Walter Cronkite’s last newscast was more than twenty years ago, but he’s still plugged in. Here, the most trusted man in America speaks out on the current state of the media, his new syndicated column, his problem with Bill O’Reilly, and his fresh memories of that November day in 1963.
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THE PRECISE LOCATION OF THE center of the universe shifts from day to day; on September 9, it was the restaurant at the Regency Hotel, on Park Avenue in New York. I’d arranged a breakfast interview there with Walter Cronkite, who grew up in Houston and attended the University of Texas before embarking on a long career in journalism that included nineteen years as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Since his retirement from CBS, in 1981, Cronkite hasn’t been Johnny Carson-invisible, but neither has he been as much in the public eye as he was back in the day, when he was the nation’s best-loved and most trusted broadcast-news personality. Recently, however, he began writing a newspaper column that’s syndicated in one hundred papers nationwide (including some in Texas), which got me thinking: Why would a man of almost 87—he’ll hit that high mark this month—want to wade back into the thick of daily news? Also, with the fortieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination fast approaching, I wanted to hear what he was thinking on that fateful day. And, frankly, I was curious to see if Cronkite still turned heads a full generation after signing off.
I needn’t have wondered. From the moment we sat down, a parade of boldface names approached our table to pay their respects. And given our conversation, the paraders could not have been more apt. As we chewed over the proliferation of talk shows masquerading as something more substantive, up walked CNN’s Larry King, all smiles and frighteningly taut skin. “See you tomorrow,” King barked to Cronkite, who would be his guest the following night.
A little while later, as Cronkite was bemoaning the raised voices on cable-television “news” shows, here came John McLaughlin, the host of The McLaughlin Group, the public-affairs roundtable that elevated shouting to an art form. “How’s Betsy?” McLaughlin bellowed, referring to Cronkite’s wife of 63 years, and then introduced his awestruck dining companion, Seth Waugh, the young, tan CEO of Deutsche Bank.
Finally, after an hour of talking about the media’s declining standards, we were interrupted by the poster child for journalistic impropriety, disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who was with his Beverly Hills book publisher, Michael Viner. “I’m an amazing admirer of your work,” the diminutive, feral-looking Blair told Cronkite, before turning to me and saying, “This must be awkward, my stopping by the table while you’re interviewing Walter Cronkite.” (Actually, I thought, I’ve just won the scene-setting lottery.) Cronkite, as ever, was gracious, shaking Blair’s hand and smiling as he walked off. Only then did he lean over to me and mutter, with a chuckle, “What do you say to that guy? ‘Great work’? ‘Tell me about your journalism career’?”
Although Cronkite’s age shows—he moves around slowly and has trouble hearing and seeing—he’s completely plugged in to the world and eagerly so, in the manner of a reluctant retiree who can’t help but stop by the office every day. That may be the biggest news to report about Walter Cronkite: He’s still feisty, still provocative, still intellectually curious. And that’s the way it is.
You’ve been out of the anchor’s chair for 22 years, and in that time you’ve been like the rest of us—reading and watching and listening to the news for pleasure rather than work. What kind of job do you think the media are doing these days?
I think it’s hard to generalize how the news media are doing. Some are doing very well; some are not doing so well. The major newspapers, I think, are doing quite a good job. There isn’t anything I’d do differently if I were the managing editor of those papers.
Not even at the New York Times, in view of what just happened?
I think they’re doing very well. The Washington Post is also an exceptional paper, and there are others across the country that do a good job. It’s harder for me to make a judgment on the smaller newspapers, because I don’t see them often enough; I don’t see the Austin American-Statesman except for the couple of days a year when I’m visiting Austin. I’ve had somewhat the same problem in judging how broadcast is doing. Even when I’m traveling, I seldom get to see the local broadcast products, and I get a mere glimpse of the evening news or the late-night news. My sense is that the traditional networks are doing about as well as they can do with the time they’re permitted to have. They’re given a half hour for the evening news, which is actually nineteen minutes of news hole. That’s a ridiculously small amount of time to cover a world as complex as ours. I think it’s necessary for the networks to understand that more time is needed. An hour-long evening news program would help a lot.
The local stations would rather run Jeopardy than an extra half hour of news.
Because they see it as an economic necessity to do so. A large part of their revenue comes from those syndicated programs in the early evening. It’s not prime time, but it’s still popular time, and it’s a big moneymaking time.
You don’t consider the network newsmagazines to be a sufficient supplement to the nightly news?
