By Jack Engelhard
Walter Cronkite’s TV presence was so powerful that when he made some off-hand remark critical of our war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson knew that losing the support of Cronkite was the same as losing the support of the American people. LBJ had met his match; journalism that provokes.
Back then (going here strictly from memory) we were still reading newspapers and TV News was nothing more than a daily 15 minute roundup and recap – but such was the authority of these men, Cronkite, Huntley/Brinkley, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, that we began to trust broadcasting nearly as much as print. (“Murrow’s Boys” dominated CBS for some time.)
Today’s obits on Cronkite show him momentarily forgetting his journalistic stoicism in favor of a touch of emotion at the announcement of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This may be a proper highlight but we should remember that 15 minutes at a time, TV News grew into the monster that it is today.
I say monster because from my years as editor at KYW all-news radio (Philadelphia), I knew that round-the-clock news was a goliath that had to be fed minute by minute and thank goodness for commercials. There must be no dead air. Gradually, then, TV Network News was expanded to half an hour a day and soon that wasn’t enough, for along came Ted Turner and the rest of Cable. For a time CNN ruled but now it’s Fox (which in my view is the only place to find news truly fair and balanced).
Some may remember that at the strike of midnight all television went dark. The national anthem came on and we were told good night and good luck.
We’ve become a nation of news junkies and I know when it started and (full disclosure) I cover this in two books “The Days of the Bitter End” and “The Bathsheba Deadline.” We became fixated on the news the day JFK was shot. From that moment onward, November 22, 1963, we tuned in and turned on to what some called medium cool. Early on, Marshall McLuhan spoke about our ascent or descent as a “global village.”
Before that our culture was Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. We read Hemingway and cheered DiMaggio. We waited for Lucy to make us laugh. All that changed abruptly.
We demanded, through television, to be shown LBJ being sworn in on Air Force One as Jackie stood by still shaken and covered in her husband’s blood. We had to be there for a glimpse of Baby John John saluting his father’s coffin (at the urging of his mother) and we insisted on bearing witness to the entire funeral, Charles de Gaulle towering at the head of the procession.
How can we forget the sounds of those drums!
If we lapsed back into Patti Page and Ozzie and Harriet and Perry Mason, here came Watergate and the Watergate hearings to provide true life drama. (Hollywood couldn’t make this up.) Step by step, practically page by page, we followed the decline and fall of a president as no screenwriter could imagine. If we weren’t hooked on TV News before, we were hooked now.
Always – always there was Vietnam, the generals, the coffins, the numbers, the fighting itself. Yes, anyone can argue that it was Vietnam that turned us onto TV.
Vietnam was our War and Peace right before our eyes. We needed no Tolstoy. Cronkite was plenty.
Fast forward to the arrival of Cable News and here too we have that moment when it all came together. Cable news came of age at the trial of O.J. Simpson. We couldn’t get enough of this and neither could Cable, which gave us the plot, the script, the heroes (what heroes?), the villains and everything else that makes Good Television.
Cable is still in search of the Trial of the Century but it’s just not happening, not like O.J.
Still, here we are, plugged in as never before, through television and other technological devices, and still, are we better informed?
We never knew (until later) where Cronkite stood politically. Never (as I recall) did he go in for manipulation. He gave it straight.
In losing Cronkite, we’ve also lost, in too many instances, “the way it is” factually and honestly.
About the author: Jack Engelhard wrote the international bestselling novel “Indecent Proposal” that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. Engelhard’s latest thriller, “The Bathsheba Deadline,” which centers on media deceit with a dramatic Biblical twist, is available in paperback at Amazon. He can be reached at his website www.jackengelhard.com