Can the Earth Be Saved?

Walter Cronkite and the creation of Earth Day

<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."

While Cronkite had been cognizant of Commoner as a serious anti-nuke scientist, it was the professor's 1966 book, Science and Survival, which he read to prep for Earth Day, that sparked his environmentalism. Commoner was remonstrating against what happens when the industrial order spins madly out of control, when society so fully believes in technology that it arrogantly treats nature as its slave. "Science can reveal the depth of the crisis," Commoner concluded, "but only social action can resolve it."

Only after Commoner had first laid out the planetary crisis did Cronkite say on the CBS News Special Report, "Good evening." It was clear that Cronkite was riding on the side of the Earth Day organizers and demanding ecological balance in the country. Earth Day was the nationwide "environmental awareness day" that Commoner had long called for. In cities all across America, millions of citizens took part in teach-ins protesting the poisoning of Mother Earth. In New York City, much of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street were closed to traffic. Cronkite wandered all around New York watching Americans improvise Earth Day with Frisbee contests, folk music, and pure-oxygen breathing exercises. Union Square became a beehive of the environmentally aware waving placards and chanting "Save the planet," creating what The New York Times called an "ecological carnival" for pedestrians. A leading organizer of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., thanked Frank Stanton and Cronkite for "devoting extensive time and energy to the task of educating the nation on the problem."

It's hard to measure the precise impact Cronkite had on the first Earth Day. As a commentator, he was brilliantly colorful in describing Earth Day on air as the opening salvo in a battle to protect from destruction the blue-green planet photographed by the Apollo astronauts. To hear him bemoan the "littered Earth" and "filthy waters," calling the widespread desecration a "crime against humanity," certainly seized viewers' attention. Cronkite and Bonn had helped legitimize Earth Day as the major news event of the spring. In his Special Report commentary, Cronkite perhaps overreported the day's arrests and police altercations and Earth Day's extreme activists, who looked more like disaffected hippies than up-and-coming biologists. But merely by taking a deeply personal interest in Earth Day and treating the grassroots event as serious news, he lent his credibility to the environmental cause. "Whenever he mentioned it on the air," Sam Love, an Earth Day organizer, noted, "I noticed that the mail increased. I always thought CBS and Cronkite helped make the events because they gave it validation."

A Lifeboat in Nature

Never before had Cronkite been so daring about promoting public policy as in Eye on the World. The book is a clumsily constructed omnibus of CBS News's reporting on the major trends and stories of 1970, with an emphasis on ecology. Cronkite edited it and provided analysis and commentary. The big four villains of Eye on the World were Dow Chemical, the Florida Power & Light Company, Consolidated Edison, and Chevron Oil Company. (Union Carbide apparently caught a break for longtime sponsorship of CBS's The Twenty-First Century.) Cronkite took aim squarely at corporate polluters. With uncanny prescience, he scolded them for the damage carbon dioxide was causing to the planet's health. Long before Al Gore made "global warming" household words in his 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Cronkite sounded the alarm on the CBS Evening News and in Eye on the World. "Every year American power plants pour more than 800 million tons of carbon dioxide into the skies," Cronkite warned. "Some scientists suspect that carbon dioxide can turn the planet into a kind of greenhouse, sealing in heat so that temperatures gradually rise until the polar icecaps melt and a new deluge covers the lands of the earth."

In 1970 and 1971, Cronkite became personally involved in two save-the-coast conservation initiatives. When an oil slick marred the waters off Edgartown, Mass., he became engaged with the Martha's Vineyard Eco-Action and Catastrophe Committee. While Cronkite himself didn't carry a "Don't Oil Our Ducks" placard, he did run a picture of his young, environmentally minded friends on the Vineyard in Eye on the World, and he helped them raise money. Furthermore, he lent his prestige to a grassroots effort to stop heavy industrial users – such as oil refineries and bulk shipping stations – from damaging coastal areas in Texas, Delaware, and Maryland. Deeply involved with the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund, he grew determined to learn how to identify the numerous species of waterfowl. On a couple of occasions, he described Roger Tory Peterson's Guide to the Birds as his favorite book. Whenever Cronkite went to Austin to visit his daughter Kathy, he brought with him Peterson's Field Guide to Texas and Adjacent States. In 1980, he would get to collaborate with Peterson on the book Save the Birds. Cronkite's message in the manifesto was that if the birds die, we all die.

CBS Evening News won an Emmy Award for its "Can the World Be Saved?" segments. After that, all CBS reporters were anxious for environmental assignments; the airing of occasional "Can the World Be Saved?" segment lasted until 1980. By the 21st century, Earth Day had grown into an unofficial calendar holiday almost like Valentine's Day or Mother's Day. To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the René Dubos Center for Human Environment presented Cronkite with its prestigious Only One Earth Award; his citation touted his promotion of environmental literacy. It was an honor he treasured. At the New York Hilton gala, more than one thousand environmentally minded citizens stood up to toast the man who helped put Earth Day and the New Environmentalism on the TV media map.

For the rest of his life, Cronkite would credit Earthrise, Silent Spring, and The Closing Circle with opening his mind to the planet's peril. But it was sailing at Martha's Vineyard on his yacht Wyntje, a galaxy of stars overhead, that led him to worship God as the master of the universe. "It's about your own relationship with Mother Nature," he said. "At sea you are in league with her. But she's watching you with that cocked eye." When a Texas teenager asked Cronkite in 2000 what was the most significant event of his lifetime, without hesitation he said, "the conquest of space." He added that he still dreamed of walking on the moon for the cosmic experience of seeing Earth, "this little lifeboat, floating out there in space."

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University. Cronkite will be published this May by HarperCollins. Brinkley will speak at BookPeople on Friday, June 8, at 7pm.

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Walter Cronkite, CBS News, Earth Day, green movement, space exploration, NASA, Earthrise, Apollo 8, ecology, UT-Austin, University of Texas

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