With the ascent of modern cable news as a sort of ghastly fun-house reflection of a society perversely infatuated by images of its own distortion, one cannot help but look back on the post-War era of broadcast journalism with considerable fondness. Yes, it was a simpler (prime) time, one of limited channels dominated by voices unschooled in the finer aspects of insult and interruption. But those voices, for the most part, belonged to conscientious men who had learned their craft and earned their chairs on the network desks the hard way, reporting on the ground in wars hot and cold, through civil unrest and in the wake of assassination.
When with fondness, then, we cast our minds back, a few voices tend to rise above the others. First Cronkite on CBS. Then Huntley and Brinkley on NBC. The latter tandem pioneered the tag-team approach to news delivery, to great ratings success. The former became known as nothing less than “the most trusted man in America.” Down the line somewhere, we recall Howard K. Smith, who hosted many distinguished news and public affairs shows and teamed with Harry Reasoner on the main anchor desk at ABC in the 70s. In many ways, he is the more apt prototype for the cable newsmen of today, a man out of his own time.
For Howard K. Smith was an opinionator. He felt newsmen should “take sides on public issues” and that what’s “right” is not necessarily “an equidistant point between good and evil.” That attitude strained his relationship with his network overseers and may have contributed to his perpetual third-place finish in the ratings as an anchorman.
Smith was one of the “Murrow Boys,” the stable of radio reporters led by Edward R. Murrow who reported action from the European theater during WWII. The Gestapo arrested him in ’41 for refusing to propagandize for the Nazis. He entered Germany with the Allies in ’45 and reported on the Battle of the Bulge and the Nuremberg Trials.
He spent years reporting from Europe after the War then returned to the States in the late 50s. A rising star at CBS, he anchored several special reports, moderated the very first Presidential debate (JFK v. Nixon), and served as head of the Washington Bureau. He was seen by many as a successor to Murrow in the big chair, but the heir apparency didn’t last long. He went head-to-head with CBS Chief William Paley when he insisted on concluding a story on civil rights in Birmingham by quoting Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” To Paley and other network brass, it was too bold, too opinionated, and too likely to alienate sponsors. Smith left CBS after 20 years of service.
The next year, he moved to ABC News where he hosted a news and commentary show. A report on “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon” drew heat when it included an interview with the convicted perjurer Alger Hiss. The sponsor backed out, the show was canceled, and Smith was effectively sidelined for the next several years.
From ’69-’75, he co-anchored the ABC Evening News, first with Frank Reynolds, then with Harry Reasoner. During that period, the show ran a distant third to Walter Cronkite on CBS and the Nightly News (previously the Huntley-Brinkley Report) on NBC.
What Happened Next
Howard K. Smith moved out of the anchor chair into an analyst role in ’75. His resignation in ’79 was tinged with bitterness. True to contentious form, he resented the reduction in time allowed for his commentary and characterized the newly introduced World News Tonight format as a “Punch and Judy show.” It’s not clear whether he intended the criticism to reflect a dumbing down of the news, its infantilization, or its devolution into a shallow whack-fest, but with years of hindsight from today’s vantage, any of those would arguably apply to the changes undergone by primetime news since Smith’s day.
Smith spent his later years lecturing and writing his memoirs. He passed away in 2002.
Where Are They Now?
Cronkite is a bona fide American icon who over the course of his 19 year tenure on the anchor desk at CBS became more than reporter but barometer of public sentiment and shaper of opinion. His barely suppressed tears announcing Kennedy’s death were the nation’s tears. His declaration that the Vietnam War was a “stalemate” is commonly believed to have factored into Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election (“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” the President reportedly said to aides after watching Cronkite’s report on the Tet Offensive.)
Outside of a handful of journalism programs, and probably inside many as well, Howard K. Smith is not well remembered today. There were certainly many families partial to the ABC network in the 70s, and therefore a slice of the boomer generation whose memories tend toward Smith and Reasoner over “Uncle Walter,” but that slice is vanishingly thin.
The 1972 poll in which Cronkite was famously proclaimed to be “the most trusted man in America,” was based on a fairly unrepresentative sample − less than 9,000 respondents in 18 states − and it included a bunch of politicians (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew). It did not include any other newsmen.
A 2009 Time Magazine on-line poll of the Most Trusted Newscaster was topped by John Stewart. The top three spots in a 2013 Reader’s Digest poll of the Most Trusted Americans were Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Denzel Washington.