Different Times: When Walter Cronkite Told Us the News

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In the 1970s Walter Cronkite, the long-time anchorman for the CBS Evening News was known as “the most trusted man in America.” How things have changed since those days!

Back then, I was one of Cronkite’s writers. One morning he looked up as we were “reading in” on the overnight developments. “Did you see the latest Gallup Poll?” he asked. “It says 85 percent of the American public gets all of its news from one of the three networks. If that is true it’s a disaster and we need to change.”

Cronkite’s title was Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News, an indication of the reverence we in TV news held for traditional newspapers. He told us: “We need to up the story count,” meaning more stories in the same amount of limited time. And off we went down that slippery slope.

Cronkite had been a World War II correspondent for INS, the International News Service, the smaller cousin to the Associated Press. Wire service writing valued accuracy, speed, and brevity. His talent – beyond his stentorian tones and “Uncle Walter” image – was cramming more information into fewer words than anyone else. “If we can take five seconds out of a 15-second story three times we can add one more story. We need to give people more news.”

The average CBS Evening News story that Walter “told” (spoke) was 15 seconds. In the half-hour broadcast, despite Walter’s presence and his dominance his airtime between stories only averaged 5-6 minutes. The half-hour network evening newscasts were half an hour in name only, since the “news hole” was 22 minutes, plus 8 minutes of commercial time.

NBC, CBS, and ABC and their 500-plus affiliates dominated TV viewing and monopolized TV news. Cable News was almost a decade away, and newspaper circulation had started its long slow erosion. Radio news was reduced to short, usually top-of-the-hour, five-minute condensations of the top stories. None of the broadcast media were meant or seen as platforms for more than a cursory “what’s new?”

When Walter Cronkite took over the then 15-minute nightly CBS Evening News in 1962 he was a little-known anchorman of a little-watched national news program. Only 64 percent of American homes had TV sets. NBC News was “dominant” with its Camel News Caravan anchored by a former radio announcer John Cameron Swayze. The key to NBC’s success was not the size of the audience or the quality of its news. Rather it was the continuing sponsorship by Camel cigarettes.

The programming promise of TV was surpassed by its promise as a potent advertising medium. One inside joke was that TV programming (including news) was there to separate the commercials. Real news belonged to newspapers, and breaking news belonged to radio and multiple updated editions of newspapers. 

News interest writ large was an outgrowth of World War II. The depression had fueled the early growth of radio news. Then the war accelerated radio news, just as the wartime shortage of newsprint hampered the growth of newspapers. By 1970, there were 1,748 daily newspapers in the US, most of them locally owned. Today more than half of those newspapers are history. 

The largest circulations were the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the pinnacles of financial and economic reporting and “all the news that fits to print.” The New York Times did try to print it all, including the full text of important speeches at home and abroad. But the Times was a local newspaper in those days, since subscriptions to the New York paper took days or a week to reach the far corners of the country. Local papers subscribed to the New York Times news service and were able to offer the paper’s top stories. The WSJ pioneered the remote printing of its editions and was available same day in most major metropolitan areas and key financial centers like London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

The assassination of President Kennedy changed news consumption worldwide. For the first time CBS and NBC News (ABC News was still a fledging) reported a major news story live for four days straight, without commercials. The shock of the assassination stopped everyday life in the USA. By then, 91 percent of US households had at least one television set. The Kennedy assassination turned out to be a bellwether. Don Hewitt, the Executive Producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (and later the creator of 60 Minutes) said to us after four days of live broadcast: “You know what just happened? We created a monster. People are going to expect us to do this all the time.”

The tools to deliver live continuous news and information did not yet exist. There were no satellites to carry audio and video around the world. The media world was analog, and we lacked hand-held video and audio recorders. Telephone calls, never a medium for deep discussion, were relatively expensive in those monopoly days of AT&T. What you knew and what you talked about with friends and family were based on what you had read in the daily newspapers, the weekly news magazines and long-form magazines. By today’s standards the sources of news and information were relatively few and chances are your interlocutor had read what you had read or was at least familiar with the subject.