This is where I fault the network ownership more than the news departments. The news departments, I suspect, would like to do serious news in those magazine programs. In my day, we would have given our eyeteeth to get into prime time with news. I tell you, I’d still like to see the networks produce something like Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour in that slot: Having done the headlines at five-thirty, you come back in those magazines and do background and interpretive analysis and discussion. What I see, instead, is an unfortunate concentration of what’s likely to be popular. I predicted this years ago. I said, “There’s going to come a time when entertainment programming slips in the ratings and it’s cheaper to produce news. At that time the news is going to get slots in prime time.” That’s what’s happened. The entertainment programs became so expensive that they put news in there. But they don’t want to interrupt the flow of entertainment by putting on too serious a piece; therefore, we get what we get.
Don’t you think that the networks, as keepers of these broadcast licenses given to them by the public, have a responsibility to give us substance?
Whether the networks could afford to do that, I don’t know. Right now, of course, they’re in a serious competition with the multiplicity of cable channels; they’re in a more competitive situation than they’ve ever been in. To make the judgment that they should tear into their schedules and do what we would like them to do, to do what I think the people need in this country very desperately, would require a real revolution in thinking. But I’d like to see it done.
The cable channels you refer to—not just CNN and FOX but lesser ones like MSNBC and CNBC—are delivering the news to many people. What do you think about them?
I watch the very few that have serious commentators. The shouting matches are not meant to be taken seriously. Perhaps the commentators think they’re being serious, but quite clearly it’s entertainment and should be discounted.
Are there any cable shows that you watch on a regular basis?
Aaron Brown’s. I like his program. He’s an excellent newsman, and when he has a comment to add, it always seems well based and well founded. And he has a good format. I like how he opens by introducing the people he’s going to have on with a little headline and then comes back to them with the formal story. It’s almost a copy of something we did many years ago with the CBS Evening News: We did an introduction of the people who were going to be on that day. I think it’s a great way to get into the broadcast.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the way the news media have covered the Bush administration. Do you think reporters have been gun-shy or too forgiving?
I suppose you could tie it to September 11. It’s part of the quote-unquote patriotism that journalists think is required these days. I see a little fear in their reporting—that by asking tough questions of this administration they’ll be labeled unpatriotic by members of the administration and others who are superpatriots. That, of course, is balderdash. We ought to emphasize more in editorials that opposition to a government’s actions is in no way unpatriotic. It may be more patriotic, actually, than slavishly following the administration.
I’m thinking about how, right after 9/11, the president’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters something to the effect of “Be careful what you write.”
Yes, and we’ve seen it coming from the Defense Department too. Recently, the Secretary of Defense said something like, “We’ve got to be careful of what we say because we may give comfort to the enemy and create an impression that we’re weak and not united.” I don’t doubt that there’s some possibility that that could be true, but we cannot make a decision on that basis to hide the truth from the American people about what’s happening to our troops overseas and our policy in Iraq and so forth.
You’ve covered a lot of presidents. Do you think that the coverage of this president is any different from the coverage of others?
No, I don’t think it’s different from other presidents’. What this president should understand is, we haven’t had a situation as critical to the future of our nation and the world as we have now. There’s never been a time when the world was in such delicate balance, and how much our difficulties today are the responsibility of this president and his policies is something that should be kept under constant assessment. And I do think those policies are being pretty well reported on by the press.
Now, when I talk about the press, I should say that I read the New York Times and the Washington Post regularly. These are probably more liberal than a lot of the papers in the country, so maybe I’m not getting a clear picture of what the rest of the papers are doing. But I also read the Wall Street Journal. I try to balance my reading as much as possible.
You bring up the issue of the Times and the Post being liberal, so let me ask you about bias. There’s been a whole lot of publicity about Al Franken’s book, which attacks FOX News and some of the more conservative members of the media. FOX sued him and lost, which intensified the debate about the political leanings of journalists. Do you believe the press is biased?
In the papers I mentioned, I do not see bias. I think their news columns are as straightforward as you can make them. Their editorial pages are very biased, as they should be. That doesn’t bother me at all.
Let me point out, however, that it depends on how you define “bias.” A newspaper might appear to show bias based on what it decides to cover, but this isn’t bias. It is the editorial direction of the newspaper, and it should be clearly known by the reader. I don’t think the reader buys the Washington Post with an expectation to get the same reporting as the Washington Times and vice versa. The reader of the Wall Street Journal expects the reporting to be biased, if you please, toward the success of capitalism and a favorable performance by the business world. These things are part of journalism.
