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The Sage of Black Rock
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite underwent a dramatic change of heart during the Vietnam War—and in doing so, changed the face of broadcast journalism
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
That March, however, Cronkite was personally saddened—to a degree—by Johnson’s unexpected withdrawal. When not anchoring the CBS Evening News, Cronkite had given speeches promoting Johnson’s Great Society domestic policies, including Medicaid–Medicare, wilderness preservation, civil rights, and a hopper full of antipoverty measures. He actually thought LBJ was a good president; it was only on the Vietnam War that the record soured. “Daddy and Walter stayed close,” Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of the president, maintained. “They never let the war get between them.”
Cronkite was stunned at how ferocious the antiwar protests now became all over the world. He knew that CBS News was partly responsible. Many of the public demonstrations were being held to attract TV cameras. It was one of the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent movement: protests brought cameras, which created footage that played on the network news shows. Like all the networks, CBS News considered street demonstrations to be excellent television. The lesson Cronkite learned anew from the connection between “Report from Vietnam” and LBJ’s resignation was that television didn’t just report events; it also helped shape them.
Because of Cronkite’s honesty, the CBS Evening News took on a new edge in its war reporting. Ratings went up. Ironically, this development marked the end of television network news anchormen’s never taking policy positions. Opinion sold. Worries about editorializing became a quaint public policy notion no longer sacrosanct. If Cronkite regretted anything about his Tet special, it was that the line between commentary and the news became forever blurred. Beginning in 1968, everybody—politicians, movie stars, disc jockeys, musicians, novelists, corporate CEOs—felt compelled to offer their opinions on civil rights, urban poverty, abortion, and, above all, Vietnam.