The Politician Behind the Performer
An Interview With Walter Cronkite
The truth can be told: some children grow up on mother's milk, building blocks and plastic trucks, or even with other children. I grew up with Walter Cronkite. My formative years were absorbed, not with coloring books and Crazy Cat, but with Saturn B Ones described in melifluous basso, and election nights in enormous studios resembling a Cecil B. DeMille vision of the end of the world. And conventions, where my hero sat serene above the tedium and hubub, reassuring a doubtful nation that democracy needn't be orderly.
Cronkite remains unflappably number one. He is a grey-haired man who looks rather faded in person, running behind schedule in the daily process of assembling a 24 minute melange of the day's news with which to inform the 25 million or so Americans who tune in each weeknight. His hair is askew, his shoulders stooped. It is not yet noon, and you can tell that Walter Cronkite has paid for all those years of busting his ass to be the first wireman with the story, and why he sounds like the voice of time. A couple of inches under six feet tall, with a midsection that suggests a comfortable, if not relaxed, lifestyle, he has survived for an extraordinarily long time by persuading his audience to disassociate him from the bad tidings he constantly bears.
He is not a man comfortable with technology. For someone who mastered with infectious enthusiasm retro rockets and fuel tanks, and could wax positively ecstatic over a million pounds of thrust, he cannot rewind his tape recorder. The mighty fall hard: midway through our interview, which Cronkite said he was taping "for my memoirs," the tape ran out.
"Can you come in and fix this darned thing?" he asked of a secretary outside the office. "One of the nice things," he explained to me, "about growing old and monied is having someone to fix your tapes."
The process of meeting heroes can prove painful. Maybe I caught Walter on an off day.
Q: Are you aware of a power struggle within the news department to succeed you?
A: I wouldn't describe it as a power struggle. I really don't think we operate that way. Obviously, there's an interest among the people who would like to be named; it's a choice spot, quite clearly...I don't see any evidence of any jockeying for the position, anybody pulling any subrosa stuff..
Q: Regarding the Barbara Walters situation, there was a recent quote from Fred Friendly to the effect that he had nothing against Walters, but that ABC should use the money to hire more reporters, that he thought it was a ridiculous expenditure, that essentially no one was worth that amount of money.
A: Well, I'd have to say that people are worth whatever the market demand is. If ABC says she's worth that, she's worth it.
Q: But there is an element of showbiz in that, isn't there?
A: There's no question about that, but we got into show business a long time ago...I get a show business salary...A newspaperman, of whom there are many far more competent than I, doesn't make anything like what I make. So we're just talking about degree...I think that at CBS we put more emphasis on news ability and news background in hiring our people and permitting them an atmosphere in which to develop than others do...but the salaries are still better than what other good newsmen are getting in the print medium.
Q: Presumably the hiring of experienced, professional newspeople did not include Sally Quinn?
A: I didn't follow the Sally Quinn case, quite honestly, too closely. I'll tell you something--I don't read all these things. I really don't. I'm bored by it.
Q: What about the current tendency for journalists to write about other journalists?
A: I find it so tiring. I'm tired of being interviewed--by you, by other people. It's a diversion of time that I'd rather be using for something else. It's part of the damned business of show business and news people are getting into that, like Woodward and Bernstein, for instance. I think we're beginning to examine our own navel to the point where it's getting ridiculous.
Q: Are you aware of a certain school of journalistic thought that contrasts you with Edward R. Murrow and concludes that Murrow was somehow a more cerebral communicator?
A: I think that's probably right. I think he was more cerebral.
Q: What makes Murrow such a giant?
A: Well, the same reason that I'm sort of giant at this time, and I say that only so it doesn't sound like I'm putting down Murrow. I have the advantage of longevity; that's one reason why, it may be the only reason, why I'm talking with you now. And not for any particular accomplishment, but just for this long standard of doing a lot of things. Murrow had the advantage of being a pioneer. Now this should not take away from Murrow; indeed it should add to Murrow's stature because it was Murrow's high standards in hiring during World War II when Mr. Paley said put together a news operation and he hired the right people...he insisted that they get away from the chauvinistic aspects of radio, which wasn't terribly keen on whether the facts were all there.
