Speaker I met Walter Cronkite in 1953 when I joined CBS. I had been a correspondent abroad for a newspaper and CBS offered me this job. I came to New York and there I met Walter.
Speaker And were you aware at all of Walter’s dispatches during World War Two?
Speaker The answer is, frankly, no. That’s you, sir, if I may have been aware of them. But I don’t think I remember them having been in the army myself with problems of my own.
Speaker You were. You were enlisted.
Speaker I was drafted. I was one of the many millions of American draftees who joined when they were told who.
Speaker I wanted to ask you a little bit about the importance of radio during World War Two. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Speaker Radio was a great medium, was born during World War Two. I mean, there had been things before. For example, O Ed Murrow had reported from Vienna about the Germans marching into Vienna. And I was a time when Bill Paley got this idea of saying, why do we have a regular program every day? And so they invented something called the World News Roundup, which exist. So until this day, but it only began to gain support and interest by the public when they found they were able to get a more vivid view, a more direct and a more instantaneous story about what was going on on radio. And then they could waiting for their newspapers. So it was during the war when you got war correspondents doing dramatic things, getting on the air, reporting Ed Murrow on top of a London rooftop. And while while there were explosions going on, there were an air attack going on and stand there and talking, oh, is intrinsically so much more dramatic than cold print. And I think it blossomed during the war era.
Speaker Why do you think Cronkite was so trusted?
Speaker The phenomenon of Walter Cronkite. Uncle Walter is one that I guess people who specialize in media can explain for you or maybe psychologist kind of Spain for you. Walter is the quintessential everybody’s uncle. He sounds authoritative. He sounds kind. He sounds he’s always interested in you. And there is something about the timber of voices, way of expressing himself that’s very appealing to the ordinary American.
Speaker Now, being such a wonderful writer like yourself, what do you have any comment about his writing style, the way he wrote his coffee?
Speaker I unfortunately, I can’t really go into much detail into what his writing style. I don’t know what he wrote and what he didn’t write. There came a point when he became so famous to be a payments anchor man, not only for the evening news, but for convention political conventions on. And after all, he would he had a couple of people working with him and providing him with scripts. There must have been some that were purely personal and purely from him. But frankly, I can’t tell which they were.
Speaker What would you say was the difference between the Murle era and the Cronkite?
Speaker Interesting DEEDI, the Murro era was the era of completely personal journalism. You wanted to go where Murrow went because Murrow had such a spirit about him. And as he explained it to you, Walter was like what you might call cool. He was cooler than Murrow. Murrow became involved with his story, explained his story. Murrow, Murrow, Auschwitz. I don’t know if you ever heard Mark Murrow speaking from Auschwitz, but it is an unbelievable tour de force for somebody I. For Cronkite, it was ground breaking when President Kennedy was shot and Walter happened to be on the air and allowed a tier to come into his eye. That is not the Walter that Walter wants to transmit wants. Walter wants to believe he’s there. He’s neutral. It tells you what it means. He thinks it means you were not trying to prompt you. And furthermore, he is not a part of the action. He’s reporting the action. Well, if you’re reporting that President Kennedy has been killed. I can’t stand up entirely. And it did. And it didn’t. And he did allow it here. But then he recovered control of himself and he was what he always has wanted to be. The well controlled newsmen who who transmission news without changing it.
Speaker Now, in terms of Vietnam, the Vietnam coverage, there was a whole process where at the beginning of Vietnam, many reporters were very much in line with what the government was was sort of expressing. But then in the process of the war, after 65, Cronkite began to be somewhat disillusioned. And he finally crossed that line of his straight objectivity.
Speaker He didn’t as I recall, it didn’t it didn’t happen quite.
Speaker Just quite.
Speaker As I recall, it happened almost only once after the Tet Offensive, where the U.S. claimed that we had beaten the North Vietnamese, they claim that they had won and it was probably good that we lost more than one in the Tet Offensive. And after that, it began to look downhill for the American and current South Korean forces. Cronkite, when surveyed trip and came to a conclusion on this trip that we are not being told the truth. That day, the war was going very, very poorly and we probably should not be involved in it anymore. That didn’t happen gradually. I hit him on this trip that he took to and he let it be known that he had things he wanted to say. And they were not all totally dispassionate and neutral things. And he did and had tremendous effect simply because he had until then been up so cool and dispassionate. The fact that Murrow says is that Uncle Uncle Walter tells us that this war is lost. That was a tremendous event. And as I recall, President Johnson, when told about it, said, if that’s what Walter is saying, we’re finished.