The separation of Church and State in newspapering left opinions to the editorial pages and columnists. Even so, newspapers had reputations across the political spectrum. The New York Post was a liberal newspaper, published by a New Yorker, Dorothy Schiff, a Jewish left-leaning liberal. Today The Post is owned and operated by an Aussie transplant, Rupert Murdoch, and anything he stands for, usually conservative. There were seven dailies in New York in the 1950s whose editorial pages were all across the spectrum. Today there are three.

Like many journalists we at CBS News had dreams of glory, preferring to believe that what we said and reported was important and impactful. Alas, news surveys told us that within five minutes of the end of our half hour news programs, audiences had a hard time remembering more than two stories; and unless the lead story was big, they had forgotten that too.

Another discouraging factor: the average age of a network TV news broadcast viewer is in the low 60s (and getting older every year). 60 Minutes, the most popular (and profitable) news broadcast in history, drew an audience of 25+ million viewers Sunday nights in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today that audience is down to 9 million on a good week and the average age of viewers is now 68. The programs that set agendas and gave viewers common themes have gone.

The news agenda in the United States and what we consider news has been sliced and diced by technology to where we no longer have a dozen or so national pillars of information as sources. Today, we consumers of news have at our fingertips more sources of news and information than any traditional news organization ever thought of having. In pre-new-media times we followed organizations whose editors we trusted to feed us what we needed and wanted. Today’s news and information often begins with hardline, polarizing perceptions and opinions, prejudgments, and manufactured facts that grant no space to, much less tolerate, differences of opinion.

Traditional news outlets are still alive, and The New York Times is a more viable news institution and business than it ever was. Its growing digital circulation worldwide is 9 million, while its print circulation continues to shrink toward what will eventually be all-digital. The term “publication” has been redefined. The New York Times is a set of video and audio channels, podcasts and 40-plus daily and weekly newsletters to satisfy in some depth any user’s narrow interests. 

An optimist’s view of today’s journalism is that there are sources and room for everyone and anything in the modern news tent. However, a realist has to face the facts that there are few examples of media setting a serious national agenda in the US anymore. It’s now mostly breaking news that includes man-made and natural calamities, Presidential elections, or the Super Bowl. 

The proof is in the ratings. CNN and MSNBC dominate the cable news universe only when there is  ”Breaking News”; the rest of the time the most-watched cable outlet is Fox News, and any of the three network newscasts are a shadow of their heyday. More news and information is consumed on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook than the readership and viewers of all the countries’ newspapers and broadcast outlets.

The world now carries the most powerful communication tool ever devised by humans: the smartphone, which has the ability to link to the internet and the world that it offers. In that banquet of choices attention spans have shrunk to seconds. Don Hewitt used to say: “If I can’t grab a viewer’s interest in the first 15 seconds of a story, they’re gone.” Today the competition for ears and eyeballs is so broad and so deep that holding attention may not be possible.

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The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Peter, We were very lucky to have lived when shows like ‘Meet the Press’ – Firing Line – 60 Minutes and others were allowing smart analysis of the news, not predetermined positions.
    As a political news junkie for 50+ yrs, I miss the shows that tried to present two sides of an issue. Positions should be debated, not presented as facts.
    Thank you for the insights.

  2. Excellent article.
    Your point is spot on: We are increasingly less tolerant and more tribal. Walter Cronkite has left the building.
    I blame the internet. It has allowed us sharpens our differences and opened the door to a less civil society.
    I love my “browser” and my Amazon prime. But I really wonder if the cost is not too great.

  3. Interesting that local television news still has significant staffs, though many are fresh out of broadcast schools and new to town. I fear that they too will subdivide into ideological/demographic groups, as KOMO has done with Sinclair’s conservative ownership. There is a lot of padding with national news, sports, and feel-good features. Once there were two local families, the Fishers (KOMO) and the Bullitts (KING) who had a strong civic commitment. Now, like most of our local media, out of town owners impose their formulas.

  4. Thank you Peter for sharing your observations about early television national news from a ringside seat at CBS while working for Cronkite. It’s helpful to have this context as we try to understand what the future of news in general and specifically broadcast news will be, if any.

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