The Power and the Profits: Part II

The advent of the half hour news program made television the major source of news for many Americans and the only source for a dismayingly large number of them. This vested in broadcasters awesome responsibilities and a sense that they had ventured into a political minefield. In the first installment of his two part examination of the growth of broadcasting, television journalism, and the CBS network in particular, David Halberstam showed how the medium became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes. In this installment he tells how three Presidents influenced and were influenced by TV, how TV made Vietnam into an electronic war, and how, reluctantly, it dealt with the Watergate tragedy.
2. CBS Anchors for the Night

So then there were three. Smith’s departure left open the question of who was going to be the anchorman of the evening news show: Sevareid, Collingwood, or an outsider, Walter Cronkite. The job was now the most prestigious one for a journalist that CBS News could offer.

Sevareid and Collingwood might be the protégés of Murrow, and Cronkite the outsider who never crashed the club, but his style was compatible with what the show needed in its signature figure. Collingwood’s and Sevareid’s roots were in commentary; they had been picked by Murrow for their analytical ability and intelligence. Cronkite’s roots were in the wire service; he was the embodiment of the United Press tradition, a latter-day Hildy Johnson with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, single-mindedly pushing to get that story. He came through as straight, clear, and simple, more interested in hard news than analysis or deeper meanings. There was little of Murrow’s introspection him. Viewers could more readily picture Walter Cronkite jumping into a car to rush out and cover a ten-alarm fire than they could picture him doing analysis on a great summit meeting in Geneva; and they were right, he was most at ease with narrative story with limited social and political implications.

Sevareid, by contrast a complicated, brooding, figure, was the most consciously cerebral of three men (one of his closest friends once noted that the greatest tragedy in Eric’s life was that he had not been one of the Founding Fathers). Collingwood was less intellectual than Sevareid, but extremely serious, and closest to Murrow in style, looks, and ability; if there was a consensus Murrow-clique candidate for the job, it was Collingwood. But it was as if Collingwood had be such a natural as a young man, so talented, graceful, and stylish, that success had come too easily, so that he lacked the hunger for the job. No one, particularly anyone who had ever worked on story against him, would ever accuse Walter Cronkite of a lack of hunger; he was, from his earliest days, wildly competitive—no one was going to beat Walter Cronkite on a story.

As he grew older and more successful, the marvel of it was that he never changed, the fires still burned. When he became the CBS anchorman at the 1952 political conventions, he was determined to go to Chicago better versed, better prepared than his competitors. If, fifteen years later, he was scheduled to cover a space shot, no one was going to sit up more nights in advance mastering space technology, filling his own loose-leaf notebooks on the subject. While he would use various assistants to check facts and do additional research, no fact produced by an assistant would ever go into Walter’s book until the assistant bad proven under the harshest kind of questioning that he could vouch for the fact. The men who had known Cronkite as a young reporter were impressed by his capacity to grow and to learn, but in one sense he had remained constant; he had brought to the United Press, and then to radio, and finally to television, the fiercest kind of competitive instinct. Yet, fortu­nately for his television career, he did not look competitive. He looked comfortable, reassuring, and very much in control. It was an admirable and lucky combination.

In the late fifties Walter Cronkite suffered slightly within CBS because he was not one of the Murrow boys, but there had been a point when he almost became one. That was during World War II, when he was a United Press correspondent in London. He was, in the eyes of the man then running the United Press bureau, Harri­son Salisbury, the best on his beat. It was the fall of 1942, and the American military presence was still small. The first B-17s were arriving in England, and Cronkite had the Eighth Air Force story, a prime journalistic assignment then. Every day Cronkite and the other reporters went out to the various air bases and interviewed the young fliers as they came back; it was a terrible time, for attrition rate was very high—twenty planes would go out, ten might come back. The essence of story was the hometown angle. The reporters never wanted to get too close to a flier because he might be gone the next day.