Speaker Now, what was the influence of young? There were young reporters like Morley Safer, Jack Lawrence. They saw a very different kind of war than what Cronkite was right from his anchor desk. That’s right. And you talk a little bit about the importance of those kind of reporting that’s in the field. And how that their influence might or their reporting and talking with Cronkite might have helped shape make that sort of change.
Speaker Each war breeds its own rules for covering the war. I mean, I wasn’t around during World War One, but I read the dispatches of William Harding, Davis and other famous correspondents of the era. Then there was a period when Hitler was coming up in Germany before the 1939 and the outbreak of war. Then when you began to feel that things were going badly, they going off the track. And our correspondents have to tell us what’s going on. And then finally they came, you World War Two, followed then by another generation in the Korean War and then still following another that came out of the Vietnam War, Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the one that did it. There are no attempts were made to keep American correspondents from going anywhere they wanted to go in Vietnam. And some of the stories they brought back were quite discouraging. I say brought back brought back on film, which, by the way, in those days film was black and white and 16 millimeter, and it was shipped by air to San Francisco, edited in San Francisco and got on the air maybe two or three days later. I mean, there were there wasn’t a hiatus there. It sounds funny just to remember that far back and how different things were than in the days of having videotape and live reports and so on. But, yes, I thought that as I watched it over the years that each war bred its generation of correspondents. And by the time that Walter was there doing his career nofollow, he was so he he had won his spurs in World War Two. He had won his spurs in a year or two in Russia. And now he was ready to sit comfortably behind the microphone reading off a teleprompter, which somebody had put on there for him.
Speaker Do you think some of the reason that his reporting, his position had such an effect was that he had been a reporter during World War Two? You guys really familiar? It was his credibility.
Speaker He had credibility. He had credibility, indeed, because of his own experience as a reporter. But he had his own credibility just because Uncle Walter tells us, as it really is. And if he tells us it’s so, it’s got to be so.
Speaker In 1972, before the election, when The Washington Post was reporting on Watergate. And things were slowing down a bit. Cronkite devoted almost two nights.
Speaker Yes. Yes.
Speaker And I wanted to ask you, what was the effect that had on the Watergate coverage? The fact that Walter focused two programs.
Speaker It was really it was really more than that. Up until the time Watergate, he had been basically a newspaper story.
Speaker Washington Post, New York Times, some L.A. Times. But there was a newspaper story. I remember when we came back from the fund, the Democratic Convention in 1972, that my my boss, my bureau chief called me and said, you know, I’m down there covering the convention.
Speaker And do you see what’s been happening up here? They’re arresting people. They’re beginning to look for them. And indeed, it was true. We had basically neglected the Watergate story. And Bill Small is the bureau chief said to me, from now on, I want you to devote 100 percent of your time to Watergate. You are going to be our Watergate Cori’s. But we’ve got to do something to catch up with the newspapers. So I do that. Then NBC appointed someone and then ABC appointed someone. So next thing you knew, it was not only a competition among newspapers, it became a competition among the networks, which I’m very happy to say. I think we did the best. And and.
Speaker Now, tell me a little bit, since you were actually doing the reporting on Watergate, you have wonderful footage. Did you talk with Cronkite to say, look, you’re right. You were reporting you sort of collaborate in trying to get him to focus on these stories?
Speaker Let me tell you the truth, like it is, as we say in our business.
Speaker Walter Cronkite had done a big series on the environment a few weeks before, which had gone down very well. The idea of him having to do not just one or two minutes between other people’s stories, which gets to be a little hackneyed, but he had they had done was kind of a series called Can the World Be Saved? Nate did something about what’s happening with the environment or gone well. And they were looking for another subject. I wish they could do a similar series of big takeouts. Right. And so somebody suggested. What about Watergate? And sure, that’s your that’s what about. Well, a task force was assembled of three or four correspondents. We all got together. We divided the thing up. We all did various parts of this thing. And we went on the air. Then we went on the air on that Friday night. Walters was the front for it. The fact of the matter is, Walter did very little of the actual work on that series. When you got a big series like that, it’s a kind of a mini documentary. And a lot of people have an input because, as you know, there are things that can’t be fit together fairly well.
Speaker You are the only one who didn’t like that series was Mr. William s fairly the chairman of the board, because he got a threat from the White House to cancel the television licenses of CBS stations in reprisal for that. And Patty tried to kill the second and third piece or the second piece, which is supposed to come on Monday. But it was pointed out to him that since we close off on Friday night by saying and part two of this series will be on Monday, that if we didn’t go on Monday, there’d be a lot of questions asked. Finally permitted an expurgated version of the second piece takes credit to have cut out a lot of the things they thought the White House might not like. That was not one of my proudest moments in CBS.
