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Can the Earth Be Saved?

Walter Cronkite and the creation of Earth Day

By Douglas Brinkley, Fri., April 20, 2012

<i>Earthrise</i> by <i>Apollo 8 </i> astronaut Bill Anders
Earthrise by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders

At long last, on April 19, the University of Texas at Austin is honoring the legacy of CBS News anchorman (1962-1981) Walter Cronkite by dedicating the plaza in front of the Jesse H. Jones Communication Complex. The centerpiece of the dedication will be a public art installation by Ben Rubin titled with Cronkite's signature signoff: And That's the Way It Is. What an ideal way, just before Earth Day, April 22, to memorialize the TV newsman who guided America through NASA space launches, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Cronkite, more than any other major journalist of his era, promoted the enduring virtues of outdoor life. Long before it was cool, Cronkite was green. Indeed, without his galvanizing CBS News to cover the first Earth Day as if it were a World Series game, it's unclear whether the environmental movement would have taken such a hold in 1970, under the Nixon Administration, when the Environmental Protection Agency was founded.

Cronkite's New York office, circa 1970, contained a desk covered with manuscripts, incoming and outgoing correspondence, pipes in a rack – and assorted nautical gear. Ever since he learned to sail in Galveston Bay, Cronkite had been an advocate of the conservation of rivers, lakes, bays, and seas. The Atlantic Ocean whales – humpbacks, minkes, and North Atlantic right whales – had by the late 1960s become his touchstone species. Disturbed by the globe's ecological woes, he kept a framed photo over his desk, the elegiac Earthrise (with the moon in the foreground), taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in late December 1968. Earth was so lovely and fragile floating out there in the vast universe, and that symbolic picture, in which no national boundary lines could be seen, shrank all the world's troubles down to one-world size. With something akin to a conversion experience, Cronkite committed himself to protecting the planet from nature abusers, despoilers, and polluters.

Lamenting the deteriorating condition of Earth's ecosystems from human-induced causes, Cronkite believed the United Nations needed to adopt a new global environmental standard. The Apollo program, in Cronkite's opinion, had been designed only to visit the moon, but in the end, the emotional impact of images of the blue-green planet from a quarter million miles away had put humanity in ethereal communion with the universe. Former Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey noted that Cronkite wasn't alone in being bowled over by Earthrise. Dozens of NASA employees developed "a new environmental appreciation" because of the profound photo. Joseph Campbell, the great American comparative mythologist, chose Earthrise to end a revised edition of his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces – an endorsement of Cronkite's view that the photo was a hallmark of modern times. Earthrise, in Cronkite's opinion, suggested humans have a sacred obligation to protect the natural beauty of Earth – yet weren't huge corporations destroying rain forests, killing wildlife, and poisoning the oceans and skies?

Things Happened

While Apollo 11 dominated news coverage in 1969, Cronkite had CBS Reports investigate two environmental catastrophes that occurred that year: the January blowout at a Union Oil offshore well near Santa Barbara (dumping more than 3 million barrels of crude oil into the southern California waters) and the June Cuyahoga River fire in Ohio, during which oil-soaked debris torched a railroad bridge. It seemed to Cronkite that industrialization run amok spelled doom for mankind. "The North American continent seemed ringed by oil slicks," Cronkite lamented, "off Alaska, off Nova Scotia, off Florida, and most dramatically, in the Gulf Coast off Louisiana."

CBS News producer Ron Bonn recalled precisely when Cronkite put the network on the front line of the fight. "It was New Year's Day, 1970, and Walter walked into the Broadcast Center and said, 'goddamnit, we've got to get on this environmental story,'" Bonn recalled. "When Walter said 'goddamnit,' things happened." Cronkite pulled Bonn from nearly all other CBS duties for eight weeks so he could investigate environmental degradation. He wanted a whole new regular series on the CBS Evening News – inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the philosophy of René Dubos, and those amazing photos of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts. The CBS Evening News segments were to be called "Can the World Be Saved?" "We wanted to grapple first with air pollution, the unbreathable air," Bonn recalled. "But then we wanted to deal with the primary underlying problem, which was overpopulation."

