Byline: Douglas Brinkley
If you turned the TV dial to CBS in 1965, this is what you'd likely see: Walter Cronkite.
From the cramped CBS newsroom in New York, the pipe-puffing Cronkite liked feeling in control of the news organization, typing copy, scribbling notes, working the phones, cracking jokes through a haze of afternoon smoke. Moments before airtime, Cronkite would take a quick glance in a handheld mirror, making sure his hair was slicked back properly. While getting a dab of powder on his face, he slipped on his suit jacket with just ten seconds left on the clock. A lockdown now occurred. Not a peep. Cronkite would move his chair an inch, sit up straight, and glance down at his notes. At first gander, he looked like a well-intentioned Midwestern newspaper editor preparing to inform out-of-town visitors about that day's happenings. The camera zeroed in on him.
"Good evening," Cronkite said, and the broadcast began.
Cronkite first saw how surreal the Vietnam War was when, in the summer of 1965, he boarded a Vietnamese airliner in Hong Kong. The stewardess was a "beauty" with the smile of an angel. She brought Cronkite an imported beer and a copy of Saigon's English-language rag, the Daily News. Cronkite was in heaven. The interior of the plane was white and clean. He had a pipe packed for a relaxing smoke. Wasn't it wonderful to forget the Congo, Castro, and de Gaulle for a while? But then he read the stark headline: "Air Vietnam Stewardess Held in Airplane Bombing." An uneasiness swept over him. He wondered, "Was my stewardess's smile the smile of the cobra?" At that minute, no longer relaxed, Cronkite learned the fundamental truth about Vietnam: "One could not depend on things being what they seemed to be."
Cronkite's telecast became a powerful agent in conveying to the world the horrors of the Jim Crow South. The net effect of CBS News--both radio and TV--on …