top of page

Walter Cronkite at CBS News once set high standard for eco journalism

Title card for CBS NEWS SPECIAL aired on Earth Day 1970.

Photo Courtesy CBS News

By Alfred Robert Hogan

The late Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), arguably the most accomplished and best-known television news broadcaster ever, was an early pioneering journalist in seriously covering the eco beat. He often narrated and anchored programs and segments examining the various worsening problems involving our environment.

"Walter Cronkite was an ardent environmentalist. Under his leadership in the 1960s and 1970s, it was CBS News that led the other networks to take the environment seriously as a top news story," says Douglas G. Brinkley, author of the 2012 in-depth biography Cronkite, as well as four books on US environmental history, including the forthcoming Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall, and the Environmental Movement, 1961–1964. “Without Cronkite, it is doubtful that the first Earth Day in 1970 would have been so kinetic and iconic,” says Brinkley, a history professor at Houston’s Rice University and a frequent guest expert on history topics on CNN.

From 1967 to 1969, Cronkite's weekly science series THE 21ST CENTURY devoted at least 10 episodes to environmental subjects. Titles ranged from "A Trip From Chicago," about bullet trains (aired on Sunday 19 February 1967), to "Autos Autos Everywhere" (Sunday 9 April 1967) and from "Can We Control the Weather?" (Sunday 22 September 1968) to "What Are We Doing to Our World?" (Sunday 16 March 1969 and the following Sunday).

In addition to covering environmental news, Cronkite instigated the landmark environmental series "Can the World Be Saved?," which started two months before the original Earth Day, with an extraordinary 8-minute-long segment of the half-hour CBS EVENING NEWS on Monday 23 February 1970. The next night, another unusual 6-1/2-minute segment continued the planetary pollution story, as did other segments later. In May 1970, the "Can the World Be Saved?" series earned a 1970 News Emmy Award for Regularly Scheduled News. (The series continued sporadically through 1979.) From 1969 to 1974, Cronkite used the famous Earthrise color photo taken by Apollo 8 Astronaut William A Anders, from Lunar Orbit on Christmas Eve 1968 as the CBS EVENING NEWS “bumper slide.”

Walter Cronkite introduces a televised CBS News Special recapping the first-ever Earth Day.

Photo courtesy CBS News

On Cronkite's prime-time CBS News Special, aired on Wednesday 22 April 1970, EARTH DAY—A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL, he ended the half hour telecast from NYC with these ominous and prescient words:

Only time will tell if these demonstrations accomplished anything...But let's summarize the points that were brought home today to a lot of people who have <missed> the point so far.

For instance, the militants, who see all this as an establishment trick to divert attention from what to them are more urgent concerns, like civil rights, like Vietnam. They seem to have missed the point that there would be no civil rights or peace in a lifeless world.

For instance, the politicians, who see this as a safe crusade. They seem to have missed the point that it will involve trading on more special interests than ever in our history...

For instance, those in industry, who see the crisis as only the hysterical creation of do-gooders. They have missed the point if they haven't heard the unanimous voice of the scientists warning that halfway measures and business as usual cannot possibly pull us back from the edge of the precipice.

...Those who ignored Earth Day, well that's one thing. Those who ignore the <crisis> of our planet, that's quite another. The indifferent have missed the point that to clean up the air and earth and water in the few years science says are left to us [to act] means <personal> involvement and may mean <personal> sacrifice the likes of which Americans have never been asked to make in time of peace.

The sense of today's teach-in is that America must undertake a revolution in its way of life. Affluent America will...almost certainly have to scale down its standard of living, give up having as many cars, as many children, as many cans, as many conveniences--as much conspicuous consumption.

Someday, we heard today, the world <will> be a better place—<if> it listens and acts. But in the meantime, perhaps for a gene