frontlinesmoke in the eye

interview: walter cronkite

Q: THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COMMERCIAL AND CORPORATE OTHER PRESSURES IN BROADCASTING. BUT DID YOU FEEL THEM? WERE YOU AS CONSCIOUS OF THEM AS PEOPLE SEEM TO BE?

Cronkite: Not at all. Absolutely not at all. I can swear on a stack of Bibles that not once in doing the CBS Evening News for 19 years, well, I take it back. Once perhaps. But during 19 years with perhaps one exception, was I ever aware of any political or commercial pressure on that broadcast whatsoever. Now, I'm not saying that there wasn't some at higher echelons, but within CBS News Department, we who were on the firing line were protected totally. Our backs were protected, we never heard that there was any problem of any kind in putting what we felt was necessary on the air.

Q: WHAT WAS THE EXCEPTION?


Cronkite is a former CBS News anchor and correspondent
Cronkite: The one exception was the Watergate program that we did and we had taken a sizable hunk of the broadcast, 18 or 19 minutes of a half hour broadcast to do the first of a two-part series trying to wrap up what the revelations had been in Watergate. The story was fading from the papers and we thought we needed to revive it by showing the importance of this story. People had lost the thread of it. Well, we did that and the management of CBS News came to us and said they felt that we'd taken too much time. Uh, the emphasis had been overdone and taken that much time and in doing the second piece the next day, felt we should cut it down. They'd never said anything about content at all, just time. Well, I thought that that was a decision of Dick Salant our esteemed president of CBS News. I only learned later that he was under considerable pressure from the White House as passed through Bill Paley to do something about those broadcasts. He managed to do something by simply cutting down the time a little bit. Doing nothing about the text or material. It didn't hurt the broadcast really a bit to cut it down. We got every...all the facts in we needed.

Q: WHEN DID THE SITUATION CHANGE?

Cronkite: Well, it did not change in my time. When I stepped down from the evening news at the age of 65, in '81, things were still going well. Immediately after that the whole tenor of the CBS News Department changed. The bosses with whom I worked and so well over the years were removed. A new set of people were brought in. I think that their standards were vastly lower, quite honestly, than the ones we had pursued.

Q: WHAT WAS THE SIGNAL? WHAT WAS THE SINGLE EVENT THAT YOU THINK PRODUCED THIS CHANGE OF CULTURE?

Cronkite: I think the single event was simply the appointment of the new president of CBS who had vastly different ideas of what television journalism should be. His concept was that it should be far more entertaining, his standards were just vastly lower. His ethical approach was, was shaky at best, I thought. And the whole news department went along with him on it.

They had to.

Q: HOW MUCH OF THIS WAS A REFLECTION OF THE OWNERSHIP BY THE TISCH FAMILY?

Cronkite: Well, the network cannot change, Bill Paley was still there. And the people he put in place, the top of the network were all still there. This particular individual who they appointed at the head of CBS News really worked himself into the good graces, sold himself to management and they went along with what he was doing. He was a slick talker, and at the management level he was able to convince them that what he was doing was just as responsible in what, that ever happened. Paley began to be worried. Paley began to be concerned before his last days. And was very concerned, as a matter of fact, with the way the news department was developing. He wasn't at all sure it was going well. But he was getting older, he had other worries, other concerns, he didn't concentrate on the news department. And unfortunately just about that time, or shortly thereafter, we had a new ownership situation with Mr. Tisch coming in...

Q: YOU SAY UNFORTUNATELY.

Cronkite: Well, it was unfortunate because one of his first steps was to cut the news department staff. One of his major economies was in the news and that destroyed any of the last hope really of our continuing in the nature that we had in the past.

Q: DID YOU SEE ANY SORT OF CONTINUUM BETWEEN THAT SHIFT AND THE SITUATION CBS NEWS FOUND ITSELF IN AT THE END OF, OF '95. THIS EMBARRASSMENT ABOUT THE TOBACCO PROGRAM.

