By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Walter Cronkite

Why Louis Menand thinks distrust in the media has its roots in the chaos of 1968

Photo (cc) 1968 by Fred Mason / Liberation News Service

I listened to Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay on why the public has lost faith in journalism while I was at the gym Thursday. It’s free, and I recommend it. Among other things, Menand reminds us of how insular, racist and sexist the Washington press corps was until very recently. He writes:

The two main social organizations for Washington journalists were the Gridiron Club (founded in 1885) and the National Press Club (founded in 1908). The Gridiron invited members’ wives to a dinner in 1896, but a skit lampooning the suffrage movement did not go over well, and women were not allowed back until 1972. Into the nineteen-fifties, members performed in blackface for entertainment at Gridiron dinners. [Kathryn J.] McGarr [in her book “City of Newsmen”] reports that the club’s signature tune was “The Watermelon Song,” sung in dialect.

Good Lord. Menand’s principal focus, though, is on the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that infamous gathering where the city’s police force beat up and brutalized antiwar protesters, leading to a backlash that swept Richard Nixon into the White House. In Menand’s telling, the two major television networks (CBS and NBC; ABC was barely a force back then) provided little coverage of the protests, devoting nearly all of their airtime to the convention proceedings themselves.

Their treatment of Mayor Richard Daley, the conservative Democrat who unleashed the police on the demonstrators, was fawning and obsequious. For instance, Menand tells us that the legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite began an interview with the mayor by saying, “I can tell you this, Mr. Daley, that you have a lot of supporters around the country as well as in Chicago.” Cronkite also allowed Daley to accuse reporters who’d been victims of police brutality of “being plants of the antiwar movement.”

Despite this, a narrative emerged that the news media had actually sympathized with the protesters and had taken their side against the police and the mayor. How did this happen? Menand argues it was because the media had covered the convention and the protests in a neutral, objective manner, when what much of the public really wanted was condemnation of the hippies, the Yippies and the entire long-haired youth culture, which they hated because they didn’t understand it. “It is said that objectivity is what we need more of, but that’s not what people want,” Menand writes. “What people want is advocacy.”

And so it is, he argues, down to the present day. The legacy of Chicago, he tells us, is timid television journalism afraid to offend conservatives as well as endemic distrust in the media.

I do have a bone to pick with Menand. He stacks the deck in making his argument that the public has lost faith in journalism, observing that it has fallen from the 72% who said they trusted the media in 1976 to just 34% today — and only 14% among Republicans. That’s factually accurate, but not quite true. What Menand leaves out is that, according to Gallup, 70% of Democrats currently trust the media, and that trust has never fallen below 50%, even in the recent low years of 2000 and 2016.

What surveys have really found over the years is that people trust the media that they use. If you ask someone — even a Republican among that 14% — whether they trust the media that they consume on a regular basis, they’re going to say yes. Otherwise, why would they waste their time? Of course, the media outlets in question are going to tilt toward Fox News and its ilk. The point, though, is that the media have split into ideological camps. Democrats, liberals and most moderates have at least some degree of trust in the mainstream media, flawed though they are. And Republicans, conservatives and the extreme right similarly trust what they consume.

The larger challenge is that the mainstream media, broadly liberal on culture though often mindlessly neutral on politics, continue to practice what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in “The Elements of Journalism,” describe as “a discipline of verification,” trying to get it right and correcting themselves when they don’t. On the other side is a right-wing media machine that consists mainly of weaponized propaganda and, increasingly, outright falsehoods — about the 2020 election, about COVID, about schoolchildren who relieve themselves in litter boxes, for God’s sake — repeated over and over.

Americans haven’t lost faith in “the media” because there is no such thing as the media, as there were, more or less, in 1968, or 1976. Today there are multiple medias (to make a plural out of a plural), each catering to their own niche. We live in a post-truth environment, and it’s tearing us apart.

Still, Menand has written a worthwhile overview of what has happened to journalism over the past half-century, quoting media observers from Michael Schudson to Margaret Sullivan. If you want to know how we got to where we are today, you could do worse than to spend some time with this piece.

It’s all about ratings, so Scott Pelley’s departure was probably inevitable

Scott Pelley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t often watch the network evening newscasts. But when I do, I watch the “CBS Evening News” with Scott Pelley, which strikes me as a little more intelligent than the competition — not to mention more willing to call out President Trump’s falsehoods, as Margaret Sullivan recently observed in The Washington Post.

So I was disappointed to learn that Pelley has been booted from the anchor chair and will return full-time to “60 Minutes.” The early breathless reporting by the New York Post turned out to be overblown. As Dylan Byers reports at, Pelley’s office was cleared out at his request, and he’ll continue to anchor until a replacement is found, which suggests that he’s being treated with some level of respect.

But ratings are ratings. And with CBS in third place and sliding, Pelley’s departure was perhaps inevitable — although unless CBS has an animatronic Walter Cronkite waiting in the wings, it’s hard to imagine the network will come up with someone better.

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Remembering Andy Rooney

One day maybe eight or 10 years ago, I was sitting at my desk at the Boston Phoenix when the phone rang. “This is Andy Rooney,” the caller said in what seemed like an exaggerated attempt at imitating the legendary “60 Minutes” commentator. “Yeah, right,” I responded, wondering who was really on the other end of the line.