Speaker Oh, I’m sorry. That was OK. OK, great. That’s it. This is very good because no one’s told me this story.
Speaker It’s in my book.
Speaker OK. So were you surprised then by the effect those reports had in terms of the effect of those two have those two programs that we’re focusing on Watergate? Were you surprised by the effect it had? Because so many people? I mean, Ben Bradlee said it was thanks to CBS that all of a sudden there was more support. Tell me about that.
Speaker Well, what I did hear about that is, is that when we sat down to do this, to do with eight minute speech, maybe maybe nine minutes, it was a very, very long four evening television. I went out and in order to do these pieces.
Speaker After that, my point, ask me the question again.
Speaker Can you just clean? Yeah. I was asking about were you surprised by the effect that those two reports Friday and the Monday had in terms of I mean, people like Brenda Katharine Graham, thank CBS.
Speaker I think Ben Bradlee, who said it first and said it best.
Speaker He said we were covering Watergate and doing a pretty good job of it. But America got to know about it. When CBS went on the air giving quotes, long quotations and Washington Post reported this, The Washington Post said that. And then The Washington Post came up and New York Times. So we did not claim to have any great originality in our Watergate coverage. What we claim to be able to do was to take the existing material and fashion it. So that was understandable and give it to the American people. I didn’t say. But Ben Bradlee said that CBS deserved as much credit as anybody simply because the way we had presented the story and those two long pieces for the public.
Speaker Great. Now, what about the Watergate hearings? What was the importance of that in terms of the broadcast of the press being behind that?
Speaker Senate decided that there they would hold hearings to be chaired by Sam Ervin, former Judge Sam Ervin of North Carolina originate originally. He said we won’t carry it live, takes too much paid time. Then they thought, no, maybe not. And then what happened then was John Dean. Made big headlines by saying that there’s been a cancer on the presidency. And I told Nixon that Nixon is now a deeply involved in Watergate. John Dean turned what was a silly passing story into an unbelievable end of the world kind of story. And so the discussion among the networks about whether they would carry alternating basis, one or all of I dropped it was everybody’s going to cover this live. They had now become just too big and too hot a thing to be left to do. And so. And so that’s they. So they did. That’s what they did. And Walker, I don’t recall, did much during the day. We were on all day gavel to gavel. George Herman, my colleague and I, George, within his studio. I was on Capitol Hill next to the committee room. And when at the times we had to fill, because when the Senate would recess and their committee would recess, we wouldn’t now committed to life all day. We couldn’t go back to programming. And so at times I had one occasion. I had to fill one hour and 25 minutes of airtime and left until they came back there. But the hearings became important. Well, let me count you and follow this anecdote. I began getting letters from people in. First, that is would be three to one criticizing guys for taking away their favorite soap operas for this kind of political junkie. A lot of people didn’t like it very much. And then as time passed on, by third and fourth week, people stop complaining about losing their soap operas. They had now decided this was this 054 this week. This became a substitute for the soap proper nice John Dean with his blond wife sitting behind him and so on. And John Mitchell by he’s or he’s a bad man. All of the characters were assigned to all these people. And so even those who don’t care about politics much want to do the high drama of daytime daytime soap operas. They got the soap opera. It was called Watergate.
Speaker And do you think that the news reporting of that event, the televised events. Do you feel that that was instrumental in bringing down Nixon?
Speaker I do think he was instrumental in bringing down Nixon. Nixon hated Nixon and Haldeman, Erlichman, the people around him. They were always reading polls. And I was just trying to figure out how much trouble were they in? Was this trouble surmountable? And when they began to see people all over the country talking about hardly anything like Watergate, you know, they began to realize that they were not going to be able to beat this into the ground. I think. I think. I do think that. Of course, was written, Bernstein played their vital role. But I do think television played a very important role.
Speaker Now, I want to talk a little bit about Nixon and Agnew when they launched a really serious campaign. Criticism of it for us. Yes. Particularly against CBS. Yes, Frank. Yes. And I wondered if you could tell us about that, because I think people don’t remember this. That’s right.
Speaker Well, Nixon decided he wanted to have a bigger attack unleashed on the networks, on and on and on CBS. They decided that he would be more dignified if he were delivered by Agnew rather than by Nixon himself, although at some point he was considering doing so. And so they got his speech written for them by Pat Buchanan. William Safire. Sapphire was which was responsible for the phrase in that speech that he was proud to stop calling television the nattering nabobs of negativism.
Speaker That was that was that was it. And it made it. But he made that speech. You were a went to Baltimore, I think, to deliver the speech.
