Originally published 02/22/2013
Charles L. Ponce de Leon, an associate professor of History and American Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is completing a book on the history of television news.More than thirty years after his retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News—and over three years after his death in 2009—Walter Cronkite remains an iconic figure. He appears in the opening montage of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, and his name is routinely evoked in laments about the “decline” of broadcast journalism, which invariably remind us that he was the “most trusted man in America,” a courageous truth-teller committed to objectivity and “hard news.”Douglas Brinkley’s long, absorbing biography of Cronkite does little to alter this impression. He tells us lots of interesting things about the man, but relatively little about how he became a mythic figure. Nor does he say very much about the particular kind of journalism that Cronkite and his colleagues produced. This is too bad, since Cronkite was at the center of a fascinating moment in the history of American mass media, and the television news that he came to embody was fleeting and highly unusual—an attempt to produce serious journalism in a medium associated with escapism.