Cronkite was involved in intense competition with Gladwin Hill, then of the Associated Press, later of the New York Times, and Homer Bigart, then of the New York Herald Tribune. Cronkite caught Murrow’s eye (as did another young wire­ service man in London named James Reston). Murrow was interested in offering Cronkite a job, arranged to meet him at the Savile Club (which Cronkite, an unreconstructed Middle American, thought was the Saddle Club). They lunched amicably. Murrow offered the job and Cronkite ac­cepted it on a handshake. He had been making $67 a week at the UP, and Murrow was offering $125 week plus fees (which Cronkite, like most print reporters, thought were nonexistent; in fact, they probably would triple his salary).

Cronkite returned to bid farewell to his colleagues at the UP, and Salisbury, a very shrewd operator, immediately said that this was too bad because that very moment a huge raise had come in which would boost Cronkite $12.50 a week, and the UP at home was so pleased that it had come up with a second raise, also for $12.50, which meant a grand total of $25 in raises, to $92 a week. Cronkite was impressed by this vast commitment of the UP’s resources and double sign of its belief in him. Because he loved the United Press with the simple fanaticism of the devoted wire-service reporter to whom the greatest thrill in the world is to beat the AP by ten minutes—a kind of nirvana, or at least a ten-minute nirvana—he turned Murrow down. The incident produced some tension between them over the years, in no small degree on Murrow’s part because he simply could not understand the values of a man who would prefer the United Press over the more raffiné world of CBS.

Cronkite stayed with the UP and covered the war as it moved across Europe. His coverage was simple, straight Ernie Pyle reporting, with traditional wire-service emphasis on names and hometowns. He was with the American units liberating Bastogne when the relief mission arrived. Just outside Bastogne, Cronkite, eager for an eyewitness account, slipped out of his jeep, edged toward a barn, finally spotted a soldier, and began interviewing him in the Pyle tradition: "Soldier, what’s your name?"

“Well, gee, you ought to know that, Mr. Cronkite,” the GI said.

“Why’s that?” Cronkite asked.

“Well, sir,” said the kid, “I’m your driver.”

After the war, Cronkite was sent to Moscow, allegedly a choice assignment. But Moscow in 1946 was not very great fun, nor, for that matter, was the United Press. The Russians were pulling back from their policy of limited friendship to brotherly Western correspondents. In addition, the financial generosity of the United Press, never excessive, was diminishing. The UP car was an antique, and when, during one of the worst winters of recent Russian history, Cronkite asked for permission to buy a new car since even the Russians were complaining about the condition of his vehicle, his superiors suggested that he get a bicycle. Soon Cronkite asked to be brought out of Moscow. He returned to America for a year with a promise that he would return to Europe shortly as the number one man on the Continent. His salary was then $125 a week and, with family obligations growing, he asked for more. The UP executives assured him that he was already the highest-paid man on the staff. But he wanted more. He loved the United Press. He relished scooping people and getting the story straight, clear, and fast, with no frills. Even years later, when he reminisces about the old UP days, there is a kind of love in his voice. He liked the feel of dirt on his hands as a wire-service reporter; he felt more at home at the UP than in the lofty world of television commentary. But love or no, there had to be some money. So Earl Johnson, his superior, said that he thought it was time that he and Walter had a little talk, since Cronkite apparently did not understand the economic basis of the United Press.

“No, I guess I don’t understand it,” Cronkite said, and so Johnson explained: “We take the best and the most eager young men we can find and we train them and we pay them very little and we give them a lot of room, and then when they get very good they go elsewhere.”

“Are you asking me to go somewhere else?” Cronkite asked.

“No. no.” said Johnson, while adding: “$125 a week is a lot of money for us, though probably not for you.”

Cronkite returned to Kansas City, whence he had come, on a kind of extended leave, and while he was there he saw an old friend named Karl Koerper who was the head of KMBC, a big CBS affiliate. Cronkite remarked to Koerper that Kansas City seemed to have died; there was no spirit and excitement anymore. What had happened? Then he answered his own question: it was the death of the Kansas City Journal. You get monopoly journalism, he said, and something goes out of a city. When newspaper competition dies, something dies with it. Kansas City is a duller town now.

“What do you mean?” Koerper asked.