Speaker Scared CBS into carrying his speech live.
Speaker Said that they didn’t care and carry it live. They go to them to Nixon’s Moral Majority and give them hell. And I must say without pride, that CBS caved and carried it live. As two thirty p.m., which meant they were carrying his speech live and blotting out the entire.
Speaker World News.
Speaker And then Cronkhite became very. I mean, he gave some serious.
Speaker I mean, yeah, those they were were filling time for one to see one another all almost all the time. And all I can remember being in panel after panel. I was there with Severide. I was there was Cronkite. I was I was there with two or three other people in various combinations. We seem to me we talked our heads off on television.
Speaker Why do you think that Cronkhite, now that he’s retired from the anchor desk, has become so outspoken?
Speaker You’re operating under a discipline when you work in television and when you want to dispense release, you have a lot of things saved up.
Speaker I think that it’s I I’m not sure why it’s even a question. Doesn’t everybody, when they get free, their job, begin to act a little more, frankly?
Speaker I mean, I do.
Speaker Nobody notices, but I do.
Speaker Do you think that the civil rights movement would have been successful without television?
Speaker No, I don’t. I think that the television made an enormous contribution. I was sent down for a couple of days at various times on Little Rock. And some of these stories I would.
Speaker Yes. Is how should I put it? Well, you’ve got some places in the south at a time when the civil rights marches have started, when civil rights movement has started. Now, you’ve found people acting defensively. Wish you wouldn’t go away. And what made it worse for them when they we began hearing from their relatives in Philadelphia or somewhere saying, hey, I saw this thing on television. How can you be treating these people? So, I mean, it is a perfect, perfect function of television to enlarge what would be done in very small. If this were only in Little Rock or this wrong. Governor Faubus standing in front of the schoolhouse door. And and there there were some little story not very full in the local newspapers or even two paragraphs on the AP. I don’t think I would have had that effect. There is nothing like experiencing something on television to really know what you were talking about.
Speaker Now, the civil rights is I mean, to a certain degree, when you all take this position, simply Cronkite is being very objective in the civil rights case. Was it a very was it challenging for someone like Cronkite?
Speaker Yes. To be objective when something like how do you be objective Rove?
Speaker And the way he does it does justice to you. In most cases, you lose your objectivity when you’re doing a documentary as opposed to when you’re doing a little two, three. And he stood the door. He said this. They said that in a day that goes by and you have no great temptation to be other than objective, clear, it’s all terribly short to crisp, brutal headlines. But the one and the one who really experienced it was Howard K. Smith who is in those days a very important commentator for CBS, did the kind of commentary at the end of a documentary in which he talked about the sin of deprivation of civil rights. And they showed this documentary to stations around the country before it went on the air. A couple of the southern stations said that they would opt out of the network and that went on the air. And so apparently he said live going to run it. And Howard Smith said, yeah, we go around with my commentary. We’re not going to use your commentary because we have threats from our southern stations to kill the commentary. Howard Smith left. Somehow, quite right.
Speaker Never went through an ordeal like that.
Speaker I mean, he manages to keep abreast of things, and if he is now making up on the all the editorials he didn’t do, he has a lot of them to make up.
Speaker But do you feel that in his reporting of civil rights, he he reported in a way that that did affect public opinion?
Speaker The civil rights movement affected public opinion as long as soon as Americans were allowed to witness it.
Speaker This was not a question of whether the good of the reporting was on the whole objective, except for a couple of longer commentaries. And that was it. You show people I mean, there is there is if Walter Cronkite says and now we take you to and then come back and get some more. I mean, what you’re doing is involving Americans by the by the instrument of television. You make this kind of a national Saigon’s with everybody sitting around the table is sharing the same experience. That’s very powerful stuff.
Speaker I wanted to ask you about the national say, listen to this. Do you feel that television coverage changed the political process?
Speaker 1952 television has changed the political price of a one very vital way. Political campaigns are fought now mainly by television, buying television time is the most expensive thing you can do in a political campaign. And if you get now corruption, bribery, if you get people getting money from K Street and all the rest of it. The reason that there’s so much money, it has to be use it because you needed to buy television. If we could do that me, I’d be an advocate for something myself. If we could do was done in Britain, Germany, France and other countries that there is no paid television. In the six weeks before a political ad, before an election, everybody was on the same footing. I didn’t have to go out scrounging. Ten dollars here. A thousand dollars zera. A luncheon here, big things. All of that is directly due to the necessity of raising money for television. If you eliminated that necessity, you’d clean up politics very soon.
Speaker Now, were you. I know you were a journalist before you went to CBS, right.
