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Walter Cronkite's Begin-Sadat diplomacy a tribute to golden age of TV

In this screen shot, Walter Cronkite is seen on the CBS evening news television broadcast from New York City, with the graphic title for the show May, 24, 1978.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Cronkite hosted a 'dual' interview of Sadat and Begin which helped seal the Egyptian leader's visit to Israel

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977 was a monumental occasion beamed straight into millions of homes around the world on Israeli, Egyptian, and American television networks.

Along with the inspiring images of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin greeting Sadat on the tarmac at Lod Airport, and the Egyptian leader's dramatic speech at the Knesset, another, now somewhat overlooked, highlight for American viewers came just days before the visit took place.

On November 14, iconic CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite hosted a 'dual' interview of Sadat and Begin which seemed to seal the deal for bringing the Egyptian leader to Jerusalem.

The reality, as we now know, was more complex. But it is worth looking back at what was at the time rightly seen as an unprecedented feat of broadcast journalism -- to both understand its true role, and to examine what it says about the changes in media since what increasingly seems to have been the glory days of broadcast journalism.

Moshe Milner (Government Press Office)

The ball got rolling with Sadat's November 9 speech to the Egyptian People's Assembly, where he declared that for the sake of peace he was "prepared to go to the ends of the earth -- and Israel will be surprised to hear me tell you: I am ready to go to their home, to their Knesset itself.''

As Cronkite recalled it, he then instructed his CBS producers to arrange as soon as possible an interview with Sadat via satellite hook-up, in order to gauge the seriousness of his intentions. During the taping of the interview, pressed by the legendary anchorman, Sadat declared he was ready to visit Israel that very week, and was ``just waiting for the proper invitation.''

As soon as the taping wrapped up, Cronkite put in an immediate request to Begin -- would he deliver a reply to Sadat on air that very day?

The Israeli prime minister complied just hours later.

"Any time he [Sadat] is prepared to come, I will receive him cordially at the airport, go together with him to Jerusalem, also present him to the Knesset and let him make a speech to our parliament,'' Begin told Cronkite.

The newsman later presented parts of the separately taped interviews that night on the CBS Evening News on a simultaneous split-screen, making it appear as if the two leaders, who had never communicated directly, were speaking to each other.

AP Photo

To viewers, it seemed that Cronkite had engineered a tremendous diplomatic breakthrough, and six days later Sadat was touching down in Israel. Newsweek hailed Cronkite's Sadat-Begin interviews as the "most dramatic cross-coupling ever between mass media and the secret world of diplomacy,'' and New York Times columnist Walter Safire dubbed it "Cronkite diplomacy."

The real story was not quite that simple. Israel and Egypt had in fact engaged in months of secret diplomacy in the lead-up to the visit, with Sadat and Begin exchanging messages via such intermediaries as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Morocco's King Hassan II.

Still, the Cronkite interviews were the first time both leaders publicly committed to holding the visit as soon as possible, and it is likely those declarations seen by millions of viewers helped light a fire under their governments to get it done with lightning speed as compared to the often glacial pace of international diplomacy.

Today's Cronkite?

It is unlikely that something comparable to "Cronkite diplomacy" could happen today.

In today's fractured media landscape there is no comparable figure of on-air authority and respect to "Uncle Walter," the veteran star anchor of what was then a much more concentrated broadcast news field, with a storied reporting career stretching back to his days as a front-line correspondent in Europe during the Second World War.

AP Photo

Indeed, so devalued has become the once-vaunted position of anchor's chair in the American broadcast channels nightly news shows held by the storied likes of Cronkite, David Brinkley, and Barbara Walters, that the recent changing of the anchor's guard at CBS from Scott Pelley to Anthony Mason generated little media attention.

And even if there were Cronkite-like figures on today's media scene, would world leaders divided by geopolitics even need them to serve as their conduits, as Sadat and Begin once did? Thanks to social media they would more likely be able to exchange their public messages via Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp, than through TV interviews.

Maybe, then, something has been lost by not having an impartial and prudent media intermediary at hand to serve that role as Cronkite did for Begin and Sadat.

As current events show, the use of social media doesn't quite bring out the best in world leaders, with Twitter's most notable contribution so far to international diplomacy consisting of the US President Donald Trump referring to the leader of North Korea as "short and fat."

Perhaps the lesson of Walter Cronkite's role in the Sadat visit could be that sometimes, one newsman of character, is more useful than even 140 (or 280) characters on Twitter.

Calev Ben-David is co-anchor of i24NEWS' 'The Rundown'

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