- Some highlights from this interview
- How much power did he personally have to shape public opinion?
- Making the decision about what to cover on the broadcast
- Should the press be adversarial?
After years of reporting for the United Press wire service, Cronkite moved to CBS News, where he anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 29, 2006.
I want to take you back to the '60s, ... and let me quote something you wrote: "The Nixon administration policy related to the press was based on a simple formula. If you could bring down the press's credibility, it might improve his credibility." What was that like ... when you heard the attack from the Nixon administration?
Oh, I don't know. I don't think that it sent any of us crying out of the room exactly. We expected it. Very shortly after he began to attack the press, we understood that that was a certain attitude that the man had toward the press. The fact that he would occasionally make us the target, make me the target, was not bothersome. ... That's the way he's going to react to almost anything we do. We're not going to satisfy him, and that wasn't our job, to satisfy him.
That's one of the things that must be kept in mind, that we have no obligation to our subjects, particularly political subjects, who are going to use whatever they can get hold of to further their own cause of getting re-elected. No matter what their job, whether just as a president being re-elected or a congressman or a city councilman, they all work on the same principle. The principle is that if they feel they're in any way being offended by the press and embarrassed by the press, they're going to retort, come back at you. That's their defense mode. So we live that way. Yeah, that's the business.
You weren't surprised when [Vice President Spiro] Agnew gave his speech about the Eastern liberal press and the unelected elite -- of which you were a prominent member, in his view -- that stood in the way of the president talking directly to the public?
Oh, no. I wouldn't even call it a surprise. It was a development in our relationship that was one more chapter was all. The very first time a politician puts you in his target is sometimes a disappointment, because perhaps you thought you were friends and getting along well. ... But it is not something that you dwelled on. At least I did not. ...
“We have no obligation to our subjects, particularly political subjects who are going to use whatever they can get hold of to further their own cause of getting re-elected.”
We interviewed [commentator] Pat Buchanan yesterday, and he says that this was part of a tactic or strategy on the part of the Nixon administration, himself included, to identify this elite, as he put it, and that because they did this, they had a great popular reaction, developing their silent majority, if you will, against people like you. So you were a political factor.
Yeah. Well, we recognized that. We lived with that. I'm not surprised that you now tell me that that's what he said, or they said, or you've accumulated in your research. It's been going on since the very beginning of politics as far as I know, at least since the days of television, where we are a little more targets than a byline in the newspapers. The fact that we're out there in the public even as they are, there is more of a competitive atmosphere with television. We know each other's faces. They are therefore more inclined to believe that we are in the same field together, that we are part of a political world. And I guess we are. ...
It reminds me of that confrontation between Nixon and Dan Rather, where Nixon said to Rather, "Are you running for office?"
Yeah, sure. And Rather answers back: "No. Are you?" Yeah. That is a little bit sharper than most television journalists would play with a politician, an officeholder. I think that that was a little disrespectful. He's the president of the United States. ... That hit me the wrong way at that moment. ... I felt that Rather was lowering himself in doing that, in trying to bandy around with the president of the United States. It seemed to be a little out of step.
... Pat Buchanan would say that back in those days, when there were three networks and you dominated the news, you were in a sense a monopoly. And for people getting information, ... the problem, from his point of view, was your bias, -- that you're a liberal. ... Are you biased?
I'm a liberal, but I'm not biased. Seriously. ... A journalist covering politics, most of us are aware of the necessity to try to be sure we're unbiased in our reporting. That's one of the fundamentals of good journalism. We all have our likes and our dislikes. But ... when we're doing news -- when we're doing the front-page news, not the back page, not the op-ed pages, but when we're doing the daily news, covering politics -- it is our duty to be sure that we do not permit our prejudices to show. That is simply basic journalism.
You felt it necessary apparently back then in 1969, ... after Agnew's speeches, to publicly reply. Apparently you went to St. Joseph, Mo. That's where you were born, St. Joe?
Why did you do that? Do you remember?
