AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Three Icons Depart   

Despite their obvious differences, Cronkite, Novak and Hewitt had something in common.

By Kevin Klose
Kevin Klose is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of AJR.     

This summer saw the passing of three remarkable, and diverse, American news icons Walter Cronkite, Robert D. Novak and Don Hewitt. The three were hardly alike in their approaches to the disciplines of journalism. Yet they had historic similarities.

"Uncle Walter," the CBS News anchor who was the "most trusted man in America," Bob Novak, the opinionated newspaper columnist and cable TV "Prince of Darkness," and Don Hewitt, the passionate creator of CBS' popular, pioneering newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," had common roots in the sometimes routine, sometimes gut-wrenching, deadline-driven traditions of wire service news reporting. Cronkite was a courageous United Press combat reporter in World War II; Novak was an Associated Press man in Omaha, Indianapolis and Washington; Hewitt toiled as AP night editor in Memphis.

Each left the relative obscurity of wire service journalism and forged separate paths to success and public prominence via the most powerful centralized news medium yet created 20th century television news.

Their willingness to drop the well-known environs of the wires and chance a new and very different medium offers a powerful example of risk-taking and innovation to this century's multiplatform, interactive, digital journalists. As reported in numerous articles in AJR, experimentation is crucial in this era of media evolution, decline and renewal.

Of the three, it was Cronkite whom Americans felt they knew best and trusted most. Nearly 15 years after he retired from the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite was rated the No. 1 television journalist in the country in seven of eight categories by a TV Guide opinion poll taken in the mid-1990s.

Interestingly, among this trio it was Cronkite who most readily spoke of the limitations of TV news. Throughout his retirement, he extolled newspapers for an unrivaled capacity for long-form daily news reporting. In a "farewell" column for the King Features syndicate in 2004, Cronkite wrote that his TV years "were not entirely satisfactory. There were space limitations in the newspapers, of course, but nothing like those brief headlines that passed for news stories on the magic tube."

Merrill College's then-Dean Tom Kunkel wrote Cronkite, fondly declaring: "Dear Walter, You might have written a 'farewell column'..but you'll be a newspaperman forever." Indeed, Cronkite was an important figure in the life of this college. As Kunkel recalled in his letter, the CBS anchor was a member of the first Merrill College Board of Visitors, joining in 1983 at the suggestion of Tom's predecessor, the late Reese Cleghorn.

Cronkite's intense public schedule often kept him from attending the board's meetings. However, when present, he never failed to speak up for his deeply rooted wire service training. Commenting at a 1989 meeting on a news bureau in Washington staffed by Merrill students, Cronkite told the board, "The key to acceptance of the bureau's work will be the professionalism and quality" of the students' dispatches.

At the heart of the work of journalists lie certain immutable values that reward persistent hard work: skepticism, independence, accuracy, balance, determination. I think it also requires passion to find and verify "truths" so that others can understand the workings of their governments and make informed decisions about who should be elected.

Bob Novak's legacy is rather different than Cronkite's. Novak reveled in his "Prince of Darkness" role outspokenly conservative, feisty, partisan. Teaming up with Rowland Evans in 1963, Novak co-wrote "Inside Report," a six-times-a-week column that reported in sometimes controversial detail the complex and perplexing politics of the nation's capital.

After Evans retired in 1993, Novak continued the column alone, and in 2003 he touched off a federal criminal investigation about the sources of news leaks after he revealed the identity of a CIA agent. The probe led to the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

It was hardly the outcome Novak could have anticipated. But the outcry that roiled Washington for months after his initial disclosure underscored a key aspect of his career: He was a shoe-leather-style reporter who ceaselessly sought inside sources and often found them, to the ire of competitors and delight of viewers and readers.

Don Hewitt's life in journalism brought the previously unknown values of commercial entertainment to serious television documentary journalism. "60 Minutes," the most-watched long-form news program in American television annals, brought the power of fact-based narrative video news stories to millions of viewers who had scant experience of such journalism. As a popularizer of fast-paced narrative and investigative documentary story-telling, Hewitt had many imitators, but few rivals.

The determined, sometimes obsessive professional quests of Don Hewitt, Bob Novak and Walter Cronkite and their willingness to explore and create new forms of news for mass consumption stand as testaments to the demands, sacrifices and rewards of the pursuit of the news.