I am the keeper of the flame of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Douglas Edwards. — Dan Rather
Television news people pay lip service to Edward R. Murrow as their Founding Father. He’s honored for his wartime radio broadcasts (‘This…is…London”) and his gritty CBS special reports and documentaries. They don’t make ’em anymore like the program that took on Senator Joe McCarthy or “Harvest of Shame,” the documentary that alerted comfortable viewers to the plight of migrant workers. In fact, they don’t make ’em at all; 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the other TV magazine shows normally offer more infotainment than exposé or social consciousness. The network evening news is where the action is now, both for advertising dollars and journalistic prestige. Curiously, Murrow never was a TV news anchor and served only briefly, and poorly, as part of the CBS anchor team during the conventions of the Fifties and early Sixties. There has been only one proto-anchor, and his name is Walter Cronkite. The word “anchorman,” in fact, was first applied to Cronkite at the 1952 conventions to connote the strongest performer, the man you’d want running the final leg of a relay race.
TV news is divided into two historic periods — the years B.C., Before Cronkite, and the modern era. From the late Sixties until he stepped aside in 1981 — after a sharp shove — Cronkite presided over the top-rated program. He was, first of all, a consensus figure: he came not only out of a simpler America but also out of the middle of the middle — born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri, the son of a dentist. Neither North nor South, East nor West, rich nor poor. His journalistic training was in the objective mode of the wire services; Murrow hired him from United Press during the war.
Cronkite wasn’t always Cronkite. He stumbled badly in the ratings at the 1960 and ’64 conventions; the early and mid-Sixties belonged instead to NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Huntley was a rugged native of the Big Sky country who rode in from a California station and bore a certain physical resemblance to Murrow; Brinkley was from Back East, a Washington reporter who cast a cold eye on politics. The Huntley-Brinkley bicoastal ticket won over the news audience, with Cronkite in the middle distance behind them. ABC, for all practical purposes, was nowhere, a weak, insubstantial news organization with a minuscule constituency: the Almost Broadcasting Company. In 1965, desperate to compete and willing to try anything, ABC put forward a reporter named Peter Jennings as its evening-news anchor. Though Jennings was twenty-six at the time, he had already worked as an anchor in his native Canada. But the ABC audience, the ABC staff, the ABC affiliates, and the critics, all judged Jennings too young and too pretty for the job; after only two years he was back in the ranks of correspondents.
Cronkite versus Huntley-Brinkley was stage center, ABC the sideshow. Huntley-Brinkley, while not exactly a novelty act, did well enough as long as the news could be lightened up. But by the end of the 1960s, a couple of million people had dialed out NBC and switched to CBS, an unprecedented mass-media movement. The times demanded gravity. A lot of Sixties viewers were older folks. News watching, like voting in elections, has traditionally been a middle-aged activity, and CBS’s prime-time entertainment schedule appealed to older rural and small-town audiences. This was the era of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw. But Cronkite himself also pulled in viewers, for this was also the time of Vietnam abroad and political assassination and racial insurrection at home. Hippies, yippies, strung-out grunts, blacks, rock & rollers, longhairs, women’s liberationists – all seemed to be shouting from the screen. Cronkite’s modulated, “objective” demeanor calmed the fears of the mainly older, white, male, propertied viewing classes. When the Kennedys and King were shot, when the body bags came home, when the Chicago police rioted and when the astronauts got stuck in orbit, it was Cronkite who anchored the nation’s emotions in a way Huntley-Brinkley could never quite do. He had authority; in the phrase of Richard Wald, now vice-president of ABC News, Cronkite assumed the form of a paraclete, “a messenger of God.” When Cronkite returned from a visit to Vietnam in 1968 and expressed doubt about Lyndon Johnson’s war, LBJ concluded that having lost Cronkite, he had lost the country and decided not to run for reelection.
The Cronkite consensus began to come apart as the mass audience became younger and less middle-class and white. The street children and urban rioters of the 1960s joined the settled, TV-watching population of the 1970s. Fred Silverman, the man with the golden gut — his own sensibilities supposedly wired to contemporary pop-cult tastes — was in charge at ABC. His string of highly successful comedy shows and macho action entertainment — Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Starsky and Hutch — brought younger viewers and especially women to ABC. The popularity of the ABC shows boosted ABC News: at the beginning of the 1970s, less than two-thirds of the 168 ABC-affiliated stations “cleared” the ABC evening news — took the network feed and put it on their air. By the beginning of the 1980s, virtually all of the 200 or so affiliates were clearing it, putting the program on as many “newsstands” as its CBS and NBC counterparts.
By this time, too, the ABC product on the stands had begun to show off a more contemporary look and zippier, computer-generated graphics. Roone Arledge had taken over ABC News. At ABC Sports in the Sixties and early Seventies, Arledge had helped create the modern TV sports era with instant replays, slo-mo, and isolated cameras and honey shots (three-second shots of good-looking women in the stands). He was Captain Success, and he applied the new techniques to ABC News. Bankrolled by Silverman’s dollars, Arledge spent money on the news as if it were…a sport. The sports division had paid out hundreds of millions for the rights to pro football and the Olympics. What was a million more here or there for on-air news talent?
In the Nixon years, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were White House reporters for their networks, each earning no more than $125,000 a year. By 1979, they were both working in New York, Rather for 60 Minutes, Brokaw for Today, each earning perhaps $300,000, when Arledge offered Rather $2 million a year (plus a role in everything at ABC News from anchoring the evening news to hiring and firing staff). Cronkite was earning half that. When Arledge couldn’t bag Rather, the sportsman went after Brokaw, who also turned him down. To keep Rather’s and Brokaw’s loyalty, CBS and NBC had to play — and pay — in Arledge’s league. Rather got a pledge that Cronkite would be hoisted as the CBS anchor — and a 10-year contract that guaranteed him nearly $25 million. Earlier this year, insiders say, his contract was sweetened again. Rather is now the $3 million-a-year man. Brokaw’s Arledge-proof salary is around $1.8 million annually.