by Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1996
Photographs courtesy of CBS Inc./The Cronkite Unit, New York
When man landed on the moon, when President Kennedy was assassinated, when Watergate was brought to light, and when the Vietnam war was raging, Walter Cronkite was the first to tell the American people.
For 60 years, the last 45 affiliated with CBS News, Cronkite delivered the world's most important news events with clarity, objectivity, and authority. And though Cronkite left his anchor position in 1981, independent polls over the last three decades, one as recent as 1995, have established Cronkite as one of the most trusted men in America. In 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978, U.S. News and World Report surveys voted Cronkite among the top 10 "most influential decision-makers in America."
He has interviewed most major heads of state, including all U.S. presidents since Harry Truman, and has broadcast special reports on such topics as the legacy of Hiroshima, terrorism, the arms race, public education, the fortieth anniversaries of D-Day and V-E Day.
Most recently, Cronkite, affectionately nicknamed "Old Iron Pants" for his unflappability under pressure, has recorded the many significant events of his distinguished career in his autobiography, A Reporter's Life (Knopf, 1996). Hundreds of anecdotes, many humorous, illustrate how remarkable Cronkite's life has been. One such story places Cronkite in Europe as a World War II correspondent. Finishing up an article on a new artillery tactic that enables the destruction of an entire village in one blow, Cronkite gets a demonstration. As requested, he randomly chooses a target town from the sector map. While still chatting with the colonel in charge, a huge explosion emanates from the countryside. Cronkite is disturbed by the violence of the "demonstration." The Colonel remarks, "Don't worry about it. You picked a good target. We've had our eye on it for a while."
Cronkite recollects stories about his car-racing days and how the loss of time with his family convinced him to turn to sailing, a more family-oriented pleasure. To this day, sailing is one of Cronkite's greatest loves, and in addition to many spectacular adventures, he's written three books on his experiences.
Cronkite, 80, lives in Manhattan with Betsy, his wife of 56 years. They have three children and four grandchildren.
Cronkite's professionalism set a standard of ethics recognized the world over. In this interview with Grand Times, he talks about his life and his views on news reporting.
And that's the way it is.
GT: What compelled you to write your autobiography?
WC: I was compelled by a friend who was a publisher, 25 or 30 years ago. He kept nagging me to write my memoirs, before I had much really. And I got so tired of his nagging, I promised him that if I ever wrote an autobiography, he could have it if he promised that he would never mention it to me again. That was an actual written deal we made. And it took me another 25 years to finally deliver it to Knopf. It wasn't any compulsion, except that a lot of people said there would be an interest in my background and experiences that have not been revealed on the air.
GT: As you wrote your autobiography, did you come across anything that surprised you about your life?
WC: [chuckles] No, I can't say there have been any surprises [laughs again]. I can't say there's been much examination of my navel, to tell you the truth. It's mostly a recitation of events and what I thought about them at the time.
GT: In a 1973 interview with Playboy magazine, you said your father was basically set in his ways, "as older people are inclined to be." Do you feel you've become set in your ways as you age?
WC: I suppose I am, but I really don't recognize it most of the time. I think that's probably true of all of us. My ways, however, are pretty flexible. So being set in my own flexibility probably isn't quite as apparent as some, more conservative old-age views might be.
GT: Has your age influenced the news subjects that interest you?
WC: I'm not as interested in a lot of current things. I'm not particularly interested in modern music, rock and roll, and the hard rock stuff. I find I'm a little disappointed in the modernization of some of the magazines I used to like. I abhor the violence in movies.
GT: What are some of the things that give you the greatest pleasure outside of work?
WC: I suppose my children; my grandchildren are the high points of pleasure. I enjoy the usual things- the theater, relaxation, my tennis games, sailing.
GT: Tell me about your sailing trips.
WC: They're kind of the middle-area sailing trips. I don't go transoceanic. But we do a lot of offshore sailing. Sailing the boat down to the Caribbean in the winter and back in the spring. In the summertime we sail off of our home in Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and around the northeastern part of the United States, which is very challenging sailing. I have a group of friends with whom I sail-mostly pirates out of Annapolis.
GT: Of the news events that you covered, which one had the most impact on you?
WC: Of course you're asking a news veteran of WWII [laughs], and a major world conflagration of that kind has a way of making a tremendous impact. In the television era, probably the two biggest stories were the assassination of President Kennedy and the moon landing. They were exceptional beyond comparison. The covering of the Watergate affair-we had an instrumental part to play in the trial coverage of that at CBS Evening News. And likewise, we were instrumental in bringing Sadat and Begin together. Those were the big stories that carry the heaviest memories.
GT: Which one had a personal impact on you, changed your life in some way, or changed your outlook on the world?
WC: Actually, the whole period of the '60s changed a lot of us; there was never a decade like that in American history. The Vietnam carnage and the problems there. The assassinations, the story with Medgar Evers, the President, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights struggle...all of that in the same decade. And then to have the decade capture one of the great accomplishments of this century: man landing on the moon. That will be the one event of the 20th century, despite all the other great scientific and technological innovations and inventions that came down the line, that will live in history 500 years from now.
GT: I heard that was the one time that you were speechless on the air. Is that true?
WC: Yes, I've said that I had as much time to prepare for that moon landing as NASA did, and I still was speechless when it happened. It just was so awe-inspiring to actually be able to see the thing through the television‹that was a miracle in itself. And the successful landing...all I could say was, "Oh, boy...Whoo."