Q: Was Murrow mistreated by the network in the last years of his life? Robert Metz, in Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, wrote at some length...
A: Which I haven't read.
Q: If you were Harry Reasoner, would you be upset at the way things have been handled with Barbara Walters?
A: I don't know how they've been handled. If you're talking about the publicity. I would have been upset if it had broken without my having any knowledge of it.
Q: Is it safe to assume that ABC will now crank up an enormous publicity barrage before Walters goes on the air?
A: I would think so...
Q: Not unlike what happened to Sally Quinn?
A: Barbara Walters is far more of a known broadcaster than Sally Quinn was. I don't think that any of us doubt that Sally Quinn was badly handled, because the publicity was all built up for an unknown quantity. But you're not doing this with Barbara Walters...presumably she has to win her spurs, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a terrific track record.
Q: You think she's a good journalist?
A: I think she's very good for what she's done so far, what she's been permitted to do so far, and I don't know any reason why those talents can't be diverted. I don't know if she can write her name. I don't really know. But maybe she's not required to.
Q: What about the Dan Schorr situation at CBS? Was that mishandled?
A: Well, in a way...only in the sense that the kind of publicity surrounding it was wrong. I don't know whether you agree with me or not, but the truth of the matter is that there are two Dan Schorr cases. One is the freedom of press issue, and there's no question at all that CBS fully supports Dan Schorr. We're going to go all the way; there's no question he had the right to get the document, that he had the right to publicize the document, as far as we're concerned...our executives...are I gather, prepared to go to jail to protect sources. The second part of the question is Dan's giving it, or selling it, although I don't think that's the big issue, giving it to the Village Voice without having cleared that with CBS. That's a question that CBS has said will be settled after the first; we don't want to confuse the situation.
Q: You don't think there's an issue with the sale of the document to the Village Voice? There was a contribution, I believe...
A: Yeah, well I read all that stuff. I kept up with that one pretty closely because it affects the freedom of the press and ethics and a lot of other things. I don't know fully what the truth of that thing is; I can't make up my mind what the truth is, with the facts I've got, which are none that you don't have. It sounds to me, I think, that the truth is what has been published; Dan didn't really want to cash in on it personally, and on the other hand, didn't see why some publisher should cash in on it.
Q: Do you personally expect Schorr to be back working for CBS at some point in the future?
A: I hope so; I'll certainly put it on that basis. Whether I expect him to or not, I don't know. I think it's 50-50, but for gosh sake, that's a personal opinion. I'm not an executive at CBS, I will not in any way sit on the Dan Schorr case. I was very offended that some columnist...said that if I had lifted my little finger that Dan Schorr would still be working at CBS. Well, he is still working for CBS technically; he's still getting his salary. But that is misreading my role and my power.
Q: Do you read the alternative press? What kind of service does it render?
A: It renders a very good service; I'd like to see more of it. I'm all for advocacy journalism as a counter-influence. I do not believe that it's a substitute for factual, objective journalism...I don't see how it's any substitute at all for that--if you had nothing but advocacy journalism, where would the advocates get the facts with which to advocate? It's a compliment [to conventional journalism] and I'm glad we have it. I think there should be considerable care used by the alternative press to be certain that in advocating they do not go into falsehood.
Q: The alternative press tends to treat issues that the mass media largely ignores...
A: ...the interesting thing with the networks is, of course, that we keep forgetting: this is the first time we've ever had a truly national press...we are in the position here in 24 minutes of covering the world. We can't keep our focus on these things, like gay rights, even though we may be interested in them. I think it's something that should be exposed, that we should be talking about...once every ten months we get a piece on, that some development is prominent enough for us to give it attention. But we can't keep on after that thing.
Q: Is it fair to say that the evening news is but an introduction to the news?
