Cronkite began working for newspapers in 1935, went on to radio and then to the United Press, becoming a top reporter during World War II. He flew in bombing raids and landed in a glider in Operation Market-Garden, a failed plan hatched to secure the bridges in Holland for Allied armies as a way to get around the Siegfried Line in to Germany. He covered the Battle of the Bulge and later the Nuremberg Trials. He was the chief reporter in Moscow for the United Press and in 1950 Edward R. Murrow, the man responsible for bringing Joseph McCarthy to his knees, convinced Cronkite to join the Columbia Broadcasting System.
At CBS, Cronkite would cover the “Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the space race and the first moon landing and Watergate.”
Nichols writes that “it should come as little surprise that what worried Cronkite in the last years of his life was the collapse of journalistic quality and responsibility that came with the increasing dominance of news gathering by a handful of media corporations. I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to be moving away from that," Cronkite told me (Nichols).
Nichols asked Cronkite if he were an anchorman today, would he have spoken out against the Iraq war? "Yes, yes I do. I think that right now it would be critical to do so," he told me a few months after the invasion in 2003. "I think that right now we are in one of the most dangerous periods in our existence. Not since the Civil War has the state of our democracy been so doubtful. Our foreign policy has taken a very strange turn. And I do think I would try to say something about that."Much had changed since his days at the anchor desk, Cronkite said. And while he shied away from suggesting that everything was better in the good old days, he admitted that he was deeply troubled by the timidity of broadcast media when it came to questioning those in power.
In 1968, Cronkite stunned the nation when, after reporting from Vietnam on the Tet offensive and events that followed it, he went on air and openly questioned whether the U.S. military would ever prevail in that conflict.
The three networks “don't even do analysis anymore, which I think is a shame. They don't even do background. They just seem to do headlines, and the less important it seems the more likely they are to get on the air."Cronkite also argued that the networks needed to get more comfortable with criticism. He believed that, after years of battering by conservative media critics, the networks were too averse to taking risks. During the discussion about whether a network anchor might question the wisdom of the Iraq war, he said, "If they (the networks) didn't do it, I think it would be because they are afraid to get in an ideological fight - or that doing so might lose them some viewers. ... I think that is a bad thing, a bad way to decide how to approach a story."
Cronkite criticized Bush for being too aggressive. "The policy we're following has involved us in a very expensive set of projects trying to export democracy at the end of a bayonet.” He went on to criticize Congress for being too pliant.
Cronkite was heartened as the years passed and more members of Congress challenged the executive branch. He delighted when younger journalists, many of them working in new media, began to ask tougher questions and make blunter statements. He appreciated bloggers and independent media producers who used grodocumentaries and YouTubes to hold the powerful to account.
Still, he recognized the lingering power of television in our society. And Cronkite continued to worry that broadcast news -- his medium -- had grown too deferrent to power, too stenographic, too consolidated.
Walter Cronkite said he would, as well, remind the powerful that the role of jurnalism is not to tell Americans what they want to hear but what they need to know as citizens -- because, he said, "journalism is what we need to make democracy work."