Yes. I had decided at that time that it was time for us not to answer on air, but to demonstrate nearly as we could and to explain as nearly as we could how journalism works, how we work in a given environment: a political convention, election. That is not the way [Sen. Barry] Goldwater [R-Ariz.] thought it was done and preferred to have the people believe it is done. ... I thought we should try to educate the public as much as we could as to Agnew's attacks upon us.
There's no reason why we should remain silent when we are under such attack. We can't use our own reporting to do it. ... I did not feel we could do it on our own program. We later on got to the point where we were doing some pieces in retort, but that was ... at [a] later stage. ...
We may have our own prejudices, but we are not permitted to use them in a news broadcast. We might do it in an editorial piece somewhere, if you have that privilege. ... But most of us didn't have that opportunity. Those of us doing news broadcast did not have our own little editorial niches. ...
When you see what happened back then with Nixon and that confrontation with the press, and you see what's happening today with the Bush administration and the press and the way in which the press is characterized, ... what do you think?
I think that there has been little change there. I think, however, in the present situation, that White House is so buttoned up, so lacking in associating with the press really, that the press itself, ... [the print press] who cover the White House, are embittered by the fact they're kept so distant from the people of authority, that they aren't answering back. ...
Let me take you back again to the Nixon era. In those days, like when you were covering Watergate, apparently you would get phone calls from the White House, complaining about your coverage. And [President Lyndon] Johnson had complained.
Johnson complained. He was on the phone before I was off the broadcast insisting that they put the telephone line through to [me]. Our poor secretaries in the news area. We'd get these calls from the White House, and he'd say, "I want to talk to Cronkite," and they'd say, "Well, he's on the air." He'd say, "I know he's on the air, but put him on the air with me." They had a hard time keeping him off the air for a few more minutes until we were off the air. Then I would take his calls, of course, and he would complain about something we had on that day.
And I understood you got calls from [Chief Counsel to President Nixon] Charles Colson and other people in the Nixon White House.
Oh, yeah, those as well. However, they more frequently called the heads of our network, ... and not the news department.
Did [the network head] protect you?
I wouldn't say protected us. He would get back to us and say, "They didn't like something," but he never said, "Don't ever do that again." ... He just relayed their complaints. ...
So it sounds to me that as Lyndon Johnson was calling you directly, the White House was calling you under Nixon, ... their criticism was that they couldn't get their message without alteration, without interpretation, to the American people, because you and your colleagues ... would comment on speeches or, in a sense, be a filter between them and the American people.
Well, of course that was a highly limited situation. The number of editorials that we had on the air were minimal: ... one editorial a week. Now, those are labeled as editorial. Those are labeled as a personal opinion ... each time they're put on the air. That certainly did have an advantage, being on the air, over the fellows not on the air, the politician. But there wasn't much of that around. ...
The politician making speeches, if he's being covered -- now, of course, if we chose not to cover his speeches, then he was handicapped, I suppose. Certainly there were a lot of speeches made in the whole house of Congress they would like to have had covered, like to have repeated them on the air in some broadcast. They weren't given the chance to do that every time they made a speech. But when they made important speeches they were on the air. ...
Now, we made the judgment as to whether they were important speeches or not. They couldn't call us up on the phone and say, "I'm making an important speech; I want to go on the air." We'd have to find out what that important speech was before we cleared airtime for them.
Right. But you know what they were complaining about. They were complaining as President Johnson was complaining when you did that special about the Tet offensive, and you did an editorial at the end of it. ... Later on Bill Moyers wrote that the president said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
You had a certain kind of power that they felt threatened their elected power.
... If one of our editorials really had had that much power, why, it pleased me. I wasn't timid about it. I don't think anybody else in television ... in those days ... [was] not taking advantage of them, ... the mere fact that in television [the editorial] seemed to have a greater impact to them because they could see the weight of it, as opposed to understanding the weight of a printed editorial.
What [about] their complaint, and it continues today, that establishment journalists -- and you being, if you will, the biggest establishment journalist there's been in 50 years -- that you hide your bias. You don't reveal to the audience your voting record, your political beliefs, and you operate as if you're the voice of God.