A: It's a guide--a guide to your world that day. We also have the capability of introducing people and places in a form that can't be done by anybody else...this is our particular value. You know who your leaders are, who the opposition is, the people who are affecting your world. And the same thing is true of distant people and places--we know something about Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, we have a feel for Israel and Lebanon that we wouldn't have if television didn't exist. We also have this capacity of commanding the attention of people who do not or cannot read...
Q: Isn't that a source of great power?
A: Oh yes, I think it's the great source of unrest in the cities in the Sixties. We were not intending to be a revolutionary force, it wasn't a goal for us to say let's go out and see if we can get the people to rise against the misery of the inner city. But on the other hand, it did excite increased expectations which are not a direct function of the news but of television generally, and then, in the news, the fact that the people saw that there were people interested in their problems, that they weren't alone...I think these things all helped to sponsor the movement in the streets.
Q: Are you a political neuter? There must be a certain pressure on anyone in your position to obliterate any public partisanship?
A: Yeah, very definitely. And I think it has to be that way. I don't see how I could get out and publicly advocate causes.
Q: Yet you did express reservations about the Vietnam War.
A: Yeah, I have. On freedom of the press issues I speak out--that's on the basis that if we don't, who's going to? On the Vietnam War, that was a conscious decision. There was a feeling on everyone's part that, all right, you're going to lose some credibility and some people are not going to agree with you, but it has come to a time when being, quote, The Most Trusted Man, perhaps you can tell the people, lay it on the line, just how it looks to you.
We were just thinking about doing that at the time that Tet broke, then I came back and did the series which had the effect we thought it would--it had a tremendous impact. The company didn't know that I was going to do that; I'd been kinda for the Vietnam War up to--not '68--it didn't last that long--up to '65, when the buildup took place with the American people not being told the truth. We were being told there was a 165,000 ceiling when I went to Cam Rahn Bay and I saw them building a facility capable of taking a million troops. I knew darn well that it had gone beyond everything that I personally could support. I felt that the people needed to know the truth. But by '68 I did this series, and no doubt that it had an effect, according to those who were around him, on Lyndon Johnson.
Q: Did you admire Lyndon Johnson?
A: Well, admiring Lyndon Johnson was sometimes hard to do...except for that massive mistake in Vietnam and the way he personally handled it--the secrecy, not leveling with the people--it's hard to forgive him for that. If you can get over that hurdle, then I think he's a man of admirable qualities.
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Q: There are rumor that ABC intends to go the route of happy talk, fat salaried show-biz type newsmen.
A: ...If the pressure is there long enough then something might give...I hope not. ABC has held the line very well so far...Everyone of us sitting at the desks out here knows that we could do to double our rating overnight. No problem at all; easier than what we're doing. Costs less and would produce twice as many numbers as what we're doing.
We haven't gone that route--that's responsibility...reflected by management who hasn't put any pressure on us to go that route. Journalism today, newspaper as well as television, is more responsible than it's ever been in our history. With all this examination we're going through today, the soul searching, part of that reflects the responsibility. I can't imagine a newspaper editor of 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, worrying for one goddamned minute what anybody said about his newspaper.
Q: Do you believe The Final Days? Do you have reservations about the journalistic technique used by Woodward and Bernstein?
A: I have reservations, quite severe reservations about their technique. Now these journalists have apparently done a superb job and it's a damned good book, in the sense that nobody yet has contradicted it or even tried...they must have it pinned down very very well. But obviously you're not getting a totally factual report on all these conversations. The problem with this is, if this is successful and we don't raise objections, the next guy to come along and do that may not have anything like that responsibility and then what do we do?
Q: What's the origin of "that's the way it is"?
A: Well, that's kind of a hangover of my being stubborn. I thought when the half hour began that there'd be plenty of time to do a little irony of fate piece at the end of the broadcast...then came the assassinations and the war and to hell with the irony of fate pieces. It just sort of hung on.
Richard Smith '75 is a free-lancer who writes for the Real Paper and will work on The Washington Post this summer.