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Sunday
Jul292012

Quick review: 'Cronkite'

Douglas Brinkley's "Cronkite" is an exhaustive biography of America's most celebrated newscaster, Walter Cronkite. Most celebrated, most trusted, most loved, blah, blah, blah. The accolades -- both from Brinkley and the dozens of sources cited in the book -- get tiresome after awhile, no matter how deserved. But there's no arguing that for a quarter-century at least, Cronkite walked on water with much of the American public. 

The book is at its best before Cronkite becomes the No. 1 nightly TV news anchor, and that took nearly a decade amid infighting with the legendary Edward R. Murrow and others at CBS. Did you know Cronkite was just weeks from getting replaced in the early 1960s because his CBS bosses were tired of being mired in second place behind NBC's Huntley & Brinkley? 

Once Cronkite stays atop the ratings, the story stalls, as TV becomes more commonplace and accepted as a force of change. But for about 400 pages, "Cronkite" is a gripping history of the first 50 years of radio and TV broadcasting. 

Brinkley is thorough in his research -- the acknowledgements, , glossary, note and list of interviews total 110 pages alone -- yet he glosses over several key dark moments in Cronkite's story. 

These include:

  • Cronkite's knowing involvement in unethical video editing of an interview with former President Lyndon Johnson. This is a shocking bit of information to which Brinkley gives little space. To me, such a reprehensible act warrants a closer look, including comment from peers or media observers. 
  • Cronkite's acceptance of free airline travel for his family, a huge no-no for a working journalist, particularly one like Cronkite who publicly held himself as above other journalists. 

For a 670-page biography to gloss over those and several other queasy backstories seems strange to me. Perhaps, as a journalist, I'm too close to those kinds of things. But seems to me a book described as an authoritative biography could devote a few pages to a few severe shortcomings amid the endless stream of positives.

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