“It’s your fault,” Cronkite continued. “You radio guys cut the advertising dollars so much that drove the newspapers out, but you haven’t replaced them. You have no news staff.”

“We certainly do—we have eight men,” said Koerper proudly.

“Do you know how many reporters the Kan City Star has?” Cronkite asked.

“But that’s their principal business,” Koerper answered.

“There!” said Cronkite, seizing on it. “That’s the answer!”

The upshot of the conversation was that Walter Cronkite was hired in 1948 by Karl Koerper to work as Washington correspondent for his station and a string of other Kansas and Missouri stations. He was thirty-one years old, and though his salary was $250 a week, in the pecking order of American journalism there seemed to be something slightly demeaning about Walter Cronkite, who had been a big man during the war, hustling around Washington as a radio man for a bunch of small Midwestern stations. Cronkite did not find it demeaning. He liked the excitement of Washington, and anyway, he intended to return to Kansas City soon as general manager of the station.

Then the Korean War broke out and he got a phone call from Ed Murrow asking whether he might be willing to go to Korea and cover the war for CBS. Would he? Well Murrow had better believe that he would, it was exactly where he wanted to be. There was, Murrow said, no great problem in Cronkite’s employment by KMBC, since it was a CBS affiliate. In the meantime, Cronkite should get himself ready to go overseas again. But there was some delay because his wife, Betsy, was about to have a baby.

At just about this time CBS bought WTOP, which had been a locally owned Washington television station, and wanted to build it up as a major outlet, a kind of political flagship. WTOP news director asked Cronkite to do the Korean story every night. What did Cronkite need in the way of graphics? It turned out to be nothing more than chalk and a blackboard. Events had gotten more complicated, and Cronkite, typically, was trying to make them simpler. It was deceptively simple—Cronkite in front of a blackboard—but he worked so hard in preparation for the assignment, backgrounding himself, going to the Pentagon to develop independent sources, that his mastery and control of the subject were unique. He had weight and projected a kind of authority. The WTOP people asked him to do the Korean War story twice a day, and very soon after that the entire news program, and then two news shows a day. He was an immediate hit, a good, professional reporter in a new medium. He began to do network feeds from Washington back to the network news show in New York. The idea of going over to Korea began to fade away.

Among those aware of Cronkite’s talents was Sig Mickelson, then in charge of television news at CBS. He was in effect the head of the stepchild section of CBS News, trying to build up television, but forced to work against the grain. He had no bureaucratic muscle in comparison with Murrow; the Murrow group included all the stars of the news department, all the men who had ties to Paley and who had come out of the war as heroes. Mickelson saw Cronkite as the man around whom to base his television staff.

As the 1952 political conventions approached, radio was still bigger than television although the conventions themselves would help tip the balance in favor of television. The Mickelson group wanted a full-time correspondent who would sit there all day and night and hold the coverage together without getting tired. Mickelson asked for Murrow, Sevareid, or Collingwood. But the radio people told Mickelson to get lost. Further negotiation with the radio people produced a list of men who were ostensibly second-stringers. On the list was precisely the name that Mickelson had wanted in the first place—that of Walter Cronkite. Whatever else, Mickelson knew, Cronkite was dogged.

Cronkite went to the conventions, both held in Chicago that year, knowing that this was his big chance. He was thoroughly prepared, knew the weight of each delegation, and was able to bind the coverage together at all times. He was a pro in a field still short on professionalism. By the end of the first day, in the early morning, the other people in the control booth just looked at each other; they knew they had a winner. (They knew it even more the next day, when some of the Murrow people began to drift around to let the television people know they were, well, available for assignment.) Cronkite himself was so obsessed by the action in front of him that he had little immediate sense of the good reaction to his performance. On the last day of the Republican convention, he went for an early morning walk with Sig Mickelson along Michigan Avenue. Mickelson said Cronkite’s life was going to change now, and that he was going to want to renegotiate his contract for a lot more money.

“Do you have an agent?” Mickelson asked.

“No,” said Cronkite.

“Well, you’d better get one.”  Mickelson said. “You’re going to need one.”

“No, I won’t,” Cronkite said.

“Yes, you will,” Mickelson said.

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