Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam in 1965, at the peak of his professional career. For most Americans it was hard to imagine national television without him. He was a fixture in American life, a point of solidity and comfort. Americans worried when he was ill and took comfort when he recovered. He was not controversial; it was a mark of his style and of the times passing that he could dominate television journalism for so long without becoming controversial. It was a mark of the raw, harsh decade to follow that even Walter Cronkite became controversial.
Before then, the one assault on Walter Cronkite had come from his own network superiors, and it had been deeply disturbing. The CBS Evening News ratings had slipped badly in 1964, and he had been made the scapegoat by CBS. He had been chosen to anchor the news in the first place because he was comfortable rather than flashy; now it was as if CBS felt he wasn’t flashy enough, or had become too stolid.
The occasion was the 1964 political convention season. NBC was riding high in the public affairs field. CBS, under network chief James Aubrey, had won an impressive lead in nighttime programming and was pulling in profits to show for it, but one price of that lead had been deliberate neglect of public affairs. (That summer Aubrey told a close friend, “The only thing that Paley and I agree on is that we’re not going to blow all that fucking money on the conventions this year.”) NBC’s Robert Kintner, however, with less to lose at a time when NBC was number two in the ratings, was emphasizing public affairs. He believed that the key to a strong network was public affairs, that news generated excitement, that news could become the sinews of the entire organization. He had worked doggedly to build up NBC News, liked to put on instant specials, and had come up with Huntley-Brinkley. They made a finely tuned anchor team: Huntley, from Montana, Cronkitelike in his steadiness; Brinkley, the tart, slightly rebellious younger brother, who could by deft tonal inflection imply touches of irreverence and skepticism, qualities generally notable for their absence from the medium. Backing them at political convention time was a force of fine floor reporters.
In 1956 NBC had challenged CBS’s news supremacy for the first time. It was the year of Huntley-Brinkley’s emergence, and as the conventions had dragged on hour after hour (too much convention, too much coverage, journalistic overkill, the selection of the same two candidates who had run in 1952), they had become a fine showcase for Brinkley’s dry humor. The surge in NBC’s ratings scared CBS. Don Hewitt, the CBS producer, panicked and suggested to Sig Mickelson that they team Cronkite, who was then doing the anchor, with Murrow. The two big guns of CBS against the upstarts at NBC. A sure winner on paper. It was a disaster: they were the same man playing the same role. Two avunculars for the price of one. They did not play to each other or against each other as Huntley and Brinkley did. The chemistry was bad and Murrow was not a good ad-libber. This failed experiment propelled Huntley-Brinkley even higher. By 1960 the Huntley-Brinkley nightly news was number one in the ratings. Bill Paley loved to be number one; he was not happy. Kintner loved it. He ordered the NBC people to close the nightly news with a statement saying that this program had the largest audience in the world. Bill Paley was number two.
In 1964, as the national political conventions approached, NBC was keeping it up, putting emphasis on public affairs and news coverage. CBS was trying to get through the conventions with minimal commitment. The NBC motto at the time under Kintner was "CBS Plus Thirty": however much CBS was putting on and thirty minutes more. The conventions were the payoff. NBC poured in immense amounts of logistical support and technical preparation. It was as if the two networks were out there, not covering the political story of the year, but rather defining themselves. In no way would CBS or NBC put comparab1e effort into trying to find out what made America work, or into covering important subsurface stories on a regular basis. Convention coverage was not so much journalism as a kind of show-biz preening, tied to ego and ratings and image.
On those scores, NBC’s 1964 success was sweet. Kintner had a booth of his own with a special phone to call his subordinates, and at one point the job of handling Kintner and his phone fell to a producer named Robert ("Shad") Northshield. The phone rang.
“Northshield,” said Northshield.
“The new ratings we’ve got are 86,” said Kintner in his gravelly voice.
“That’s great,” said Northshield.
Kintner hung up immediately. A second later the phone rang again. “Did you get that straight?—86,” Kintner said, and hung up.
Seconds later the phone rang again.
“It seems to me that you could give me more a reaction,” Kintner said.
“Well, what do you want, 100 percent?” asked Northshield.
“Yes,” said Kintner. Bang went the phone.
The difference between he NBC and the CBS coverage at the Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater and William Miller was not that great. NBC had a strong team; CBS had a young team, and a new, frenetic executive group under a very tense Fred Friendly. But there were not that many stories to miss. The big difference was in the ratings, and clearly, someone at CBS would have to pay. It would not be the people who had failed to support the news division—Paley and Aubrey—who would be blamed. It would be the news division and Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite had not had a good convention. There was a feeling among some of his colleagues that he had become a mike hog, a charge not without justification. It was also true that he had been a bit petulant when Friendly and Bill Leonard, who were running the show, put Eric Sevareid into his place a table next to him. Sevareid was ostensibly there to do commentary and only commentary, but to Cronkite it smacked suspiciously of an attempt to make him share the anchor post, which in fact it was, and he accepted it badly. It. had not helped anybody’s temper that the Goldwater had become enraged over a CBS story by Daniel Schorr linking the candidate with some right-wing Germans, a story which CBS had apologized for, and which had upset William S. Paley.
