The Sage of Black Rock

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Cronkite wasn’t alone. Up until late 1967, trust in government remained high. Many Americans disdained the methods and appearance of the antiwar contingent. They also rejected the New Left’s claim that Johnson was dead wrong about Vietnam. Cronkite hovered around that question in 1965–66. Producer Les Midgley produced insightful CBS Special Reports programs on Vietnam that tried to piece together the disparate perspectives from the Pentagon that the United States was “winning” and from the peaceniks that the military was “losing”—an impossible feat. CBS correspondents including Safer, Jack Laurence, Peter Kalischer, and Charles Collingwood brilliantly reported on the chaotic situation.

CBS News was obligated to stay neutral, and Cronkite, before the Tet offensive in 1968, wasn’t ready to pass judgment in any case. But he was committed to the overall CBS effort to cover the heavy buildup in Vietnam. He also wanted to outpace the strong rival anchor team of NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, and a few others were moving to the television forefront as news anchors-cum-celebrities. Even while producers, correspondents, and writers worked hard to gather and communicate the news, polls revealed that television viewers mainly judged network news by whether they liked, understood, and respected the anchors. In television journalism, only Cronkite could lure viewers to fixate on his every word. If he made a little smile or half-raised an eyebrow, viewers noticed. “It’s not as though Walter were a movie star,” Betsy Cronkite explained of her husband’s appeal. “People watch him when they are in pajamas in their bedrooms. They feel they know him.”

Impressed with his reporting during World War II, Edward R. Murrow had recruited Cronkite for CBS in 1950 to cover the Korean War for WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C. By 1962, after building a solid reputation for hosting the network’s coverage of political conventions and general elections, he became the anchor of the CBS Evening News. When CBS increased the show’s time from 15 to 30 minutes in September 1963, he became the first anchor of a half-hour nightly news program. He built a reputation as a trusted figure with his nightly presence and solid coverage of politics and the space program.

Cronkite was as adamant as anyone that anchors should be journalists first and foremost, trained in investigating, reporting, editing, and writing long before ever uttering a word into a microphone. Being a star didn’t bother him. He had come of age in the 1920s and 1930s, when intrepid reporters such as Lowell Thomas projected a rough-and-ready glamour that made them idols akin to Arctic explorers or aviation pioneers. Cronkite understood the charisma attached to his profession, though television magnified it to levels that—as Brinkley once noted—were absurd. Celebrity TV anchormen also encouraged more people to watch the news, one of Cronkite’s longstanding goals, even if his motivations were as much selfish as civic-minded. More than any other single person, Cronkite defined how a television news anchor should look, talk, and report.

At the end of 1967, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite passed the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the ratings. The excellence of CBS’s Vietnam correspondent corps proved a major factor in the broadcasts’ success.

The network’s unceasing promotion of Cronkite as the best anchor helped too. But the centerpiece of the new ranking was the audience’s increasing belief that Cronkite, once damned with faint praise for his “competence,” was the personification of media integrity.

By Christmas 1967 it had become clear that the Vietnam War would dominate the 1968 election. President Johnson, with his overworked Texas mannerisms, was so roundly distrusted regarding Vietnam policy that his own Democratic party was showing signs of cracking.

Tet Offensive

Cronkite was sitting in his cluttered CBS News office at the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street on January 31, 1968, when he heard a clattering over the wire-service machines just down the hall. He walked down the corridor and read an Associated Press (AP) dispatch from South Vietnam about a surprise attack on Saigon and other sites, known later as the Tet offensive. The wire made Cronkite uneasy because Saigon was supposed to be a U.S. stronghold. A squad of Vietcong commandos had besieged the U.S. embassy in Saigon, killing a U.S. Army guard; others had attacked General Westmoreland’s headquarters along with South Vietnamese general staff offices. Dozens of other cities and hamlets were also targeted.

Cronkite strode into producer Sandy Socolow’s office, waved the dispatch in the faces of several newsmen, and asked, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war!”

As usual, Cronkite was in step with millions of Americans, who were similarly venting frustration over the stalemate in Vietnam. By late 1967 many reporters believed that the Johnson administration had lied to them about imminent victory in Vietnam. The AP report proved that the war would not end soon. Within days of Tet, President Johnson’s approval ratings plummeted. Despite a half million U.S. troops in South Vietnam, the Vietcong remained an eminently viable force.

At the CBS Evening News the grim specter of the Tet dominated coverage for days. According to the Nielsen ratings, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report were seen in more than 100 million homes during the initial week of Tet. “Vietnam was America’s first television war,” Washington Post journalist Don Oberdorfer wrote, “and the Tet Offensive was America’s first television superbattle.”