Journalists love anniversaries. If you’re composing “history’s first draft,” it’s helpful to pause for the past’s pregnant moments—you know, “game-changers”—especially if they help certify the model of the world you’re assembling in soundbites, B-roll and tweets. Those pondering how their own craft helps shape politics will have a moment for reflection this summer, the 60th since the fledgling TV networks convinced the two political parties to allow coverage of their conventions.
As Douglas Brinkley writes in Cronkite, legendary CBS News President Sig Mickelson negotiated the coverage and fought for Walter Cronkite as his network’s … what to call it? “Anchor-man” debuted in a CBS news release heralding 1952 election-night coverage. This was after Cronkite had defined the term during the conventions that nominated Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, at the same time altering the practice of politics. Brinkley quotes him from A Reporter’s Life: “Those 1952 conventions were not only the first but also the last time the American public would have an opportunity to see our neat political conclaves in pure, undiluted form. By 1956 the parties had begun to sanitize their proceedings.”
They had help: Cronkite’s. Brinkley also notes that Mickelson—a present-at-creation figure in television news—ran a “school” that summer for politicians eager to master the new medium, with Rep. John F. Kennedy among the pupils and Cronkite the teacher.
In Cronkite, Brinkley chronicles a tension in Cronkite’s character that colors the journalism his generation gave us, between the noble practice of “objective” journalism and the hollow performance of simulated “events.” The man who shepherded the nation through conventions, assassinations and moon landings also interviewed costumed historical figures for the “news” program You Are There.
This set Cronkite at odds with Edward R. Murrow, who found such shenanigans shameful. Murrow’s celebrity allowed him to crusade, but his star waned at CBS as Cronkite’s rose, and with it the notion that objectivity meant Take No Stands. Sure, Uncle Walter did, most famously over Vietnam, but that was a course correction in a lifetime of Supporting the American Way, from playing the rah-rah game in World War II to pumping the Space Race.
Without meaning to, Brinkley describes Cronkite as shallow, vain and compromised. The flawed anchorman, who died in 2009, was at heart decent, though, and his judgments were trustworthy, mostly. But what he set in motion in 1952 has made his brand of objectivity quaint and dangerous.