Post-World War II broadcast journalism was dominated by Walter Cronkite. Certainly, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley with the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC were important competitors. But, when big news broke, or when there was a space mission, it was Walter Cronkite to whom many viewers tuned.
There are some important Iowa connections for Cronkite. Prof. Jeff Stein at Wartburg College has created a web page showing the long association among and between Cronkite, the WMT stations in Cedar Rapids, and long-time WMT executive William B. Quarton.
Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, MO. He also spent time in Kansas City before moving to Houston, TX. He'd return to Kansas City and St. Joseph frequently. And as an employee of United Press, Cronkite headed the Kansas City bureau.
As a young man growing up in Mercer, MO, the St. Joseph News Press and Gazette were the newspapers that were delivered to the house in the morning and in the evening. I recall that any time Cronkite came to St. Joseph to visit relatives, it was a big story in the St. Joseph newspaper.
In Cronkite's autobiography, A Reporter's Life, he mentioned recreating football games using a wire service. I believe that he was in Kansas City at KCMO at the time. The line went dead. To avoid going to music (which was the way that stations in the 1930s handled dead air issues), Cronkite kept recreating the game, having the teams go back and forth without any scoring. Finally, the line came back up, and he was able to resume his "normal" recreation.
Cronkite mentioned in his autobiography that when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, he heard Reagan tell a story that sounded vaguely familiar. It was Reagan's class WHO Chicago Cubs tale of the wire dropping out, his telegraph operator Curley shaking his head, and sending Reagan a message that the wire was dead. To avoid going to music, Reagan kept talking having the batter foul off one pitch after another. I heard Reagan tell the story at the 50th Anniversary in April 1974 at WHO and have used the tale in several stories and programs that I have done about Ronald Reagan. As the story came to the conclusion, Reagan confessed that he became worried that he'd have the batter foul off so many pitches that it would be a record. The wire came back up, Reagan's telegraph operator started typing, and when Reagan got the slip of paper with the information to recreate the play, it turned out that the batter had grounded out to the short stop on the first pitch.
Reagan also had stories about a broadcast from Birdland Pool in Des Moines where he spent the entire 30 minutes on the NBC network describing everything except swimming. That's because officials were in an argument over some rules. Several minutes after Reagan went off the air, his story was several records were set. And then, at the Drake Relays, Reagan was sharing time on the NBC network with the Penn Relays. It came time for the feature race at the Drake Relays. Reagan had the whole network for what he hoped would be an exciting broadcast. The President of Drake University comes into the booth just as the race begins and extends a greeting to the broadcast audience while the race is underway. Reagan claimed the first instant replay. He described the race as he recalled it, and as a coda he advised the listening audience that there was little crowd noise because they were stunned by the performance on the track below.
I shared the Reagan stories with Cronkite, and he very kindly replied with a written letter.
One more story about recreating an event for broadcast. I was working at KTTN, Trenton, MO, and my fall assignment was to cover the Princeton, MO, high school football team. The year before the Tigers had gone to the state champtionships, and 1969 had good prospects. The Tigers won all of their conference and non-conference games. They qualified for the state tournament, and they were scheduled to play Smithville at Northwest Missouri State Univeristy in Maryville. Just before halftime the Tigers were driving to the goal line. Smithville put up a furious defense. Princeton scored with some power running. The problem was, the tape recorder was not working properly (KTTN was a 500 watt daytime station. The game was on a Saturday. KTTN was carrying University of Missouri football live.) Solution to the problem, was to recreate the plays and the description. Frankly, the recreation sounded better, because I knew what I was going to say, and so did my color commentator. Crowd noise was not a problem because the press box where we were working was enclosed, and the windows could not be opened.
Walter Cronkite has left a wonderful legacy. His style based upon getting the facts, reporting them as accurately as possible, and then, letting the reader or listener make up his or her mind is the goal standard for reporters.
Thanks Uncle Walter. It was great to watch you as a young man. It was inspiring to get to know you better, if only through your autobiography and one letter. It has been a lot of fun to share great moments in history with you, not only as a viewer and a listener, but also as a fellow reporter.