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The Way It Was for Cronkite's Strike Sub

11/16/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

So far, the WGA skirmish has had a discordant impact on television. But in 1967, when the industry was a three-network town, a strike by the America Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represented on-air talent, dealt an immediate, all-too-visible blow.

No Johnny Carson live (he was in reruns). No soap operas…and no Walter Cronkite.

Enter Arnold Zenker.

Zenker does not want to be known as the man who sat in for the most trusted man in America, anchoring the CBS Evening News for 13 days, but the brief chapter remains the pivot point of his biography, and his name has popped up again as the WGA work stoppage is taking the industry on another white-knuckle ride.

Zenker, then a 28-year-old University of Pennsylvania law school grad, had come to CBS News in 1965 after three years at ABC News, working in labor relations. He had recently been promoted to the “lower ranks of upper management,” as he describes his ascent at CBS News. As a strike loomed, Zenker's considerable news radio experience throughout college and beyond (he was moonlighting for a New Jersey radio station under a pseudonym while he was working at CBS) made him a more than viable fill-in candidate—for, say, the network's morning show.

But Zenker was awakened from a nap one afternoon—he had been rising at 4 a.m. to get ready for his morning job—by a producer for the Evening News who informed him that he'd been tapped, incredibly, for Cronkite's chair.

“I didn't lack self-confidence in those days,” he says. “Clearly I was not a seasoned news guy, but when I looked at that tape years later, I looked like a kid, but I sounded like a professional anchorman. I knew how to play the anchorman.”

Zenker's adequate delivery prompted a sigh of relief from the suits at the house that Edward R. Murrow built. But the subsequent publicity about a no-name kid plucked from the business office to fill in for Uncle Walter—where, in a great twist, he brought in competitive ratings—invited a heaping case of agita.

“There was much upset within the ranks of CBS News,” explains Zenker. “The New Yorker wrote an article that said, 'Gee, it turns out the news as read by this guy Mr. Zenker sounds pretty much like the news as read by Mr. Cronkite.'”

That's when Jimmy Breslin called. Zenker informed the Newsday columnist that he was no longer allowed to talk to the media.

“And Breslin said, 'What *&%$ made that decision?!'”

Breslin's resulting story (featuring an interview with Zenker's mom and dad) opened with an anecdote about onetime Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp who, according to popular lore, sat out a game with a headache, only to be replaced—for the next 2,130 games—by a kid named Lou Gehrig.

The strike—and Zenker's spotlight moment—ended in less than two weeks. There was a mini-groundswell of support. “Bring Back Zenker” buttons even circulated for a while.

“But news then was not news today,” he explains. “These guys took news seriously. They took themselves seriously. After all, they were Murrow's boys, so they were not happy that this kid could be accepted by the public the way Walter Cronkite was.”

Zenker is careful to add that there is no way of knowing if the public would have taken to him over the long term. And we'll never know.

He left CBS two months later. After anchoring at local stations in Boston and Baltimore, he grew tired of the precariousness of the business.

“The difficulty of being an on-air personality is that you live by ratings,” he says.

In 1974, Zenker opened a TV consulting and crisis management firm. In effect, he has taught the uninitiated, including politicians, what not to do on camera. At first, he used tape of an outtake of Cronkite to help illustrate some of these less-refined points—until he got a very angry “cease and desist” demand from CBS News.

“They were very protective of Cronkite and of that image,” he says.

Zenker's image, meanwhile, may one day be the stuff of Hollywood treatment. Not yet, though. He was recently contacted by a couple of screenwriters who thought his life would make a good movie.

“They sent me what's called a life rights agreement,” he says, “but of course, everything's on hold now with the WGA strike.”

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