Walter Cronkite has died at the age of 92, and it’s a mark of how the world has changed since his heyday that not a person under the age of 25 will have any idea who he was—and not a person under the age of 25 has probably ever watched the program that made him, for a time, the most trusted man in America and the most august personage in the news business.
Cronkite was a key figure in many ways, but foremost among them, perhaps, was the fact that he cleared the way for the mainstream media and the Establishment to join what Lionel Trilling called “the adversary culture.” Cronkite, the gravelly voice of accepted American wisdom, whose comportment suggested he kept his money in bonds and would never even have considered exceeding the speed limit, devastated President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive by declaring that the United States “was mired in stalemate” in Vietnam—when Johnson knew that Tet had been a military triumph.
This on-air editorial, spoken during the most-watched newscast in the country when that meant 30 million people were watching (as opposed to 7 million today, with the nation having added more than 100 million in population), was a transformational moment in American history.
“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson was reputed to have said, “I’ve lost middle America,” and shortly thereafter he announced he would not run for reelection. This was a mark of Johnson’s own poor political instincts—a president who thought a rich and powerful anchorman living the high life in New York city was the voice of the silent majority was a man out of touch with reality—but it was a leading indicator of how the media were changing. Cronkite didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to Tet, as the late Peter Braestrup demonstrated in his colossal expose of the scandalous media coverage of the battle, Big Story. But he knew that among the people who mattered to him, and who were the leading edge of ideological fashion, Tet was a failure because the war in Vietnam was bad, and he took to the airwaves to say so.
Cronkite’s retirement in 1982 put Dan Rather in the anchor chair, but Rather was never able to command the lofty heights of his predecessor. That was in part due to Rather’s own peculiar personality, but also to developments—technical developments involving the rise of cable television and, eventually, the personal computer—that would bring to a blessed end the shared monopoly over American news enjoyed by CBS, NBC, ABC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek.
When Rather attempted, in 2004, to bring down a president in the midst of a close reelection bid with a report based on obviously forged papers—a greater journalistic sin than Cronkite’s, by far—he was undone in 12 hours by a lawyer in Atlanta commenting on a blog and a jazz musician in Los Angeles with a blog who demonstrated the papers in question had been produced at least a decade after the report claimed they had. Had there been an Internet in 1968, and military bloggers aplenty, Cronkite’s false conclusion about Tet would have been challenged immediately; we would not have had to wait for Braestrup to publish his enormous book nine years later.
So the passing of Walter Cronkite is a moment to remember an era that has passed, an era toward which we should not experience a moment’s nostalgia.