Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley

Cronkite by Douglas BrinkleySummary: A mediocre biography of a formative figure in the history of journalism.

I have been keeping my New Year’s resolution of not buying more than one book a month to try and whittle down my list of books that I have already purchased but not read.  But I have also been working through library audiobooks that I have had on my radar but had not listened to yet.

The first problem with Cronkite is that it is an abridged audiobook.  Had I realized that, I would have probably not checked it out in the first place.  It felt like an abridgement long before I realized that it was.

Also it felt like a repetition of events more than an insightful biography.  Maybe this is about a bad abridgement, but I did not feel like I really understood Cronkite, although I heard a lot about him.  It also felt like a quote fest.  I am not opposed to accurately quoting sources.  But too often the quotes feel forced into the content and not naturally supporting the flow of the book.

I started this soon after I finished the biography of Jim Henson.  And while I had some similar issues with the Henson biography, this was much more of a problematic biography.  It was interesting that even though Cronkite was 20 years older than Henson, Henson started his TV career only 3 years later than Cronkite.  Much of Henson’s early work was in local news or local magazine shows.  Cronkite was a journalist, but also the host of a game show and various other tv jobs, so their early careers were in fairly similar TV systems.

Cronkite was the first to have a 30 minute national news program.  It is interesting that many were not sure there was enough news to fill a 30 minute program.  It is also clear that journalistic ethics were evolving.  Cronkite (and his staff) bugged a presidential Republican rules commission meeting early in his career.  And there were more than a few instances where scooping the story seemed to be more important than the real weight of the news.

Cronkite really seems to have had his career made with several of his long broadcasts, JFK assassination, Moon landing and other space events and other historic events. Cronkite’s love of gadgets and interest in space inspired him to work hard to build contacts within NASA and soon Space was Cronkite’s area.

Cronkite was not just a TV personality.  It is clear that he had real journalistic instincts and took freedom of the press as a serious responsibility as well as a serious freedom to be defended.  It was his work on Vietnam and with Watergate that really helped to turn public opinion.  In both cases  (and many other similar cases) he did not do the primary journalism, but he did put what were relatively small stories on TV when other TV news organizations were not.

Another interesting area was Cronkite’s role in news as advocacy.  Cronkite was clearly a liberal.  And while he was serious about attempting real journalistic ethics, he felt it a responsibility of the news to inform the public for the purpose of changing political opinion.  One of the most clear uses of journalism as advocacy was using his bully pulpit to encourage the Presidents of Israel and Egypt to meet.  This was prior to Carter’s later work that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.  Clearly it would be easy over play Cronkite’s role.  But it was a role that led to others taking steps that might not have been taken without his work.  After he retired from anchoring CBS Evening News his advocacy work greatly increased and in many people’s eyes crossed the line.

What does not really come out in the biography is why Cronkite seemed to have his status as ‘the most trusted man in America.’  Yes, he was on TV.  But so were others.  Yes, he was one of the early  TV journalists, but not the earliest.  He did have a long career as a news anchor, but Dan Rather anchored CBS Evening News for longer than Cronkite.  People started calling him the ‘most trusted man in America’  (when I started looking into it, this was CBS advertising, which Brinkley never mentions) in the 1970s after had only been the CBS news anchor for about 10 years.  Again, maybe there is more discussion of this in the unabridged book.

Reading other reviews there are a number of people that point out lots of minor factual problems.  I did not see any factual problems that really make much of a difference, but it shows an overall weakness of the biography that so many minor issues made it through to the final book.

Equally challenged is Brinkley’s highlighting of Cronkite’s drinking, his ego, and a number of rivalries between other journalists.  Maybe the petty rivalries really were a big part of Cronkite’s life, but as part of the biography it felt like Brinkley was being petty.  Although Brinkley does make it clear that it was not Cronkite that was the one starting all of the rivalries.  (Dan Rather really looks bad in this book.)

Cronkite lived much longer than I realized (he died in 2009 at 92).  And as Brinkley suggests I think that many people ignored Cronkite’s ranting toward the end of his life as that of a crazy old man.  Cronkite just did not seem capable of not working.  He made a lot of bad decisions and it appears that those around him were not able (or willing) to give him wise counsel about what projects to take on and what causes to champion.

Overall, I did learn a lot about Cronkite and early news journalism.  But I just didn’t feel like it was a significant biography that should be widely read.

Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook (Abridged)


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