I want to ask you about FOX specifically. Maybe you see it as similar to the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Times, but there’s been all this talk about how FOX is so biased. And the people who run FOX will say, “We’re just counteracting the liberal bias in the rest of the news business.” What do you make of that?
I was very disturbed at first when FOX came on line saying it was going to be a right-wing news source. Having been a foreign correspondent for a time, I’m familiar with the fact that across the world, most countries have newspapers that are spokespersons for a religion or a political party. They don’t pretend to be impartial. I hated to see that come into practice in American journalism. It seems to me that this threatens to turn journalism into advocacy, and that is dangerous. We may make our mistakes, we may slip a little bit from time to time, but we’re not out-and-out advocates. We provide, as nearly as humans can, an honest attempt at impartiality. If the FOX mode is contagious and somebody else has to come along now and say, “We’re the liberal network,” the dam is weakened and we could get into a situation where you can’t depend on anybody to give you an impartial news report. So this bothered me about FOX.
Now, I don’t watch them that much, quite honestly, but I’ve occasionally turned to them and found they’re doing a pretty good job. If you know what their basic politics are, you can say, “Well, this is a very good explanation of what they think about these things.” So maybe there is some value there.
I saw where Bill O’Reilly, who’s one of the FOX people, read your first couple of columns and jumped on you for announcing that you’re a liberal.
Yeah. O’Reilly said that I was an internationalist! My God, what a terrible thing to be.
What I wonder is, why is it wrong for you to be a liberal in your column but okay for O’Reilly and his friends at FOX to be openly conservative?
That’s the inconsistency you find with the all-out propagandists. I don’t find any reason or rationality in that at all. The O’Reilly attacks on me, I think, are almost a compliment. I like the fact that he feels that I’m important enough and what I say is enticing enough to the populace that he has to attack it.
Do you ever watch his show?
No. I try to avoid it if possible.
I want to ask you about your column. Why did you decide to write one?
Because I was concerned about the way things were going in the world, and I thought maybe, in a terribly egotistical flash, I had something to say that might be of some help. But I’ll tell you, the column, as it turns out, is a physical hardship. I read the papers, but the reading now is much more time-consuming. My eyesight is an old man’s eyesight. After two or three hours of newspaper scanning and trying to get stuff off the Internet in that small type, my eyes are tired. And my hearing is very bad; that’s a handicap in getting on the phone with a source.
Why, after so many years of perceived neutrality, was it necessary to attach an ideological label to yourself?
Because this column of mine was going to be from a liberal standpoint, and I thought it was fair to let people know. I regret the fact that I’ve lost perhaps millions of loyal followers by telling them that. But during all those years of doing the evening news, and at UPI before that, I was always the newsman, not the commentator. I didn’t do analysis or commentary. Eric Sevareid played that role for us; I was playing a different role. With this column, I’m an advocate. I’m a critic. As such, I thought people ought to know whence I come. I also took the opportunity to define what I think a liberal is. A liberal is not necessarily a leftist; a liberal is someone who sees both sides of an issue, makes up his or her mind on the basis of facts, and is not beholden to a philosophy or political party.
In the last couple of minutes we have, let’s talk about the Kennedy assassination. Does it seem like forty years ago? How clear are your memories of that day?
About as clear as my memories of anything in my past. It was a day that left an impression almost minute by minute. There was no day like it in my reporting on the air—nothing even close to it as a dramatic story to be told and, at the same time, as one that hit close to home in our psyche and sympathy for the situation. A lot of that, I think, was his popularity, but his youth was one of the reasons it made such an impact. The thought of the years of service he could have rendered to us—to be cut short in this ridiculous way . . .
People so clearly remember you on the air reporting the news that day. What was going through your mind as you were sitting there? How hard was it to balance your role as a journalist and your status as an American citizen?
Journalists function like others who have a major role to play in a tragedy: the police, the medical people, the firemen. We’re busy doing our jobs, and a form of professionalism kicks in throughout—the need for us to be on duty. In recent years psychiatrists have determined that these emergency workers experience a definite trauma in the aftermath. They’re deep in blood, tragedy, and horror for a number of hours, but only when they get off duty does the impact hit, because they’ve been so busy concentrating on what they have to do. That, I think, was exactly what happened to me. Not until I finally got home much later, as I was having a sleepless night, as tired as I was, did I think about the horror of the situation. It had an impact. It still does today. I can get tearful when I discuss it. As I am right now, thinking of it again.