First Cronkite, then the world

Tim KnightFormer CBC producer and trainer Tim Knight remembers walking into Walter Cronkite’s CBS office in 1971 and asking him to help change the world.

It’s 1971. Pictures of CBS stars, starting with the greatest of them all, Edward R. Murrow, hang in rigid ranks on the walls of CBS’s New York headquarters.

A greying, uniformed black page leads me up one endless corridor and down another. Past an enormous newsroom, TV monitors everywhere, to Walter Cronkite’s office behind a glass wall.

The great man stands to shake hands, is affable and charming. He wants to know where I’m from, what I’m doing in the States and whether I’m enjoying life as a news producer at rival ABC. I tell him I’m English, recently of South Africa and UPI in the Congo, I want to be where the action is and I like ABC a lot.

I hand him the statement I’ve written for the four-union Joint Equality Committee — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAe).

Cronkite gets me a cup of coffee from a machine in the corner of his office. And reads the statement which says, in part:

” … we deplore the fact that the faces seen on television news programs, the voices heard on radio news programs and the minds producing those programs do not adequately reflect the multi-racial makeup of our society.

“As members of the Joint Equality Committee together with working newsmen and women at the network news divisions, we urge the networks to redress the balance; to keep the promise we have made so often that news reporting truly reflect the views and events of all the people, and that employment opportunities in network news are open to every section of our nation.”

Cronkite looks at me quizzically. It’s the same expression he wears when he signs off newscasts with his famous “… and that’s the way it is.”

“And what do you want me to do with it, Mr. Knight?”

“We would appreciate your signing and supporting it, sir.”

Walter Cronkite takes his pen and signs the statement.

After Cronkite, it’s easy. His eventual successor Dan Rather (CBS News), signs. Barbara Walters (NBC News) signs. Peter Jennings (ABC News) signs. And 27 of America’s most famous and influential TV and Radio journalists sign.

We’re on our way. We’re going to change the world.

It’s thirty-eight long years since the Joint Equality Committee statement was signed and published and caused a sensation.

Since then, large numbers of women have broken through the TV and radio news barriers in North America. In fact, Katie Couric sits in Cronkite’s chair today.

But broadcast journalism, both on air and in the producer’s chair, is still very much a white world. See much change in the faces in the newsrooms around you? See, hear, any real difference on the pale air?

Sadly, thirty-eight years after Cronkite signed … that’s still the way it is.

Tim Knight has won Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi awards for journalism, is a
former producer of CBC’s The National and was head of CBC TV Journalism
training for 10 years. This article is adapted from his book
Storytelling And The Anima Factor.