Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, reflects on Walter Cronkite’s death. Ritchie has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades.
The veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite died disappointed with the trends in network evening news programs since his retirement in 1981. Cronkite had aspired to make the CBS Evening News the New York Times of television, but after he left the air he thought the program went tabloid, reducing serious coverage of foreign and national events in favor of human interest stories, health and consumer reporting. He regarded this as “trivializing,” and lamented the general decline in standards of television news.
The root of problem was the limited time available for news in a half-hour format. Cronkite had begun anchoring when the network news had just fifteen minutes a night, following or preceding fifteen minutes of local news from the network’s affiliates. Over the Labor Day weekend in 1963, CBS inaugurated the half-hour format, featuring Cronkite interviewing President John F. Kennedy at Hyannisport. NBC used CBS’s initiative to overcome resistance from its own affiliates and expand its popular Huntley-Brinkley Report to a half hour. Soon afterwards, surveys showed that more Americans relied on TV than newspapers as their chief source of news. But even at a half hour, with seven minutes subtracted for commercials, there were only twenty-three minutes for news. Cronkite’s program devoted an average of eight minutes each night to its Washington bureau, whose stellar squad of correspondents–including Roger Mudd, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, Daniel Schorr, Nancy Dickerson, Bernard Shaw, and Leslie Stahl–jockeyed for air time. They boasted that their deadline of 6:30 PM EST became the deadline for the entire federal government.
Cronkite wanted to expand his news program to an hour, opening with hard news and then turning to lighter features. Even at the height of network domination in the 1960s and ‘70s, half of all television owners never bothered to watch the evening news and only one in fifty watched the network news every night. News drew its viewers from older, better-educated, middle- and upper-income professionals, who were disproportionately male. To expand their audience the networks needed to attract more women, racial and ethnic minorities, and younger people–consumers that advertisers were anxious to reach. The networks’ affiliates pioneered with local news programs heavy on crime, disaster, scandal, celebrities, and sports, which Cronkite dismissed as more show business than news reporting. No matter, local news grew so profitable that the affiliates resisted his efforts to expand network news to an hour.
The passing of the old era became evident as early as August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley died. ABC News–being managed by the sports producer Roone Arledge–led off with Presley, while on CBS Cronkite opened with a report on the pending Panama Canal treaty. (Compare that to the way all of the networks covered Michael Jackson.) With Cronkite’s retirement, the local news approach finally penetrated the CBS Evening News. Cable networks challenged the three original networks–whose share of the news audience shrank from 98 percent in the 1960s to less than half today–and Cronkite lamented that too often the newcomers replaced sober news analysis with “polarizing diatribes.” He regretted that networks’ business managers replaced serious news documentaries with “trashy syndicated ‘news’ shows” on prime time. The Federal Communications Commission dropped the public service requirements for broadcast licensing, and the networks’ new corporate owners saw news budgets as ripe for trimming. CBS’s Washington bureau, which employed 21 correspondents at its peak under Cronkite, shrank to nine by the end of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, a new generation of news consumers was turning to the Internet as its major source, abandoning the evenings news along with the newspaper. The number of patent medicines sponsoring the evening news clearly demonstrate its aging demographics. “And that’s the way it is,” Cronkite had famously signed off his program, but what he saw of television news was not the way he wanted it to be.