Walter Cronkite, “The Most Trusted Man in America," had a liberal bias that tainted his news judgment most of his career, his biographer told Newsmax.TV in an exclusive interview.
“Cronkite tried to stay objective and was throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, but Vietnam turned it for him,” Rice University historian and “Cronkite”
author Douglas Brinkley told Newsmax.TV. “That means he became a liberal more overtly – say, post Watergate.
“But he was a covert liberal in the ’60s, in the sense that: Here’s your half-a-hour news broadcast, he’d do straight headline news, but he would run the assignments – and many of the assignments were tilted in favor of what would have been the progressive agenda of the ’60s: civil rights, environment, women’s rights – and, eventually, gay rights, which Cronkite was a big promoter of.
“So a lot of that ’60s energy that we deal with in social upheaval, Cronkite was dealing with in a very astute way,” Brinkley continued. “He wasn’t doing stories about the John Birch Society or the burgeoning conservative movement in quite the same way, so one could argue there was a liberal bias in Cronkite throughout the ’60s, but it becomes noticeable post-Watergate, or around the time of Watergate.”
Brinkley’s book chronicles the legendary news anchor’s life, from his early years in Missouri to his college days at the University of Texas – and throughout his career to his death at age 92 in 2009.
Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News for 19 years, from 1962 to 1981, signing off every night with “And that's the way it is."
“He’s one of the most significant journalists of the 20th century,” Brinkley told Newsmax. “He just had the great name recognition. I didn’t have to title my book anything but ‘Cronkite.’ He was as famous as presidents, even probably more famous than Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.
“Everybody knew him because he was a pioneer in television when he did his first TV broadcast in the early ’50s. It was the birth of TV – and every week more and more homes started getting news programming, and they’d tune into Walter Cronkite.
“People were ‘Cronkite Households’: You could have dinner and watch Walter. We don’t have that culture anymore. The Internet, diversification of media, cable television, it’s changed.”
Among the events Cronkite covered were World War II, the Nuremberg trials, Watergate the Iran hostage crisis – as well as the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy – and the U.S. space program.
Cronkite’s liberal streak was perhaps most prevalent during Vietnam, Brinkley said.
“Walter Cronkite kind of liked Lyndon Johnson because they had the Texas connection,” Brinkley told Newsmax. Cronkite was actually at UT when Lady Bird was there.
“People forget, Lyndon Johnson made his money not in cattle ranching, but in communications. Johnson owned the CBS affiliate in Austin, where Cronkite’s daughter lives today and Walter had all these ties. Dr. Frank Stanton, the president of CBS News, was one of Johnson’s closest friends.
“So, by 1965, this was Lyndon Johnson’s war – and Cronkite wanted to go along with it.”
Brinkley continued: “Now he worried in ’65 about it when the troop escalation occurred. He went to Vietnam in ’65. The military got to him, and Walter Cronkite was always susceptible to new military equipment. He’s one of those people who liked models of new types of semi-automatic weapons, new type of grenades, flame-throwers, helicopters.
“And Cronkite came away feeling, ‘With this kind of hardware, of course we’re going to beat the Vietnamese.’
“But by 1968, with the Tet Offensive, when the North Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese, were able to wreak havoc in the South in a surprise attack, Cronkite decided to go back in country, went to Vietnam – and he came away with the feeling that this was an unwinnable war and that, at best, it was a stalemate. I’ve looked at all of his notebooks.
“He, famously, decided not to do it on his nightly broadcast – but on Feb. 27, 1968, went on a ‘CBS News: Special Report’ all about Vietnam, and Cronkite closed it by calling the war a stalemate.”
“Well, holy hell ripped through the country,” Brinkley said. “Walter Cronkite was saying the war wasn’t winnable – and in those days, you were on one side of the line drawn in the sand: Were you a hawk or were you a dove? Cronkite now became a big catch for the doves.
“And he was so worried about Vietnam … that he went and saw Robert F. Kennedy in Washington in his Senate office and asked Kennedy to run for president because Robert F. Kennedy was anti-war and that Lyndon Johnson was still trying to win the war.
“I write about that in the book – and it’s been making a bit of the news because it shows Cronkite dropping his objectivity and actually trying to convince the Senator to run for president.”
When Cronkite replaced Douglas Edwards as Evening News anchor in 1962, “it went from a 15-minute news program to 30 minutes.
“And when we had nightly news at 30, that back-of-the-end stuff mattered,” Brinkley added. “CBS went with the civil rights movement, covering Martin Luther King, Selma and the barking dogs and tear gas – and they, constantly, under Cronkite as Managing Editor – ran civil rights, and they started earning their spurs in the history books and not just in journalism.”
When asked whether Richard M. Nixon would have remained as president had it not been for Cronkite’s Watergate coverage, Brinkley replied: “I don’t think he would have survived. Remember, Watergate broke big in 1972 in an election year, and [Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post] were back-page news. It was rumored and talked about.
“It was only till Cronkite elevated it to the nightly news. Cronkite decided to do 17 minutes of a 30-minute broadcast, right before the election of ’72 – which, basically, it was repeating Washington Post reporting – but it was an indictment of Nixon.
“The Nixon White House went livid. Chuck Colson who worked for Nixon, met with [William S.] Paley, the owner of CBS, and Stanton. It was an outrage.
“But once Cronkite thought Watergate was a big story, every newspaper in the country thought it was a big story. It was a cause-and-effect situation.”
When asked whether Cronkite could be as successful in today’s fractured media landscape, Brinkley said, “Cronkite, he would’ve been a good newsman today, but I don’t think he would have been able to be so powerful.”
Editor's Note: Read Douglas Brinkley's biography 'Cronkite,' detailing the life of noted journalist and news anchor Walter Cronkite by clicking here.
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