Yes, I've heard that -- the voice of God. I do feel I speak from on high. When I'm CBS News, it's about as high as you can get. I understand the displeasure on their side, but I don't know if there's any remedy for that. They get on the air when they have [a] serious, important address for the people that is going to make some change in our situation, ... if they've got something of real impact.
When I make that judgment of impact, that is what journalism is about. We make the judgment as to whether something is important or not. That's how things get in the newspaper. That's how things get on the evening news broadcast. What they think is important, it may not be what we judge to be important. When we judge it, we're not judging it from on high, but through the journalism standards, on what interests most of the people at any given moment in time, and that which is important to most of the people gets on the air.
Every speech they make on that same subject in Congress isn't entitled airtime. The fact that they're bringing the subject into the Congress [when] it's a new subject, or a solution to our problems, or a response to somebody else's solution to our problem when that problem is forefront in the news, they're going to get on the air. What they're unhappy about is that every time they have done a lot of work on getting a speech organized, ... they expect it [to be covered] because they have worked on it so hard. ... They feel that they're entitled to airtime. We don't have that much airtime. We can't do that. ...
As far as the "liberal press" problem goes, I've got my answer to that: ... Most of the press owners, most of the broadcast owners, are conservatives, I believe. ... Whether they're conservative Republicans or not, they're basically Republicans. If we are so prejudiced, why don't they fire us? Why don't they go out and hire what they think are conservatives, Republicans, and replace all of us newspeople? ...
What people need to understand, I think, are the principles of good journalism. And most of ... those who I've met and know and watch on the air and read in the newspapers are not writing or broadcasting with bias. They may be liberal, but that bias does not show in their copy or in their broadcast. ... We learned through journalism school, and we're constantly reminded -- from our city rooms and our offices and the studios -- we know that we must be careful not to let our personal feelings affect our newsgathering and our news presentation. I'm not talking now, of course, about the editorials in the newspapers or the commentaries on the air. I'm talking about the news broadcasts. ...
What do you think when you watch something like Fox News?
Well, now there's a whole 'nother story. There is a conservative organization -- conservative management, conservative ownership -- and they are hiring commentators who are right-wing, and you're getting that version from their broadcast. And that's fine. If they want to do that, they should do it.
Our broadcast organizations ... keep us hired when they find that we're liberal, I suppose, and if we limit our liberal stance to commentary, that's perfectly all right. We are not permitted to let our news broadcasts be affected by such prejudice. ... If I ventured -- only occasionally did I do this -- but [if] I ventured from the news we're covering ... into a commentary, a straight, out-and-out commentary, labeled as such, then I'm permitted to do my piece as a liberal. If I'm doing a straight report, I'm not entitled to do that. ...
When you see major problems, for instance, at CBS News -- like the National Guard story that created this controversy -- what do you think the impact of that is on the public trust [of] the media?
I think that one does some damage to our public trust. ... In that case, they made a serious mistake and exposed themselves to a great deal of criticism -- most unfortunate for them and for the network. It was badly handled.
Nothing like that happened on your watch, did it?
Well, no. I think I would remember it if it had. I was there a long time.
I'm going to change the subject slightly to confidential sources, which is a major issue these days. How far should a reporter go to protect their sources? Should you defy a grand jury?
It depends on how you got the story, ... what the conditions of the subject were. If he or she said, "I will tell you something only if you don't reveal the source of the story," if you made that commitment, you've got to dodge around it somehow or another. ... Somehow or other you'll have to be able to report to the people that you cannot give them the source.
Now, today The New York Times ... [tells] you why they can't tell the source every time, and it turns out to be almost a paragraph of type on why the individual doesn't want you to use his or her name: "We cannot reveal their name because they have not gotten permission from their employers." Well, that gets into an awful lot of explanation every time, it seems to me.
Do you remember the case of Earl Caldwell, who was the reporter for The New York Times who was subpoenaed by the federal government to testify about the Black Panthers?
