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Cronkite’s Last-Minute Campaign Tilt



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As Walter Cronkite’s most ardent admirers in the TV news business spin a myth that Cronkite hated the injection of personal opinion in newscasts, Cronkite’s actual output as a scheming liberal anchorman is revealed by none other than CBS star Lesley Stahl in her 1999 memoir Reporting Live, pages 18 and 19. See how “Uncle Walter” really wanted to enable George McGovern and hobble President Nixon in the last days of the 1972 campaign:

Walter Cronkite, as managing editor of the Evening News, decided to put together a Watergate primer, pictures or not. Producer Stanhope Gould was put in charge. In his late 30s, he looked like no other CBS producer. Most of them wore tweed jackets and narrow Ivy League ties; Gould with his dusty jeans and stringy ponytail, radiated “counterculture”….

Relying heavily on Woodstein’s reporting, Gould wrote a script and designed a package of graphics to explain clearly and simply as possible what we knew about the scandal up to that point. Cronkite was the narrator. While the piece was pointed and cleverly illustrated, its most important message was its length: 14 minutes, well over half the broadcast. That by itself would be a signal that CBS News considered Watergate momentous and pressing. There was a debate in New York about making it shorter, but Cronkite wanted to air the entire package and put his personal prestige around it…

His 14-minute story ran on Friday, October 27, 11 days before the election. There was great excitment in the bureau. We all knew that allotting so much time to reporting the charges of wrongdoing would incite the wrath of the Nixon White House and campaign. A large group gathered in the newsroom to watch. When the Watergate piece ran, we all applauded, because it was so powerful and brave, and I was filled with pride. Cronkite and Gould set to work immediately on part two, a 14-minute piece about the Nixon campaign’s money-laundering.

After pressure from Nixon aide Charles Colson on CBS boss Bill Paley, the second report was cut “nearly in half,” which outraged the pony-tailed producer and his applauding fans in the newsroom. But the anchorman pressed ahead that Watergate should change the election in a liberal direction:  

The final stroke was Cronkite’s conclusion that the White House denials about Watergate were not convincing. Yet eight days later, Nixon won the election by a landslide. When the economy is healthy, as it was in 1972, the public is reluctant to change leaders, even in the midst of a scandal.

I watched our CBS election coverage at home with [Bob] Woodward, who was stunned by the results. He had been certain the CBS pieces would turn the tide.



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