Cronkite: Oh that's hard linkage to make, I think. I think the legal departments have always been very nervous about the news department. I think through the years there was a lot of back and forth between legal and the head of the news department about what we could and could not do. We had strength at the head of the new department so that those pares from legal were always deflected before they got down to the guts of the broadcast. [T]hat, that kind of strength hasn't been there for along time. [A]nd I, I suppose that's why the, the tobacco story developed as it did. I co...I, I don't know that I can say that with any certainty. After all, the management at 60 Minutes is the same management that's been there all along. They've held out very well against all these downsizings and standard cuts and so forth. So, I don't know.

Q: A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE DRAWN IRRESISTIBLY TO THE QUESTION, HOW WOULD CRONKITE HAVE REACTED IF THE CORPORATE COUNSEL HAD PREVAILED WITH A CORPORATE FINANCIAL INTEREST OVER A FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUE?

Cronkite: I don't know. You can't put yourself in the other man's shoes. And that this was the whole matter of bravery and courage under a situations of war time. You think you would react one way when a situation develops and, and when the sharp shells are flying, you don't quite stand up like you think you might. I don't know how I would have reacted quite honestly. I know what in principle I think I would have done, and that's if they insisted, I would have quit. I don't know. You know.

Q: TO EXTEND THE QUESTION, HOW WOULD CRONKITE HAVE REACTED AFTER THE FACT, HAVING FOUND OUT THAT THERE WAS AN ENORMOUS FINANCIAL INTEREST .....THE WESTINGHOUSE DEAL WAS IN PROGRESS, THERE WAS AN INTERCORPORATE CIGARETTE DEAL IN PROGRESS. THE PEOPLE THAT WERE ADVISING CBS NEWS, HAD A LOT OF FINANCIAL STAKE IN THE....

Cronkite: I don't think that that would have escaped my attention. I don't think I would be operating as an innocent. I think that I would've appreciated and realized all those facts. That would have influenced my decision to quit certainly.

Q: THERE WAS AN APPARENT CONFLICT OF INTEREST HERE. AND, THAT IS PART OF THE QUESTION, WHAT CRONKITE WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT?

Cronkite: Well, as I say, I think I would have quit rather than surrender to, to that. But I can't say that, I wasn't, I wasn't in that position. You, there are all kinds of personal interplay, problems and so forth. I might have wanted to stay to try to correct the situation within the company. Maybe I thought that my position would be such that I could do something positive about them, so it would never happen again, or getting this story on the air at some later time. [T]hat all might have been influential...one can't say what one would do under fire.

Q: WHAT DOES THIS EPISODE TELL US ABOUT THE CURRENT STATE OF BROADCAST JOURNALISM AT THE NETWORK LEVEL?

Cronkite: I think the concern today is that the ownership of the networks, it does not have the background of clear-cut responsibility in broadcasting that the pioneers had. [I]t's not the fault of anybody in particular except they've come along in the second and third generation when that responsibility has not been pounded into them as it was with the pioneers with the government itself having some doubts about how licenses should be granted and so forth. [S]o they have inherited a growing business. Business. Not a, not a gut feeling that the others had about the future of broadcasting and what broadcasting would do for the country and bringing the nation together, linking cities with these wire arrangement. That's no part of their thinking. [T]heir thinking is how do you maximize profit. You do it by entertainment, primarily. News is hanging in there still but unfortunately as a profit center, became that partly because of 60 Minutes, and that has changed the attitude. In the early days of television went on for years the news broadcasts were lost leaders. They were prestige items. The networks spent the money to build up the news department because that's the way the public judged their discharge of public responsibility. That doesn't exist any more, that's gone.

Q: WHAT DO YOU TELL THE YOUNG, THE YOUNG JOURNALIST WHO SORT OF LOOKS TOWARD NETWORK TELEVISION AS A PLACE TO PRACTICE...

Cronkite: Oh, what do you tell the young journalist who wants to go to the newspaper where newspapers have been venal from time to time. Some papers have, some papers haven't. More have, I think than haven't. Advertising's always been a considerable pressure on publishers. Advertising revenue has to be maintained for them to stay in business. They make compromises. I would tell them, the young people what I would have told them all along about being in the news business as journalists. There will be these pressures. This is part of, part of the business. We, as journalists, have to be strong and try to maintain what we believe to be the principles of the craft. [T]hen if we are a profession at all it's because we have ethics. And I think that most of the time, most of [the] journalists adhere to them. There will always be fights with publishers and fights with broadcast executives over the commercial interests versus the public responsibility.