This is 36 years ago. You were one of the first people to come to his defense. ... Are you saying that it's all right for a reporter to defy law enforcement?
... If it is really a question of taking testimony from an individual from a story that we have run, and we have protected him or her because to expose their names would cause serious difficulties on their side, ... then I think we should be protecting the democracy and the individual to the degree of going to jail if necessary.
We are in the position there of being the endangered party because we could go to jail, as we have seen only too recently, I'm afraid, if we don't reveal a source in a courtroom environment. Well, that courtroom can many times be, unfortunately, also politically biased and just as willing to hang a reporter ... as chances would permit. We've got to be able to defend ourselves in that situation. ...
Law enforcement is not always without politics involved. The people in law enforcement ... can be heavy in politics themselves, and they may be wishing to better themselves in the political atmosphere. Simply because they are in law enforcement they are not holy. ... There is a time when the reporter must make a judgment that revealing their source is more dangerous to the democracy than not doing so, and if the reporter feels that there is politics particularly involved, then the reporter's motivation is tripled -- quadrupled -- to not reveal his or her source. ...
... Yesterday we interviewed a recently retired head of counterintelligence for the FBI, [David Szady], who was in charge of investigating leaks of national security information -- for example, the eavesdropping NSA [National Security Agency] leak -- which the head of the CIA says has demanded an investigation. And he was adamant. He said, "No one has the right to reveal secrets that might damage the national security of the United States." Who are you, for example, Mr. Cronkite, to decide on your own that you should reveal that kind of information that could damage the country?
... Well, it depends on the information, I'd say. [The reporter] should not carry this burden alone, but if his newspaper or his broadcasting organization -- his leadership -- agrees with him or her that this story is important to the survival of the democracy -- literally, of that importance -- then I say that they break the pledge of secrecy and go on the air with it, or into press. ...
Certainly they're taking a risk. But then, when they get into the courtroom, they continue to protect their sources, then the public should understand ... with the trial what was at stake, or what the individual thought at stake. ... If you're an investigative reporter, you're going to face that situation sooner or later. Then the courage of the individual will [determine] whether he or she reveals sources. ...
When you see reporters testify, giving up their source and testifying, as is happening in the Valerie Plame case, what's your reaction when you see reporters giving up their privilege?
... When I see them ... surrendering to the demands of the courtroom, I cringe. I hope that they were able to hold out against revealing their sources. I do believe that this is fundamental in reporting, our integrity. ...
Pat Buchanan said that when he joined Nixon, and they were coming into the White House, that reporters told them him that they would be adversarial. Should the press be adversarial? ...
... That is the nature of certain papers, or perhaps certain broadcasters, ... and that is their privilege if that's the way they want to use their medium. But most newspapers and most broadcasters, as far as I know, they're more on the basis of good journalism. ... That is that we try to avoid showing any bias. We carefully edit it out when we find it creeping in. ... Most of us work for organizations that are so thoroughly grounded in the best principles of journalism that we don't have a problem that way.
But there is a school of thought that one of the critical roles of journalism or the press in this country is to, in a sense, confront power, to try to keep power accountable, and that requires being adversarial, to ask hard questions, to be suspicious, to be skeptical.
But we are ignoring the possibility that being adversarial is in their editorial content, not their news content. That's where the big difference comes, and that's where I insist that most of the good news organizations -- the ones I'd call good news organizations are the ones most of us know -- The New York Times, for instance; CBS and NBC and ABC -- and we observe fundamental journalistic rules. You do not editorialize in the news columns; you editorialize on the editorial pages or the commentary broadcast. And on your daily work, we edit any prejudice out of the copy.
Now, there is this general thought today, perpetrated by the administration ... and their followers, that the press is liberal, period. They don't say what press, they don't say in what way, but basically we're liberal. Well, they may be right about our sympathies, but they're wrong about our exposure of that. We are not writing liberal news copy, most of us. ... I read several newspapers, and I listen to broadcasts of all three of the major networks. I do not see, I do not sense this liberalism that we are now accused of. ...