History of TV News - Part 1
For several decades, from the mid 1950s to the early 1980s, television news anchors dominated the media landscape; informing us, educating us, and in some cases changing our perceptions regarding the most important issues of the day. They brought us great news and news we dreaded.
The deans of broadcast journalism in those days included CBS’ Walter Cronkite, who was hired by the legendary Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, ABC’s Howard K. Smith, and others who were admired because they had covered the important stories of their times, and had great on air presence and credibility. Later, reporters such as Dan Rather, John Chancellor, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer of The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, which began in 1975 on PBS, were popular in much the same way. Cable television, however, would soon splinter the audience, and since 1990, the influence and ratings of network news broadcasts have declined, dramatically. Audiences today are gathering their news both online and from the usual sources. Consumers are increasingly “on demand, seeking platforms where they can get the news they want when they want it from a variety of sources rather than have to come at appointed times and to one news organization,” according to PEW’s State of the News Media Report 2010.
Times have changed and the total number of viewers of the national nightly news broadcasts is less than half of the number of viewers in 1980. In those days, fifty-five million Americans turned on their television sets to watch the network news.
The Huntley-Brinkley Report was the NBC television network's flagship evening news program from October 29, 1956 until July 31, 1970, and usually the ratings leader. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite started to beat Huntley and Brinkley in the late 1960s. After the Huntley-Brinkley Report went off the air in 1970, Cronkite garnered the largest number of viewers even though he was up against an excellent broadcast journalist, John Chancellor of NBC. Cronkite, who built an unusually intimate relationship with his audience, was once voted the most trusted figure in public life. When Cronkite spoke, America listened. So did the nation’s most powerful politicians.
To enhance his credibility, Cronkite, a long-time print and radio reporter, positioned himself as the managing editor of the news department and wanted to make the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the most important network newscast on the air.
He anchored 3500 broadcasts, starting with a 15 minute report, after he took over for the first newsman to anchor a television network broadcast, the respected Douglas Edwards, in spring of 1962. In September 1963, at Cronkite’s insistence, the news broadcast was expanded to thirty minutes.
A year and a half after taking over as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, he reported the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during a memorable bulletin, which ended with a tearful Cronkite breaking the terrible news to the nation. In part four of this article, you can read the transcript of his bulletin.
Some of his most powerful on-air moments after the Kennedy assassination reflect the highs and lows of the era. One unforgettable moment came during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Visibly upset by the tactics used by security officers on the convention floor, Cronkite lost his cool. That happened when reporter Dan Rather, his microphone in hand, was punched and arrested. Cronkite said, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan." However, he was later criticized for a tame on air interview with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was responsible for the security at the convention hall and on Chicago’s embattled streets.
David Halberstam wrote about Cronkite: “He was not a great interviewer; he was too aware of danger of seeming combative, and his questions were often easy (most memorably at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when he pitched softballs to Mayor Daley of Chicago)."
However, Cronkite’s popularity would continue to grow. Viewers from the era will remember Cronkite informing the country about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But happier moments and great ratings would follow as a result of the CBS coverage in 1969 of Apollo 11 and then the Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970.
Part 2 of this article will examine how Walter Cronkite's coverage of Watergate and the Vietnam War impacted public perceptions. Part 3 looks at the decline of network news, and Part 4 revisits how the networks covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Life Magazine: Remembering Walter Cronkite
The Atlantic: David Halberstam on Cronkite
A Reporter's Life
by Walter Cronkite
This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV
by Bob Schieffer
Good Night, Chet: A Biography of Chet Huntley
by Lyle Johnston
Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News
by Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg
Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control
by Fred W. Friendly
The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism
by Lynne Olson and Stanley W. Cloud
With Heroic Truth: The Life of Edward R. Murrow
by Norman H. Finkelstein
by Barbara Walters
by Lesley Stahl
Between You and Me
by Mike Wallace
The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days..
by Roger Mudd
Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism
by Daniel Schorr