Sandy Socolow, News Producer for Walter Cronkite, Dies at 86

During his tenure, Socolow wrote and vetted nearly everything written and uttered by the news anchor.

Sandy Socolow, a CBS News producer and executive who helped shape how Americans understood events such as the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the moon landing during his decades-long partnership with the anchor Walter Cronkite, died Jan. 31 at a hospital in New York. He was 86.

The cause was complications from cancer, said a son, Jonathan Socolow.

Like Cronkite, Socolow was a wire service reporter overseas before switching mediums in the formative years of TV news. They bonded over that shared background after Socolow joined CBS News in 1956 as a writer.

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Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, becoming known as the most trusted man in the country and making his program the most-viewed nightly news show in the United States. Socolow's title in the 1960s and early 1970s was producer, an industry term that did not fully convey his influence as the man who vetted nearly everything written and uttered by the host.

Broadcast journalist Roger Mudd once described Socolow as "Cronkite's closest CBS friend and editorial confidant" and a man whose "intimate familiarity with newsroom politics, his connections with Cronkite and his all-encompassing skills as a producer made him a man of noteworthy value."

In an interview, Morley Safer, a correspondent for CBS Evening News and later for 60 Minutes, said Socolow was a demanding editor "who had no problem telling Cronkite what was right and what was wrong. Walter really trusted him. Sandy had good judgment and kept Walter walking a straight line."

Working on the evening newscast, Socolow became an advocate for forceful Vietnam War coverage as U.S. involvement deepened. One of the most startling broadcasts aired Aug. 5, 1965 — a report by Safer from the village of Cam Ne.

The segment showed U.S. Marines torching dozens of thatched huts in a community that was said to have aided the enemy Vietcong. Viewers saw villagers pleading and wailing. No one in the platoon spoke Vietnamese.

"This is what the war in Vietnam is all about," Safer said on camera, adding that the toll was one baby dead, three women wounded, one Marine injured and four prisoners taken — "four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English."

The coverage, which defied the upbeat assessment of the war presented by Defense Department officials on Sunday morning public-affairs programs, caused a backlash in the highest levels of government. President Lyndon Johnson unleashed a torrent of obscenities at the CBS president and vilified Safer as a communist.

"Safer's film not only helped legitimize pessimistic reporting by all other television correspondents," journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote, "it prepared the way for a different perception of the war among Americans at large."

Socolow oversaw Cronkite's opinion piece on Vietnam in 1968 — in which the anchor described a war "mired in stalemate" — and special report on astronaut Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon in 1969.

In 1971, Socolow was elevated in the CBS hierarchy to vice president, deputy news director and executive editor of CBS News in New York. His portfolio included daily supervision of all hard-news operations, but his major focus remained Cronkite's evening news show, which in 1972 conducted a two-part broadcast on the Watergate burglary and coverup that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.

Socolow was Washington bureau chief for CBS from 1974 to 1978, followed by three years as executive producer of CBS Evening News under Cronkite and then briefly under his successor, Dan Rather. Socolow later was bureau chief in London and a producer for "60 Minutes" before taking a CBS buyout in 1988.

He worked on a news broadcast for the Discovery Channel before reteaming with Cronkite in 1993 at the news anchor's production company.

Saint Socolow was born in the Bronx on Nov. 11, 1928, to Jewish immigrant parents; he later went by Sanford or Sandy. He graduated in 1950 from the City College of New York, where he was top editor of the student newspaper and a campus stringer for the New York Times.

During the Korean War, he served in the Army, completed Officer Candidate School and was assigned to a broadcasting unit in Japan and South Korea. After his discharge, he began working for the old International News Service in Tokyo.

His marriage to Anne Krulewitch ended in divorce. Survivors include three children, Jonathan Socolow of Manhattan, Michael Socolow of Bangor, Maine, and Elisabeth Socolow, a Foreign Service officer in Malaysia; a brother; and four grandsons.

At Cronkite's funeral in 2009, Socolow revealed that the broadcaster who "had this reputation for being cool and calm and collected" was at times less than polished. He blanked on his own name at the end of one broadcast. He had trouble pronouncing "February," leading to viewer complaints. "It got to the point," Socolow said, "where we would rehearse him for about the last week in January about how you said it."

The evening newscast is one of the most precisely choreographed shows on TV. Yet, Socolow said, Cronkite "had this bizarre idea that he would ad-lib the newscast without a script." When he wanted the control room to roll film — to show footage from the field — he would signal by brushing his nose with his hand.

"It was utter chaos," Socolow said. "It lasted for two days."