Fellow Anchors: Cronkite the Gold Standard

Walter Cronkite is seen at work in 1977.
AP Photo
Walter Cronkite was "the gold standard, and remains so, and always will be so."

The tribute from "ABC World News" Anchor and Managing Editor Charles Gibson summed up a three-way discussion on "The Early Show Saturday Edition" of the place in history of Cronkite, longtime managing editor and anchor of the "CBS Evening News" and a true broadcasting giant.

Also taking part, Tom Brokaw, former anchor and managing editor of the "NBC Nightly News," and his successor, Brian Williams.

Tossing questions their way was CBS "Early Show" co-anchor Harry Smith.

Special Section: Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

They remembered how news meant everything to a self-effacing Cronkite, then reflected on how TV news has changed since the days of only three network evening newscasts, with the advent of 24/7 cable TV news and the evolution of the entertainment industry in general.

And they disagreed over whether those changes are good for the nation.

Cronkite, Gibson said, "basically invented" the anchorman job, "and there was no flash and dash in the news in those days. It was Walter in front of a desk. And it was always about the news. You always felt that. . . .

"In 1963, he started a half-hour broadcast. Very few people remember that the evening newscasts were 15 minutes until 1963. He began it with an interview of John Kennedy ... and then it was not long after that that he was reporting on Kennedy's death. But he really did set the standard for all of us who have followed in his footsteps."

Brokaw portrayed Cronkite as someone who "loved New York. He missed very few Broadway openings or movie premieres, with his beloved (wife) Betsy at his side. You always knew it was going to be a good evening if Walter and Betsy were there. We shared many anecdotes, drinks, dinner, and always a laugh, always a laugh. . . .

"What I always felt was quite remarkable about Walter was that he was so much a man of New York, but at the same time, he was the personification of Main Street. You looked at Walter Cronkite, you said, 'Uncle Walter.' ... As Charles was just saying, we're all beneficiaries of the standards that he set.

"I dare say I have to give some tribute to Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (of "The Huntley-Brinkley Report, a fierce competitor of Cronkite's "Evening News") in the early days. ... When network news first began, it could have gone in a lot of different directions. But it became a very serious enterprise, and Walter, of course, took it to heights that no one could have imagined."

Cronkite, Brokaw continued, "was a generous man. When I was a young reporter covering Watergate in Washington, I ran into him at one of those White House correspondents' dinners, and he came right over to me and said some very nice things about my work and patted me on the shoulder and said, 'Young man, we're keeping an eye on you!' And along the way, we became great friends.

"And there is a story that I think pretty well summed him up. When I was leaving 'The Today Show' to do the 'NBC Nightly News," ("Doonesbury creator) Gary Trudueau and (his wife) Jane Pauley (longtime 'Today Show" co-host) gave a small dinner for me and Walter and Betsy were there, and by then we had become friends.

"And Walter stood up to give a toast and said, 'I want you to keep something in mind: There will be a night when you think you've done everything right on a big story and you'll have an enormous sense of pride. And then you'll walk out of your office onto the streets of New York and there, in New York alone, will be millions of people who didn't see anything that you had done.' And I think that was very helpful to me.

"And Walter had that kind of perspective. Listen, he was very proud to be who he was, he loved being Walter Cronkite. But at the same time, no one could mock Walter Cronkite more effectively than he could."

Gibson said Cronkite didn't like it at all when people tried to make the broadcast about him, even suggesting he run for office since he was widely regarded - and named in one survey - as "the most trusted man in America."

To Cronkite, Gibson said, "It was not about Walter. And so much of this business has gotten to the point where it's about the people who are on the air. And Walter always made sure that you understood it was about the news. And indeed, as he preached to those of us who came up in the business after him, that was always what he was talking about. And I think you sensed that always when you watched him. Tom makes an interesting point. We were very fortunate, I think, in this business and as a result, I think the country fortunate, that people like Chet and David at NBC and Walter at CBS really set the standards."

Williams, admitting it's "unfashionable to say this," asserted that, "In one aspect, we were a little bit better off as a country when we only had two, three choices in the evening to watch. In this respect, it did give us a communal experience. ... (There wasn't) much diversity of media or viewpoint there, but it gave us a kind of a central notion of our nation and our world. ... And for there to be, back during (Cronkite's) dominant years, one guy who was, as my friend put it, addressing the nation instead of doing the evening news, what a tremendous responsibility. And he wore it so well, as kind of an "Aw, shucks' guy from Missouri."

"The last thing I want to do is disagree with my colleague," Brokaw remarked, "but I think we have to work harder at it now. I think the country is, probably, when you stand back, better to off to have the many choices that it has. There were some big stories that the evening news and all of its glory ... didn't pay quite enough attention to. We saw the world through the prism of white, middle-aged men who lived mostly on the Eastern seaboard. That was fine with me - I expected to be one of them. But at the same time, we didn't take the women's movement seriously enough at the beginning, for example. We missed a lot about science and medicine that was important, and breakthroughs in cancer. It was pretty much Washington-oriented and internationally, obviously, it got a good deal of attention. And now, you just have to work harder at it. There are many more choices out there. This is an information-rich society in which we live."