Q: YOU SEEM TO SUGGEST THAT THE PRESSURES ON CBS NEWS AND SIXTY MINUTES IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE WERE NOT IRRESISTIBLE. THAT WITH THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF BACKBONE AND GUMPTION THEY COULD HAVE STOOD UP TO THIS CHALLENGE .....

Cronkite: Well, I do feel that t the great tragedy of the tobacco episode of 60 Minutes was that 60 Minutes should be in the strongest position of any news organization in, in broadcasting. Possibly in all of journalism to stand up. It has, in broadcasting, and CBS it's been one of the top ten programs almost constantly for twenty years. No other program including the entertainment programs have ever amassed such a record as this. It's a major profit center for CBS, major prestige center for CBS. It seems to me that it would have been powerful enough to have withstood this kind of legal ploy. But I don't know the circumstances. I was not there.

Q: THE POINT YOU SEEM TO MAKE IS THAT WHAT WE WERE DEALING WITH HERE WAS A LACK OF WILL BY THE INDIVIDUALS IN THE NEWS BUSINESS AS OPPOSED TO THIS OVERWHELMING FORCE COMING FROM THE CORPORATE, LEGAL, COMMERCIAL SETTING.

Cronkite: We can't sit here and say a lack of will. We can't do that. I keep coming back to the battlefield association. Anybody who'd been in battle, anybody who'd been in war time circumstances, knows that you're constantly thinking, I would do this, I would do that. He didn't, or he did. He was heroic beyond anything I think I could be, but boy I wish I could do that. Or he was, he was cowardly. He didn't stand or he should've stood. Terrible mistake. Terrible mistake. Not until you face that situation precisely yourself, can you make, take any criticism of an individual facing fire and then react...having to react. I would not make that criticism of anybody at 60 Minutes. I just don't know what the circumstances were at that moment. A lot of things could have been on their mind. An awful lot of things that I don't even know about. Personal relationships with other members, the staff. Uh, the possibilities of some future program you're trying to do that might be more important, that you'd need to yield this one to get that one. I don't know those things.

Q: WALTER, YOU WERE PART OF THE GLORY DAYS OF CBS WHEN ONE SPOKE PROUDLY OF RESPONSIBILITY. WHAT'S HAPPENED?

Cronkite: Well, I think CBS was caught in the maw of the competition that increased considerably with the advent of cable. With the diversion of video tape, home entertainment. All of those things put pressure on all of the networks to compete a little more aggressively, perhaps than they had before. [I]n that effort, responsibility went out the window. Part of the problem was that the old-timers who came into the business, understanding the responsibility, because it was hammered into them by Washington. A lot of people who were very concerned about the way station licenses were being allocated and all that kind of thing. They knew that they had a responsibility to the community.

Q: RIGHT, DO YOU RESPOND TO THE WORDS OF THE COMMUNICATIONS ACT THAT RADIO, WHICH MEANS ALSO TELEVISION, SHALL ACT IN THE PUBLIC INTERESTS AND NECESSITY?

Cronkite: Yes. The wordage comes, of course from the Railroad Act, so it's a little bit skewed for that reason, but basically that's true. Certainly radio and television should act in, in public interest and public necessity is a rather crazy word.

Q: SO THAT MEANT AMONG OTHER THINGS, MAINTAINING ENOUGH STAFF IN THIS COUNTRY AND IN PARTS OF THE WORLD TO KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON?

Cronkite: Dan, of course, that's that bottom line. There's been recent criticism -- James Fallows' book and others--about the practice of journalism today. Well, I don't think that Fallows, as keen as he is a critic of this matter, really got to the bottom line. Because the bottom line is the bottom line. The bottom line...

Q: YOU MEAN THE PROFIT LINE?

Cronkite: ....the broadcast executives are not giving their news departments adequate funding to do the job that they should be doing.

Q: AND DOES IT MATTER ALSO THAT ON TOP OF WHAT HAPPENED IN THE DAYS OF TISCH AND SO ON THAT ANOTHER LAYER OF THINGS HAS BEGUN TO HAPPEN, THAT IS, NETWORKS, ALL OF THEM, NOW, HAVE BEEN ACQUIRED BY LARGER AND LARGER CONGLOMERATES?