It was Rooney. While we were taping “Beat the Press” one Friday afternoon, his daughter Emily, the host, mentioned the name of someone who had been bugging her father over some perceived offense. It turned out that I had heard from the same person a few times as well. She told her father, and he decided to give me a call. I can’t remember what I told him — it was all I could do to recover from my inauspicious opening. Now that Rooney has died, I wish I could recall exactly what he said that day.

Andy Rooney was rooted firmly in CBS News’ golden era. He was friends with Walter Cronkite, he wrote for Harry Reasoner and it was “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt who came up with the idea of having Rooney deliver a monologue at the end of each episode. It was a master stroke, as Rooney’s essay quickly became the most popular part of the program.

Rooney’s death follows his retirement by such a short stretch that “60 Minutes” last night simply recycled the Morley Safer piece (above) that first aired in early October. That’s all right. It was really good and worth seeing again. CBS has posted other Rooney material as well, including video of some of his classic commentaries.

As is well known, Rooney considered himself a writer first, and indeed he rarely found himself in front of a camera until near the end of his career. He wrote for Stars and Stripes, for Arthur Godfrey and for Reasoner before he ever wrote for himself. Yet his curmudgeonly commentaries worked as well as they did not only because they were written by a craftsman, but because he was a first-rate performer as well.

By all accounts, his crankiness was not an act. That he was able to take that crankiness and use it to inform and entertain millions was his gift to us. Andy Rooney was such a skillful writer that he would have been able to find a way to avoid ending with a cliché such as “he’ll be missed.” I lack his skill, and I don’t want to close without acknowledging the obvious.

Don Hewitt, 1922-2009

I felt no need to say something nasty or snarky (or much of anything) yesterday when syndicated columnist Robert Novak died. He was, in essence, a minor figure, and he probably would have agreed with that assessment. I do think his sins have been exaggerated over the years, especially with respect to the Valerie Plame Wilson case. As Jack Shafer observed in Slate, it appears that Novak didn’t even realize the value of what he had.

On a strictly personal basis, Novak appears to have been well-liked, despite his reputation for prickliness. I once did a brief telephone interview with him for a profile I was writing of someone who’d worked with him. He was charming and generous with his time. I found his column to be a hodgepodge of indeciperable bits of insiderdom, but I enjoyed his glowering “Prince of Darkness” television persona. Late in life, Novak found his true calling.

Now we learn that Don Hewitt (photo), a longtime CBS News producer and the creator of “60 Minutes,” has died at the age of 86. Hewitt was a great journalist — among the greatest of his generation. No, “60 Minutes” has never been all that it could have been. But Hewitt was forced to work within the constraints of a commercial television system that put more and more emphasis on profit during the course of his long and productive career.

I think it was Hewitt himself who once said that, in one respect, “60 Minutes” was the worst thing that ever happened to network news. Why? Because it was the first time network executives realized they could make money from what had previously been regarded as a public-service obligation.

As with Walter Cronkite, Hewitt’s death’s is an enormous loss, bringing us back to a time when television news was better than it is today.

Fountain and Kennedy on Cronkite

My Northeastern University colleague Chuck Fountain and I discuss the legacy of Walter Cronkite in a webcast posted on the university’s Web site.

Payback time for Couric

“CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric rips New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley for her error-riddled tribute to Walter Cronkite. As the Huffington Post observes, Couric must have enjoyed herself, as Stanley has been one of her tormenters. (Thanks to WBUR’s Steve Brown.)

Stanley’s butchery led me to make an error in my Guardian piece this week, as I relied her piece in asserting that Cronkite did not overcome NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” in the ratings until Chet Huntley retired, in 1970. We’re supposed to run a correction, but it hasn’t been posted yet.

A throwback even at his peak

In my latest for the Guardian, I weigh in on the life and long career of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite.

Yanked from the Democratic National Convention anchor desk in 1964 because of low ratings, number-two to his rivals at NBC for much of the ’60s, Cronkite did not achieve icon status until late in his career and during his long, productive retirement. With his serious, old-fashioned delivery, he was something of a throwback even at his peak, in stark contrast, for instance, to the sardonic persona adopted by his rival David Brinkley.

Yet Cronkite truly earned his reputation for trustworthiness. And his 1977 interviews with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin paved the way for a peace agreement that holds, however tenuously, to this day.

Exactly 40 years ago today, humans first walked on the moon. The boyishly enthusiastic Cronkite was a more visible symbol of the space program than even any of the astronauts. It’s too bad he couldn’t have been with us for such a momentous anniversary.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Walter.

“He never lost his fastball”

Over at “Beat the Press,” Ralph Ranalli has a nice anecdote and some insights about Walter Cronkite by way of Emily Rooney.

More: The Boston Herald has a longer take on Rooney and Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

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The pioneering anchorman has died at the age of 92.

Walter Cronkite is said to be gravely ill

Legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite is gravely ill, according to TVNewser columnist Gail Shister, citing “multiple CBS News sources.”

Cronkite, 92, wasn’t the first anchorman, but in many ways he invented the role. You can see the images just by thinking about them: Cronkite overcome with emotion after announcing the death of John Kennedy; the space flights; coming out against the Vietnam War; paving the way for the Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement by interviewing Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin even before President Jimmy Carter could get involved.

Cronkite, with his famous nightly sign-off (“And that’s the way it is”), was the embodiment of something close to a national cultural consensus, which doesn’t remotely exist today. Of course, there was much that was phony about that. But there was nothing phony about Cronkite. He was the real thing.

Photo of Cronkite in 1973 by Vin Crosbie and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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