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