions as a television anchorman, whatever that was.

So Mickelson turned his attention to a 34-year-old correspondent who, although he had not been with CBS very long, was earning high marks for his nightly newscasts on WTOP, the network's affiliate in Washington. The newscaster's name was Walter Cronkite.

Although Cronkite was new to CBS - he went to work for the network in 1950 - he was certainly no stranger to journalism. As a young reporter for the United Press during World War II, he had earned a reputation as one the best combat correspondents in Europe. (In fact, Murrow had tried, in vain, to lure him to CBS in 1943 when they were both based in London.)

Mickelson was impressed not only by Cronkite's background but also by his skill at delivering impromptu newscasts. Reporting off the cuff from notes instead of from a prepared script, Cronkite projected a sense of authority that - in spite of his relative inexperience - set him apart from the vast majority of TV reporters Mickelson had seen.

So Mickelson decided that Cronkite was just the correspondent he needed to embody his anchorman concept at the '52 conventions. At first that decision was resisted by Mickelson's corporate bosses, who continued to hold out hope that Murrow or one of the other CBS radio stars could be induced to take on the assignment.

But in the end, they reluctantly agreed to go along with "this new fella in Washington" (as one of them put it), while at the same time making it clear that for Mickelson's sake, it better work out - or else.

It worked out, and then some. In the history of broadcast journalism, the 1952 conventions stand out as a watershed on no less than three fronts.

First, it signaled the transition in power and influence from radio to television. Like some abrupt seismic disturbance, all the weight in broadcast news suddenly shifted from the audio to the visual medium.

Second, because Mickelson and his team had prepared for the TV coverage of the conventions with far more savvy and vision than did their counterparts at the other networks, CBS became the dominant voice in TV journalism, a position of supremacy it would maintain over most of the next hree decades.

And finally, the unflappable cool of Cronkite's performance during the marathon coverage of those first conventions to be televised coast to coast made him an overnight sensation - America's first star TV anchorman.

And anchorman was the term that continued to define Cronkite through the years that followed as he rose to the pinnacle of his chosen craft. Indeed, it became so deeply identified with the man himself that by the early 1970s - when he was at the height of his reputation as the pre-eminent television journalist of his generation - anchormen in Sweden had come to be called "Cronkiters."

But not even Sig Mickelson could claim the credit for that.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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