The 100th anniversary of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s birth was celebrated at the Newseum Sept. 29 with a day of special programs and documentary screenings that highlighted the milestones in his career.
In opening remarks at a members-only panel discussion held in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, Walter Cronkite IV — Cronkite’s grandson — said that the type of journalism Cronkite valued most was in-depth, objective beat reporting.
“He was a reporter first, last and always,” said “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley, who along with fellow CBS News co-panelists Bob Schieffer and Lesley Stahl, and “PBS NewsHour” anchor Gwen Ifill, talked about Cronkite’s passion for the news and how it influenced his coverage of major events of the 20th century.
Panel moderator Leonard Downie Jr., former editor for The Washington Post and now a journalism professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, talked about Cronkite’s beginnings as a reporter for United Press International.
The panelists discussed two moments in Cronkite’s career when he moved beyond “straight-down-the-middle” reporting: His coverage of the Watergate scandal, which put the story in the national spotlight; and his pivotal Feb. 27, 1968, TV broadcast on the Vietnam War, when he said the U.S. could not win. After seeing Cronkite’s broadcast, President Lyndon B. Johnson allegedly remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Cronkite’s “deliberate decisions” about how to report those events sparked a discussion about whether pursuing a particular story is a form of bias.
“There’s a difference between laying down a viewpoint and pursuing the truth,” Pelley said.
Ifill pointed out that the kind of “explosive reports” Cronkite made over the course of his career are not possible today, due to the number of news sources and media platforms consumers have at their fingertips.
“There’s so much information out there now that much of it is just wrong,” said Schieffer, who retired as chief Washington correspondent and moderator of “Face the Nation” in 2015 and is now a CBS News contributor. Schieffer said that the role of mainstream media now is to “knock down false reports” and acknowledged that reporters at CBS News spend much of their time correcting misinformation.
Stahl, a “60 Minutes” correspondent, said that Cronkite wasn’t “swayed by the public,” adding that “today, we cater to the public more than we used to.”
The panel closed on a topic that was close to Cronkite’s heart: good investigative reporting.
“The reason the level of corruption in the United States is so low is because we’ve had a strong investigative press,” said Pelley, who also stated that the closure of local newspapers across the country could result in a spike of corruption at the city and state level, a concern that journalism schools have taken on their shoulders.
Ifill said she would be “despairing of her profession” if she didn’t think journalism schools were training the next generation of reporters to meet Cronkite’s standards of objectivity and thoroughness, and to stay true to his idea of hard news.
The program was presented by the Newseum, CBS News, and ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.