In 1952, Walter Cronkite and fellow journalists relished political conventions where guests and organizers ignored the cameras that captured their words and actions.
Today, anchorman Brian Williams and his colleagues cover conventions orchestrated by well-trained media manipulators who know how to take advantage of free airtime.
Cronkite became known as “the most trusted man in America” for his straightforward reports and commentary on the “CBS Evening News.”
Williams and his family waited for the words “That’s the way it is” at the end of Cronkite’s newscasts before they ate dinner every night.
They joined Betsy Ashton of the New York Headline club to compare those vastly different climates during the keynote session Sept. 10 during the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Convention in New York City. The session was packed and covered by C-SPAN.
Cronkite described covering political conventions when televisions were becoming a staple in the homes of Americans.
“We exposed the fact that parties have a lot of problems of their own,” Cronkite said in reference to the 1952 conventions.
After that, it didn’t take politicians long to realize what they needed to do, he said.
“They swept under the rug all the interesting things at the convention — the policy,” said Cronkite, who described modern conventions as glorified pep rallies with balloons.
Williams will succeed Tom Brokaw as anchorman and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News on Dec. 1. He said conventions are so well planned by media coordinators that networks can’t always choose what to put on the air or when to use it.
During the Republican National Convention this summer in New York City, NBC could not provide the audience with analysis from political commentator and NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert because Republicans scheduled California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to go on at exactly 10 p.m.
“Tom (Brokaw) barely had time to say anything,” Williams said. “(The convention) was produced for us.”
Questioned about the network’s decision to cut the commentary and stay on Schwarzenegger, Williams said viewers would rather hear Schwarzenegger utter the term, “girlyman,” than listen to political analysis.
The two also discussed other problems facing journalism, including a lack of investigative reporting such as that of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the Watergate scandal.
“We have certainly, it seems to me, dulled up our news coverage in the sense of adequate investigation,” Cronkite said.
Using a full hour to report the news and expanding foreign coverage are standards broadcast outlets should seek, both said.
Cronkite called 30-minute broadcasts interrupted by advertising “ridiculous” and said they give the networks just 18 minutes to report national and world news.
Among all the media’s failings, Cronkite said “slandermongers” on the Internet are the most troubling.
“I cannot understand how the Internet should have gotten so oblivious to the theory of libel and slander,” he said. “How is it possible these people get on the air with any statement they make when it’s not true?”
Debbie Lev, an associate professor of communication at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., said the insight the two provided were a comfort in regard to the maintenance of journalistic traditions.
It was reassuring to hear someone from both generations espouse traditional journalism values, said Lev, who added that she wished the speakers had talked more about their day-to-day experiences in journalism.
At several points in the discussion, Williams expressed his awe of Cronkite.
“How often in life can we say we are sitting next to the reason we are in the occupation?” he said.
A recording of the session aired on C-SPAN in September and is on sale for $24.95 online at C-SPAN.
Amanda Lee Myers is a journalism and Spanish major at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The senior covered the SPJ National Convention in New York City for The Working Press.