By assigning his science producer Bonn, a trusted ally since they traveled together to South Vietnam in 1965, Cronkite was getting way ahead of the news curve on the environment. In the mid-1960s, Bonn had done a couple of landmark CBS News Special Reports on global warming and overpopulation. Together, Cronkite and Bonn decided to begin CBS's coverage of the environment with an eight-minute piece on April 20 – two days before Earth Day. CBS Evening News' graphics department made a special bumper slide for the "Can the World Be Saved?" segment that consisted of Bonn's hand clutching Earth (also from a photograph taken by the Apollo 8 crew). "Earth, you understand, wasn't in the palm of my hand," Bonn explained. "We were trying to show humanity squeezing the Earth to death." The image became synonymous with the CBS Evening News, essentially the show's visual calling card.

Cronkite and Bonn launched the "Can the World Be Saved?" segments in the spring of 1970. The segments constituted perhaps the most important, if unsung, aspect of Cronkite's CBS legacy. No longer would pollution be treated in a back-of-the-book or filler way. Stories treated as major news included Lake Erie perch being mercury-poisoned, the U.S. government recklessly pouring 22 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, Dow Chemical's ghastly dumps into Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, sewage-coated Florida beaches closed for business, bald eagles being killed by DDT, towering garbage dumps choking the land, and the Everglades dying. The Cronkite judgments fell like hard rain on polluters. On his office wall at CBS was posted a Pogo comic adopted by environment activists: "We have met the enemy and they are us."

A Crisis of Survival

Producer Sandy Socolow, along with many others at CBS News, thought that Cronkite had gone eco mad. Riled up about polluters, Cronkite was, as Socolow put it, the "grizzly bear" at CBS who insisted that the ecologically charged "Can the World Be Saved?" be a prime feature on the Evening News. "Walter was almost a nutcase about the environment," Socolow recalled. "He was really, really bothered by big companies' pollution and the destruction of America's natural resources. Everybody bemoaned that their stories were getting crowded out due to Walter's need for a new environmental awareness. He was over the top – a real pioneer in getting the mass media to profile American landscapes being desecrated."

Cronkite aboard the <i>Wyntje</i>
Cronkite aboard the Wyntje

Many of the CBS News technicians and producers thought that Cronkite was going a little gaga with his "Can the World Be Saved?" obsession. Whenever Cronkite ran an ecology story, the Earthrise graphic would appear behind him, with Bonn's hand holding the planet. CBS Evening News director Ritchie Mutchler would regularly bark to his assistant, "We'll need the hand job tonight!" To CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, it was akin to "Quiet on the set!" But feeling that he was being mocked, Cronkite, usually unflappable, called Mutchler aside. "Uhmm, could we call that thing something else?" he asked. "Every time I hear you call it that, my mind sort of wanders."

At Cronkite's insistence, CBS News played a major role in publicizing the first Earth Day observed across the United States, on April 22, 1970 (it also happened to be his son Chip's birthday). Not only did Cronkite promote Earth Day on his nightly broadcast, but he also anchored a CBS News Special Report from 10 to 11pm EST on that historic day, when 20 million Americans formally launched the green movement. He began "Earth Day: A Question of Survival" with Barry Commoner, a Washington University biology professor who in February had been dubbed "the Paul Revere of Ecology" by Time magazine. While Cronkite continued to use Walter Schirra as his astro buddy for covering Apollo launches, starting in 1970, he recruited Commoner – who had just finished his seminal book The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology – as his eco-cohort (Cronkite didn't hold it against him that he was a critic of space exploration). "This planet is threatened with destruction and we who live on it with death," Commoner stated. "The heavens rock, the waters below are foul, children die in infancy, and we and the world which is our home live on the brink of nuclear annihilation. We are in a crisis of survival."

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