Cronkite: Well, this was my point a moment ago that the pioneers inherited this sense of responsibility, inherited partly because it was beaten into them, but also, I think because that was their nature. The Sarnoffs, the Goldensons, the Paleys, particularly of this world, understood that there was a responsibility in running these networks and these stations. This second and third generations have come along and they've come into an entertainment environment entirely without any appreciation at all, I think, about any sense of responsibility.

Q: NOW LET'S TURN TO 60 MINUTES. 60 MINUTES HAS A GREAT STORY THEY'RE WORKING ON--HAS TO DO WITH THE FORMER RESEARCH DIRECTOR OF A BIG TOBACCO COMPANY WHO'S OUT THERE, GIVES AN INTERVIEW AND WANTS TO TELL ALL. AND FOR A WHILE, THAT INTERVIEW IS SUPPRESSED. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT?

Cronkite: I thought that the whole initial episode when 60 Minutes did not put the program on the air under duress from the legal department, was most unfortunate. Most unfortunate. It seems to me that it sent a terrible message out to all broadcasters across the nation. Perhaps around the world. Because here is 60 Minutes, a top ten program. ......most successful program. I mean of everything. It's beaten entertainment programming that CBS has offered. For twenty years almost it's been in the top ten. Constantly. A huge money maker for the company. And the management of 60 Minutes has the power there, quite clearly, to say, I'm sorry, heh, we're doing this because we must do it. This is a journalistic imperative. We have this story and we're going with it. We've got to take whatever the legal chances are on it. Well, they didn't. They, they felt it necessary to buckle under their legal pressures. And that must send a message to every station across the country where they might have any ambitions to do investigative reporting. Hey, look, if 60 Minutes can't stand the pressure, then none of us ought to get into the kitchen at all. I mean, it's just a hopeless case.

Q: YOU'VE BEEN WILLING TO BUCK A LOT OF POWERS THAT BE ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE VIETNAM WAR. YOU'RE STILL REMEMBERED AS THE FIRST REALLY IMPORTANT PERSON WHO REALLY CALLED THE TURN ON THE WAY VIETNAM WAS GOING AFTER THE TET OFFENSIVE. HOW WOULD YOU HAVE REACTED IF YOU WERE RUNNING 60 MINUTES?

Cronkite: Well, the old business of the Indian adage, you walk in another man's moccasins. I think it's not productive to say how I would have acted, because I don't know. I really don't know. Uh, you'd...never can know all of the pressures, all of the personal problems that might be involved and one reaction or another. I know that I would have felt that my public responsibility was to put the darn thing on the air.

Q: YOU'RE WORKING ON A STORY WHICH YOU BELIEVE TO BE IN THE PUBLIC INTERESTS, CONVENIENCE, AND NECESSITY. IN FACT, IT MIGHT EVEN SAVE SOME LIVES SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE. AND SOMEBODY COMES TO YOU AND SAYS, THE LAWYERS ARE A LITTLE WORRIED ABOUT THIS ONE. AND YOU WOULD THEN SAY, ARE WE BEING SUED? WELL, NO, NOT YET. BUT THE LAWYERS ARE WORRIED. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?

Cronkite: Dan, I think that with the kind of income I'd be making in that position today, in present day television, and in other words, my own financial independence had been established and the feeling of deep sense of responsibility, the journalistic responsibility and ethics involved, I would have said either I put it on the air or I will sever our relationship.

Q: I INTERVIEWED MIKE WALLACE AND I ASKED HIM WHETHER HE EVER THOUGHT OF RESIGNING OVER THAT AND HE SAID, WELL, NO, BUT HE WANTED TO STAY AND FIGHT TO GET IT ON THE AIR AND THAT WAS WHY HE STAYED.

Cronkite: Well, that is a good reason to stay. If one felt that it was possible to override the problem and eventually get it on the air, I suppose that would be a very reasonable position.

Q: I WAS JUST WONDERING, DID ANYBODY ASK YOU, CONSULT YOU, ASK YOUR VIEW AS A PERSON WHO'S GIVEN A LARGE PART OF HIS LIFE TO THIS NETWORK, ASK YOUR VIEW OF WHAT WAS GOING ON IN THOSE WEEKS WHEN 60 MINUTES WAS NOT RUNNING THAT INTERVIEW?