Speaker But after 50 to do you. Did you. Were you. Did you attend the 52 elections? I mean, did you cover that at all?
Speaker Not the 52. Nope. I you. No, I didn’t I did not come back from Europe until 1953. My first my first year eventually were 19.
Speaker My first convention is. 1956.
Speaker Now, in the 1964 convention, can you talk a little bit about the competition between CBS and NBC with Huntley Brinkley or Cronkite had the whole field more or less to himself.
Speaker Nobody took the attitude, never thought seriously until NBC came up with a formula of his own. If they didn’t have Walter Cronkite, if at least have two people and they took these two young men, Huntley and Brinkley, and they tried it out and it clicked a click, they they they had overlapping talents. One was just the facts, ma’am. The other one. Brinkley made ironic little things that was amuse you if you could follow them. And and slowly, the ratings of NBC began to creep up until they became fairly serious. Challenge to Cronkite, an evening news.
Speaker And what happened in the 64 elections? He was fired.
Speaker He was simply fired for he didn’t have the ratings. And so they substituted for trying to Section 215, Bob Trout and Murrow and most totally unlikely combinations and may have made it worse or worse. Yeah. I met as a recall hall meeting, Walter, in the in the cafeteria in our building at 57 Street just after.
Speaker He had been taken off the conventions and after it was announced that we had a new combination of people and.
Speaker I won’t I won’t say that he sounded bitter. Is really too much of a smooth settlement for that.
Speaker But it was a man who’s lived for the role of Uncle Walter to be told you’re not going to be it anymore. We’ve got some new kids here, and it was quite devastating.
Speaker He seems to have come out on the top and in the end he came out on top and then at the end they they did they they decided to try to.
Speaker Murthy was immensely uncomfortable during the whole thing is not his thing at all. And Trout didn’t like having to play up to. It was just a total mess. And in the end, they brought back Murro and he went on doing what he had been doing.
Speaker They brought back home.
Speaker Yes. I’m sorry. Yes.
Speaker Do you think that part of that was that all of a sudden you had Huntley Brinkley, who were sort of a lighter tone to the news, and then all of a sudden the world explodes? Kennedy’s assassination. That was just one thing after another. The escalation of Vietnam, that somehow Cronkite had the kind of presence to take us through that clutter, always managed to maintain his dignity, his personality.
Speaker He rarely raised his voice. And when they all found out how wrong they had been days, how to bring back Cronkite.
Speaker I have a couple more quick questions to have to leave now pretty soon. OK.
Speaker I want to ask you about the network coverage. Particular CBS is coverage of the hostage crisis and the impact that it had on the U.S. government.
Speaker Which hostage?
Speaker I’m sorry, the Iran hostage.
Speaker I mean, with the embassy.
Speaker What’s the question? The question is, what impact did the news, especially CBS and the way the U.S. government dealt with the crisis? Did it have any impact?
Speaker What my my recollection is that it was President Carter very quickly realized that if he didn’t solve the hostage crisis before the election, he would be having great trouble getting reelected. And that was indeed why they did this rather desperate thing of trying to fly in helicopters and rescue them. It was simply because Carter and his people were so simply. Dreaded. What was going to happen in the election? And, of course, they made it worse.
Speaker And do you think that it was fair? That’s not the right word, but to the fact that every night Cronkhite would say, well, this is the forty ninth day of the hostage crisis, its 100th day of the crisis.
Speaker Was that a little bit over the top?
Speaker Like it’s over the top? It was. It was a way of presenting the news. ABC was doing something that to ABC started the show at that point titled America Held Hostage.
Speaker Which now is Nightline, the precursor of Nightline was something called America Held Hostage. And then every day there had something about the hostage crisis in Tehran.
Speaker My last question is talk a little bit about Cronkite’s fascination in space. And what do you think that he gave his interest and his study and his involvement with the space program? What do you think? Did it have any effect in terms of how we saw the exploration of space?
Speaker It stands to reason you say simple matter of statement, that anything which reflects a lot of attention from the CBS Evening News or the other, for that matter, the other news programs, anything it gets a lot of television attention is ipso facto important. If it wasn’t important before, it is important because television sets was important. And as to Walter, in space, he has several enthusiasm. There is a there is a big boy part of him and that that big boy part of him. You know, he would love to go up in space. He’s applied for it. So it hasn’t quite happened yet.
Speaker But that is the idea. How shall I say Cronkite is the right stuff? He feels a part of that culture is one of the things that makes him so attractive on the air is that he reflects the culture of America.
Speaker Are there any other kind of moments in the time that you worked on, you know, worked with Cronkite as a reporter that really stand out in your experience of him when he really came through worse?