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Cronkite era profiled by ‘American Masters’

Katie Couric narrates tribute to ‘the most trusted man in America’
/ Source: The Associated Press

On "Walter Cronkite: Witness to History," much is said in praise of the legendary newsman.

But Andy Rooney, who met Cronkite covering World War II before either had joined CBS, gets the last word: "He typifies all the best of what television news should be, and no longer is."

Though active and visible today at 89, Cronkite signaled a seismic shift in his profession a quarter-century ago — on March 6, 1981, when he signed off as anchor of "The CBS Evening News." And by modestly insisting in his farewell that "those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid, have made too much," he did something he would otherwise never do: feed his audience a line.

This "American Masters" portrait, which airs on PBS at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday (check local listings), tells Cronkite's story by charting the momentous stories he covered as he pioneered TV news. The space race and the first man on the moon; President Kennedy's assassination; the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement; the Watergate scandal — those and other major events marked his tenure on the anchor desk, where he was recognized as "the most trusted man in America."

It's not by chance this film was made for airing now, says Susan Lacy, "American Masters" executive producer. Fast-tracked in a matter of months, "Witness to History" is meant not just to pay overdue tribute to Cronkite, she explained last week, but also to offer background for the current upheavals in TV news that so sharply contrast with Cronkite's comfortable stay.

His successor, Dan Rather, was deposed from the "Evening News" anchor desk more than a year ago, of course, then left CBS altogether in June. Set to take her bow come September is Katie Couric, whose participation in the film as off-screen narrator signifies the unwritten next chapter of the post-Cronkite era.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Such anchor transitions at CBS, and others of late at ABC and NBC, "got me to thinking," says Lacy: "Why not take a look at how the anchorman came into being in the first place, and how extraordinarily important they once were in our lives — particularly Walter?

"What if we looked at how our way of getting the news evolved under his leadership?"

It happens that Cronkite and television were in perfect synch, notes historian David Halberstam in the program.

"Walter's career curve and the curve of network television absolutely dovetailed," he says, and marvels how Cronkite "held that position for so long, under such vastly changing circumstances."

Cronkite joined CBS News in 1950 after a decade as a print correspondent with the United Press wire service. At CBS he found a respected radio-news organization dipping its toe into TV, and it put him in front of the camera.

In 1952 he was sent to cover the political conventions, where he became the world's first anchorman, a term coined onsite by his producers as they borrowed from track-and-field: Cronkite was given the "anchor leg" of the correspondent team's broadcast "relay race."

The documentary shows him in action at those long-ago political extravaganzas, where his on-air style, down to the bouncy cadence of his vocal delivery, seems fully established. He emerged from the conventions a star.

The Evening NewsAfter other high-profile assignments, in 1962 his bosses made him the anchor of "The Evening News."

"I never asked them why," the present-day Cronkite says in the film. "I was so pleased to get the job, I didn't want to endanger it by suggesting that I didn't know why I had it."

For the next 19 years he was a companion and guide for the news-watching public. He was the archetype for what, today, has come to be disparaged as the "voice of God anchor," though no one ever thought of Cronkite as God. He was Uncle Walter.

As such (the film reminds us) he had an unprecedented public mandate to speak the truth, and was widely heeded for doing so — even sometimes altering events in the process.

Though initially a supporter of the Vietnam war, he made a trip to the front lines that changed his mind. In a rare commentary at the end of a 1968 report on the war, he declared it unwinnable, whereupon President Lyndon Johnson despaired, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." A few weeks later, Johnson pulled out of his race for re-election.

In Cronkite's somber words from 38 years ago, the audience for "Witness to History" may find a troubling immediacy: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders ... to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds." (Indeed, Cronkite in recent months has called for U.S. troops to be brought home from Iraq.)

Attack on the media
As the leading newsman on the leading network, Cronkite naturally became a target of the anti-media crusade waged by President Nixon.

"Witness to History" includes remarks from a 1969 speech by Cronkite responding to the systematic press-bashing that remains in full force in 2006: "We're not defending a precious right of our own — a freedom of speech, a freedom of press," Cronkite said of his fellow journalists. "What we're defending is the people's right to know."

When he was a vigorous 64 years old, Cronkite left the anchor desk, and his heartbroken audience, to allow for Rather's ascension. He had stepped down with the assurance that other duties awaited him at CBS News, but found little demand there for his services. Other outlets have subsequently welcomed his many projects.

Meanwhile, the media scene has changed almost beyond recognition, swamping the Big Three networks with cable news channels, Web sites, blogs and other "information streams." In such a splintering world, no one could have filled Cronkite's shoes — not even a person who had Cronkite's goods, plus the sort of protection against government harassment granted him by CBS brass.

All this Dan Rather found out cruelly enough. His difficult, often tumultuous reign would end ingloriously for him and CBS News alike.

Who would have guessed it — that Cronkite (not only with his legacy intact but still a CBS employee, to boot) would outlast Rather in this new, uncertain age? And who can fail to understand the wistfulness Andy Rooney voices for the good old days? Revisiting those distant days on "Witness to History," viewers may feel wistful, too.