Cronkite: No. No. I, I'm not in that position at CBS. I'm not consulted on such imminent matters as that.

Q: BUT YOU STILL HAVE AN INDIVIDUAL VIEW OF YOUR OWN?

Cronkite: Oh, very.....indeed I do. More individual than ever. I'm not beholden to anybody today in any way.

Q: IT'S BEEN INTERESTING TO KNOW THAT YOU'VE NEVER SHIED AWAY FROM CRITICIZING TELEVISION AND WHAT IT DOES, EVEN WHEN YOU WERE ON THE BOARD. I MEAN, NOBODY SILENCES YOU.

Cronkite: Oh, indeed. I got some pressure from the boards and pressure from management when I would be critical at times. I was accused by one of the well, not accused, but I was, the reaction was strong, with one of our presidents under whom I served on the board. When I said that we were being irresponsible in the way we handle the news department. And he took it very personally that I charged him with irresponsibility. And he really came out of his chair at this board meeting and in furious saying in all my career I have never been charged with being irresponsible anywhere. How can you charge me with irresponsibility. I wasn't charging him personally. I was charging the news department and our en, entire approach to news as being irresponsible.

Q: REMEMBER THOSE GREAT DAYS? DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN PRESIDENT OF CBS INC. FRANK STANTON APPEARED BEFORE A CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE...

Cronkite: Indeed I do.

Q: ...WHICH WANTED SOME OUTTAKES AND HE SAID WE DON'T GIVE YOU OUTTAKES AND HE STOOD THERE AND THERE WAS THE POSSIBILITY THAT HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN CITED FOR CONTEMPT OF CONGRESS AND HE WAS...

Cronkite: A really strong possibility. When the Congress voted against the charge, the indictment for refusing to testify, it surprised the attorney general of the United States who called up Stanton and said, I thought we'd be talking today under vastly different circumstances. It was almost a sure thing. Stanton was exceedingly brave.

Q: OH YES.

Cronkite: Courageous in taking that position.

Q: AND THAT'S WHAT WE LACK ISN'T IT, TODAY? BRAVERY?

Cronkite: You know the journalistic courage takes a lot of forms. A lot of forms. And one of the important forms it takes is in the corporate environment. And unfortunately, there are few people in that corporate environment, virtually none who I can cite on any network, that have any background or journalistic ethics, journalistic principles, or journalistic responsibility. They don't think in those terms. And unfortunately their news chiefs don't seem to have the clout or the determination whatever, to enforce their sense of responsibility, which I think they have, most of them. They just don't have, as I say, the power apparently to run their own shops.

Q: I BET, THE THING YOU CALL CORPORATE COURAGE, CORPORATE GUTS, I WOULD CALL IT......YOU SEE IT COMING BACK SOON?

Cronkite: Well, no quite frankly. I don't see any hint of it on the horizon. Where would you find it. I don't know where it might be. The hope can always be that with public criticism, public pressure and there's been a lot of that lately. This program itself will have some impact in that regard. And the cumulative impact of such things might eventually awaken somebody up there in the high regions of corporate operations that take action. And perhaps if one does, the others will fall in line. It just might be --the dream is that there will be this great awakening on one network, I'd like to think it was CBS and the public would flock back to CBS news broadcasts and say, that is where leadership is, that's what I want to follow. That's where I want to be when I'm watching the news. I trust that news broadcast beyond any on the air. When that happens, the others are going to begin to fall in line. And the people are capable in those news departments of doing it. They're good, they're alright.

Q: AND THEY'RE CAPABLE AT 60 MINUTES TOO.

Cronkite: Absolutely. That's a marvelous cast of characters over there. They are superb journalists. And I think they've done a superb job and they have stood up and each of those producers and each of those people on the air have stood up at one time or another and taken the licks from on high in the organization. They should still be held in high regard for that. There was this one rather serious aberration in my mind, and it's unfortunate.

Q: WELL, OLD COLLEAGUE, WE'LL TRY TO BRING BACK THE DAYS YOU TALK ABOUT, IF NOT AT CBS, SOMEWHERE ELSE. THANKS A LOT.

Cronkite: Thank you, Dan.


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