Television news might seem polished and unspontaneous now but back in 1973 (yes they had TV then) a gay activist snuck into The CBS Evening News and interrupted Walter Cronkite’s live broadcast, waving a banner that read “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice” before a viewing audience of some 60 million Americans.
While the story is known to followers of gay history, author Doug Brinkley reveals new details in his current best-seller Cronkite.
On December 11, 1973 Mark Segal—now the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News but then a 23-year-old member of the Gay Raiders—finagled his way into CBS News studios in New York with a cover story of being a student journalist.
As Walter Cronkrite read a story about in the Middle East, Segal leaped in front of the camera with his sign, forcing the network feed to go black for several seconds. Technicians tackled Segal and wrapped him in cable wire while they waited for the police.
When the cameras came back on. an unfazed Cronkite told viewers what had happened:”The young man identified as a member of something called the Gay Raiders, an organization protesting alleged defamation of homosexuals on entertainment programs.”
If you think television doesn’t do the LGBT community justice now, just imagine how it treated us 40 years ago. As Brinkley writes, “Television —both news and entertainment divisions—treated gay people as pariahs, lepers from Sodom and Gomorrah. It stereotyped them as suicidal nut jobs, flaming fairies and psychopathic villains.”
Segal and his accomplice were charged with trespassing and, amazingly enough, Cronkite gladly accepted his subpoena to testify about the incident.
If you didn’t live through his tenure, Walter Cronkite was long considered “the Most Trusted Man in America,” a journalist whose integrity was unimpeachable. This reputation is underscored in a story Segal told Brinkley about his trial.
When the court recessed to cue up a tape of Segal’s disruption of the Evening News, Segal felt a tap on his back – it was Cronkite, holding a fresh pad of yellow-lined paper, ready to take notes with a sharp pencil.
“Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “did you do that?”
“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. ”If I can prove it, would you do something to change it?” Segal went off to rattle off three specific examples of CBS Evening News censorship, including a CBS report on the second rejection of new York City Council gay rights bill.
“Yes, Cronkite said. “I wrote that story myself.”
“Well, why haven’t you reported on the twenty-three cities that have passed gay rights bills?” Segal asked. “Why do you cover five thousand women walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City when they proclaim International Women’s Day on the network news, and you don’t cover fifty thousand gays and lesbians walking down that same avenue proclaiming Gay Pride Day? That’s censorship.”
Segal’s argument impressed Cronkite. The logic was difficult to deny. Why hadn’t CBS News covered the gay pride parade? Was it indeed being homophobic? Why had the network largely avoided coverage of the Stonewall riots of 1969? At the end of the trial, Segal was fined $450, deeming the penalty “the happiest check I ever wrote.” Not only did the activist receive considerable media attention, but Cronkite asked to meet privately with him to better understand how CBS might cover gay pride events. Cronkite, moreover, even went so far as to introduce Segal as a “constructive viewer” to top brass at CBS. It had a telling effect. “Walter Cronkite was my friend and mentor,” Segal recalled. “After that incident, CBS News agreed to look into the ‘possibility’ that they were censoring or had a bias in reporting news. Walter showed a map on the Evening News of the U.S. and pointed out cities that had passed gay rights legislation. Network news wa never the same after that.”
Before long, Cronkite ran gay rights segments on the CBS News broadcast with almost drumbeat regularity. “Part of the new morality of the ’60s and 70s is a new attitude toward homosexuality,” he told millions of viewers. “The homosexual men and women have organized to fight for acceptance and respectability. They’ve succeeded in winning equal rights under the law in many communities. But in the nation’s biggest city, the fight goes on.”
Not only did Cronkite speak out about gay rights, but he also became a reliable friend to the LGBTQ community. To gays, he was the counterweight to Anita Bryant, a leading gay rights opponent in the 1970s: he was a heterosexual willing to grant homosexuals their liberties.
During the 1980s, Cronkite criticized the Reagan administration for its handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and later criticized President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the military. When Cronkite did an eight-part TV documentary about his storied CBS career – Cronkite Remembers – he boasted about being a champion of LGBTQ issues. And he ended up hosting a huge AIDS benfit in Philadelphia organized by Segal, with singer Elton John as headliner.
And that’s the way it was.
Photos: CBS, NASA/Bill Ingalls