As everyone knows former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite died on Friday. He really was a legend who could change the course of history through his news judgment. Here's yet one more example that I learned while reporting my book, Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.
Most of the media credit for the revelations that led to President Nixon's resignation in 1974 falls to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. But it was CBS's Walter Cronkite who made Watergate a national story in fall 1972.
Nixon campaign operatives broke into the Democratic headquarters inside the Watergate building on June 17, 1972. The Washington Post and others jumped on the story initially but it still didn't have much traction four months later. A Gallup poll in October 1972 showed that 48 percent of the country did not recognize the word Watergate.
But that all changed after Cronkite decided it was a story.
One reason other reporters didn't pick up the story was that it was complicated. It was difficult to follow a Woodward-Bernstein story because the reporters often relied on anonymous sources. And there were few documents to show viewers and few people to interview on camera — with the exception of White House officials happily going on camera to disparage the young Post reporters.
But Cronkite sensed there was something more to the story than a third-rate burglary. He pleaded with the Post to share their documents as tangible proof.
"For the first time in a long time in major American journalism there were not documents," former Post managing editor Howard Simons said in an interview at the University of Texas in Austin, where the Woodward-Bernstein papers are held. "This was just gumshoeing, classic journalism. CBS wanted to photograph the documents for its stories. But there were none. What we decided was, we wouldn't tell CBS we didn't have documents. We'd let them think we had documents."
CBS went ahead with the story anyway. The ground-breaking, two-part special ran on Oct. 27 and 31, 1972. These two stories were a turning point for the saga that would grip the nation for most of the next two years.
Cronkite's first piece ran for nearly 15 minutes in a 22-minute broadcast — the unprecedented equivalent of a newspaper turning two-thirds of its front page over to one story.
The second story was truncated to 9 minutes after the Nixon White House pressured CBS brass, claiming the first story wasn't fair — especially in light of the November presidential election when Nixon was running against George McGovern.
Cronkite brought the story to a national audience — even without documents. But having watched all 24 minutes in 2006, I can safely say that CBS would never run that story today. Frankly, it was far too complicated — and even boring. It was difficult to figure out what Cronkite was talking about.
But it didn't matter. America's most trusted newsman said Watergate was a story the nation should be interested it — and therefore it was.