GT: Did you ever worry about reporting stories that cast a negative light on the network's advertisers or the network's ownership?
WC: No. We never had to worry about that at all. I can say that with one very small exception, in the entire 20 years I did the CBS Evening News, never once, never once, was an advertiser's consideration, or any other consideration‹political or commercial‹ever expressed to me, to suggest that I do something or not do something on the air.
GT: Journalism is presented as being objective, but some feel it's just veiled in a cloak of impartiality, and really has a hidden agenda. Do you think we're better off receiving news that's openly subjective so we can at least evaluate its credibility?
WC: No [with emphasis]. No, I don't believe that at all. We certainly have subjective columns and editorials. And what we have lost in most newspapers today, and in broadcasting and television, is the editor's column. The editor and publisher, in the old days, had a column which expressed his or her opinion of affairs. But now we've got the OpEd pages, which are serving the same function and in many ways better, because they express a variety of opinions. That's all for the good.
For the news columns themselves, they certainly should be objective and not subjective. Ten or 15 years ago there was much talk of the new journalism. The philosophy was that since nobody could be 100 percent objective, no one should even try to be objective. And we should all be subjective and tell how stories appear to us, how they affect us personally. That's a bunch of balderdash, and it faded out pretty quickly because it was obviously ridiculous. We must be given the facts so we can make our own judgments, and these facts should not be colored by people's personal opinions.
GT: But don't you think that journalists' personal opinions do come into play?
WC: The mark of a professional journalist is that we do adhere to an ethic. A professional journalist recognizes his or her prejudices and biases and avoids them in writing and reporting. There's no place in journalism for biased reporting on the front page. There is no place for subjective, personal opinions to creep in.
GT: Again, in that 1973 interview with Playboy, you talked about the Nixon Administration's attack on the press and ended by saying, "In time, I think there'll be a new tolerance, and with it will come a strong resistance to all of these pressures against our liberty." Do you think we have shown that resistance?
WC: We have never experienced from the White House the kind of conspiracy that Nixon indulged in, in the attacks on the press. That all came out in the tapes eventually. The organized attacks, the organized attempts to decrease the press's importance, particularly of broadcasters. The fact that they appointed Vice President Agnew to lead that charge, their definite attempt to separate the local stations from the networks, to try to persuade the local stations not to carry the network news-this was a real know-nothing approach to the fact that the President felt he wasn't being treated fairly. That sort of thing will rise from time to time. I don't think there's very much chance of an organized attempt like that to decrease the press's acceptability. But nobody who's in the news ever feels they're treated fairly. Anybody who comes into the public eye would like to be able to write the stories themselves.
GT: What do you think of newscasters becoming pitchmen for their own news magazine shows‹promoting the upcoming show, between commercials breaks, and the sensationalism of the shows themselves?
WC: Well, I don't care for sensationalization in any of this, and it bothers me a great deal about the press generally today. Seems as if we got a case of the bad driving out the good. The frightful tabloid shows, in both broadcast and in print, there's too much of that and there's too much influence from that in the ratings and circulation battles. But I'm not bothered too much by their pitching a show they're coming up on. That's probably the least of all the worries we have about their performance.
GT: What would be the worst of your worries?
WC: The worst is the waste of time on the news broadcast. With 23 minutes or so in a half-hour broadcast of the entire world, and a very complicated nation to cover, I don't think they should be taking so much time for the feature stories. Back-of-the-book-type things, beauty and health, and then our pocketbook. Those things belong on another broadcast, not on the news.
GT: What's the most striking difference in how the news is presented today, versus how it was presented 20 to 30 years ago?
WC: Twenty years ago, each of the networks had only two other competitors. There was just three of us out there, sharing the entire pie of public viewing. Today, they've got this tremendous pressure of all the cable outlets and independent stations-the satellites competing with the network stations-and other sources of diversion other than watching the evening news, so that the rating's game has become much more critical than it was before.
Meanwhile, the tabloid shows have come along, and they have an appeal to the general population. So the entire approach has been to lower the standards to the lowest common denominator among the viewership. That's unfortunate. There also has been the attempt to capture people's interests by these [programs] other than the daily news. I'm talking again about the health and economic reports, that sort of thing.
GT: With coverage of an umpire getting spat on by a baseball hero, and philandering politicians, do you think Americans still care about the character of its heroes and leaders? WC: It looks to me like there's been a huge relaxation in the public attitude toward character. It really is a mark of a breakdown in our society, and we see it everywhere we look, not just among the heroes. It's among our neighbors and ourselves. We just don't seem to maintain the same standards that we once thought were the base of our ethical behavior.
GT: Don't you think the news, to some extent, has been responsible for showing people's weaknesses and flaws?
WC: Sure, it should be responsible. That's part of the social fabric; we should be reporting the problem.
GT: But that, at the same time, has created a kind of cynicism in people.
WC: Well, that's up to the people, that's not up to the press to try to prevent or even to try to ameliorate in any way. The press should be holding up a mirror. We should say, "Look, this is what you look like. Here's what you are." If you don't like what you are, if you don't like what you look like, do something about it. But that's not the press's responsibility.
GT: How do you want to be remembered?
WC: [laughs] Oh, as a fellow who did his best. I'd like to be remembered as a person who tried to give the news as impartially, as factually, as possible, and succeeded most of the time.
GT: Given that people think of you as America's most trusted man, I think you've accomplished that!