Paley now wanted drastic changes in the news team. He was not about to accept being number two. Friendly and Leonard argued that CBS had fielded a young team under Cronkite in San Francisco and there was no point in trying to change it now. Leonard and Friendly had weakened their position slightly in their talks with Paley by saying that Cronkite had talked too much during the convention. Paley immediately seized on that—Cronkite talking too much. A villain. Suddenly it was clear: Cronkite was going to be the fall guy, as far as Paley was concerned. Why was he on the air so much. Why did he talk too much? He had to go, and there would be a new anchor. Paley and Stanton (usually it was Stanton who brought the word down from the world of Olympus, but this time Paley was there as well) asked ominously what changes the news department was recommending. Friendly and Leonard said they were going to do nothing. Do you recommend, said Paley, that we get rid of Cronkite? Absolutely not, said Friendly. Paley told them to come back with specific recommendations in a few days. The corporation, it seemed, was about to meet the news department. So Friendly and Leonard met with Ernie Leiser, who was Cronkite’s producer, and after much soul-searching, recommended that it was impractical to do anything about the convention team. NBC was going to dominate the upcoming Democratic convention at Atlantic City, and the best course was simply to take the lumps and plan for the future.
It was not what Paley wanted to hear. This time the suggestion was a little more like a command: Come back and bring with you the names of the correspondents that you intend to replace Walter with. They were meeting almost every day. At the session Friendly and Leonard were still trying to hold the line, but Paley now had his own suggestion: Mudd. This terrific young correspondent, Roger Mudd. Mudd, he said, was a born anchorman, Mudd was a star. And now with Mudd, said Paley, how about Bob Trout? If Mudd was young and from television, Trout was a veteran from radio days, and a word man. Trout could indeed go on for hours with lingering descriptions of events in the old radio tradition. A Mudd-Trout anchor, that was Paley’s idea. There was no talk of substance, or missed coverage, or bad reporting. It was all of image and ratings.
Friendly had coveted the job of head of CBS News, lobbied for it, and now he was caught between his ambition and his news department. What bothered friends, as he talked his dilemma out, was that at the time he seemed, or at least half seemed, to accept management’s right to make non-news judgments on news questions. Friendly complained bitterly to one high-level colleague of the pressure from Paley, and added that he did not know what to do. The friend asked, Fred, is it just ratings, or is there a professional case against Cronkite? And Friendly’s company-man response was the familiar one: it was their candy store; CBS belonged to Paley.
Friendly warned the Chairman that Walter would not stand for the change and might well quit; he was shocked by Paley’s response—Good, I hope he does. There was one last meeting of Leonard and Friendly with Leiser, and Leiser thought he had held the line. But the next day Friendly gave in. Among CBS working reporters, Friendly’s decision was not popular. Two years later, when he resigned over CBS’s failure to maintain coverage of the Fulbright hearings, many colleagues thought he had chosen the wrong issue. They thought that the larger issue had been the yanking of Cronkite, that Friendly had then lost the power to protect the rights of the newsroom, and had accepted the primacy of ratings.
Friendly and Leonard flew out to California to break the news to Cronkite, who was vacationing there. There was some talk of a Mudd–Cronkite anchor, but Cronkite, fiercely proud, wanted none of it; he did not want to share with Mudd, and he knew CBS did not want him in the booth. Cronkite was careful not to criticize the company. He held a news conference, and he said yes, he thought CBS had a right to change anchormen. No, he was not going to worry about it. Nor did he agree to the suggestion of the company PR man who asked him to pose by a television set for an ad which was to say, "Even Walter Cronkite Listens to Mudd–Trout." His loyalty to CBS did not extend to fatuousness. At the Democratic convention in Atlantic City he did happen, by chance, to enter an elevator in which Bob Kintner of NBC was riding, and reporters who spotted them emerging together thereupon wrote that Cronkite was going to NBC, a rumor which helped sweeten his next contract. All in all, it could have been worse for him. He was fortified in his time of trial by a certain suspicion that a Mudd–Trout was likely to be an endangered species.
When Friendly returned from California and called Stanton to tell him that Walter Cronkite had been separated from his anchorman role (it made Friendly feel like a character in a Shakespeare play: "Yes, the deed has been done, sire"), Stanton said, "Good, the Chairman will be delighted." CBS put on Mudd–Trout, who were a failure. NBC routed CBS even more dramatically in Atlantic City than they had in San Francisco.
Friendly worked hard to keep Cronkite from quitting outright and to persuade him to stay with the Evening News. He did, and that fall CBS put together strong election coverage. CBS was far ahead of NBC in the ratings throughout election eve. Cronkite was immediately rehabilitated. The Huntley–Brinkley format had slipped a bit. It had been on top for eight years, a long time by television standards.
There was a footnote to CBS’s treatment of Walter Cronkite in 1964. The Cronkite who came back after his public humiliation was a proud man, and as the next few years passed and he became ever more dominant over his competition, the pride intensified and occasionally flashed. During the 1968 Democratic convention, the delegates were voting on the platform’s peace plank. And suddenly, as sometimes happens at conventions, Cronkite and everyone else started using a single word to refer to a situation: the word this year was "erosion," which replaced "slippage," the previous convention’s word. "Erosion" referred to the loss of votes for a leading candidate or position. Cronkite had just mentioned that there was an erosion of votes in the Alabama delegation. He was broadcasting live from the booth, and suddenly a scribbled note was passed to him: "Tell Walter not to use the word ‘erosion.’" Cronkite, without missing a beat in his commentary, scribbled his own note: "Who says?" Back came another note: “Stanton." Suddenly it was as if fire were coming out of Cronkite’s nostrils, and even as he continued the delegate count, he scribbled one more note: "I quit." Someone scribbled a note to pass to the brass, saying: "Walter quits." This was passed back, and even as it was being passed back, Cronkite was standing up and taking off his headset and reaching for his jacket. It was an electric moment. Suddenly someone was yelling: "For God’s sake, tell him to get back down there, don’t let him leave! They’re not trying to censor him. They just don’t like the word ‘erosion.’" So he sat down and continued his broadcasting. They might mess with him once, but no one messed with Walter Cronkite a second time.