Anchors Away: Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite and the 1967 AFTRA Strike

Article excerpt

In March 1967, the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) called its first nationwide strike. Although almost all programming on the national television networks ceased production, the evening newscasts continued to be broadcast. NBC's Chet Huntley crossed the picket line, calling AFTRA a union "dominated by announcers, entertainers, and singers." His partner, David Brinkley, refused to work, and CBS' Walter Cronkite also supported the union. The strike represents a pivotal yet often overlooked moment in broadcast journalism history. It created the perception of tension between Huntley and Brinkley that would play a role in the "CBS Evening News" surpassing the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" as the nation's most highly-rated evening news broadcast in 1967-68.

On the evening of March 29, 1967, most of the approximately 10 million regular viewers of the "CBS Evening News" probably were surprised at seeing the unfamiliar face of a twenty-nine year old CBS corporate executive peering out from the screen. Ernest Leiser, the executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," had spent that afternoon auditioning several members of the CBS News management team to fill the anchor's chair. Each took a turn reading a four-minute script in the brightly lit studio. None matched the delivery or screen presence of Arnold Zenker, the program manager for CBS News, who earlier that same morning had delivered the morning news over the CBS-TV network. Leiser called Zenker at home and told him to report back to the studio, and a few hours later he began reading the day's top stories to the national television audience. Nowhere in that evening's script did he mention the fact that the program's regular anchorman-Walter Cronkite-was out on strike. When the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) called a strike against the networks that morning, he immediately supported the union and walked out.1

The idea of a celebrity television news anchor participating in a labor action seems absurd today. Even in 1967, the notion of broadcasters earning more than $100,000 a year striking against their management was considered strange at best, laughable at worst. As U.S. News and World Report noted, "never had the country seen anything quite like it."2 Although the era of the celebrity journalist had yet to fully bloom, viewers and critics alike shared skepticism that a TV anchorman could be considered a member of the working class. In reporting on this unique labor action, the press often stressed its more humorous aspects. Newsweek joked that "Eugene Debs would never have believed it," and on the strike's second day, the New York Times reported that "Today" show host Hugh Downs was chauffeured to the picket line "in a Cadillac limousine supplied by the network."3

The 1967 strike was an important moment in the history of television news. It raised definitional issues about the social and political status of celebrity anchormen, and it offered the notoriously habitual evening news audience an excuse to change the channel and alter the ratings dynamic between the most popular programs. Yet while the significance is clear, the strike has been generally ignored in the scholarship of television journalism. In Edward Bliss' comprehensive Now the News, the strike received two sentences in 470 pages of text.4 Historians have generally followed the lead of the journalists involved, who downplayed the strike's impact. Remembering the strike in a 1995 interview, NBC's David Brinkley called it "pointless and quite silly."5

However, in his 1995 memoir, Brinkley admitted that somehow, in a difficult to define manner, the strike led to the end of NBC's leadership in the evening news ratings competition. His boss at the time, Reuven Frank, had concurred in his 1991 memoir, Out of Thin Air.6 Because the strike affected the ratings dynamic between the two most-watched evening news programs, it was a pivotal moment in broadcast history. …