Transcript:

Speaker Clean water. We were on my ruban, Frank, and more. It was kind of different intellectual crowd and they didn't take the war. It's it's not that they didn't take it seriously. They didn't make the investment. And they should have. I thought we'd talked about this and they only sent single correspondents. They rarely was hand somebody who was married with children. And I was married with children. And it was it was a mistake not to have gone. On the other hand, is I like to take over the war at home, which was the other part of the story.

Speaker Yeah, that's that's where I just sort of, you know, I wasn't. Yeah, right. Right. Because been. I start with when you came on the anchor desk at NBC, were you aware of the competition between Huntley Brinkley and Cronkite? Was there sort of a history that you sort of came into?

Speaker Oh, sure. I mean, I joined NBC when Huntley Brinkley were the premiere anchor team in America. They were more than just an anchor team. They were a cultural phenomenon. There had never been anything like that before. They couldn't get him off an airplane anywhere without hordes of people there wanting their photographs taken with them and autographs. Walter comes on and the challenge begins. And then I remember vividly in the fall of 1963, when both broadcast decided to go from fifteen minutes to a half an hour. And Walter, one first. And that was an indication of the aggressiveness of CBS. So we were very I was working at an NBC affiliate out in Omaha, but they had come out to see us because we were a very important affiliate to that is the NBC News people had and they said we need more material because we're going to have half an hour. This going to be a big fight. That's coming up within two years. I was working for NBC in Los Angeles and was keenly aware of the competition during the 64 convention.

Speaker There was a story that Cronkite was fired from the conventions because of the competition. Can you tell that story from from your point, from the NBC point of view, what happened?

Speaker Well, I don't it's always been intriguing to me what happened in 1964. Huntley and Brinkley own the conventions because they invented a new form of reporting on them. It was much more of a narrative form. And David was a master storyteller in the booth. Rubin, Frank and his genius sent to correspondents out onto the floor, not just to do interviews, but to tell stories every night about what was happening. It became a kind of dramatic narrative, and that was the best way to tell the story of American politics.

Speaker Walter was not competing successfully against that. So they decided at CBS, one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen, to replace it with Robert Trout and and with Roger Mudd, Robert Trout representing the beginning of CBS Radio News, and Roger Mudd, a really gifted young broadcaster on the rise. I always thought it was such an insult to Walter, and he went to the convention and wandered around and he got a lot of attention from people saying, aren't you? Aren't your feelings hurt? What do you think about being here? A memory with a pipe showing a lot of dignity.

Speaker But that was emblematic of the competition that exists. And of course, NBC just cleaned up of that convention in terms of ratings. There was an overwhelming ratings victory and Walter was back in 1968. NBC still continue to do well, but CBS by then was a much more formidable organization.

Speaker So what do you think happened in terms of that transition? Was that period where NBC was first, then CBS? How do you account for the fact that Cronkite helps that position?

Speaker I think a couple of things happen. I think that at NBC, The Chattaway and David Brinkley team broke up and that was a big piece of it. I think David got a little bored with being there every night. I think that CBS had its act together. They had a very strong cast of reporters and they just went out. And in that wire service way covered the hell out of the news every night when America was in turmoil, civil rights movement, anti war, war in Vietnam, Cultural Revolution going on. And Cronkite was just as steady as they go. I remember when he first landed on the cover, I, I think Newsweek magazine. And it was a declaration. And David was not happy. I was working close to him at that point. And he was not happy that Walter had pulled even at that point. But it was a testimony to doing the right thing and doing it very well. And NBC was trying to find its new phase of life. We had contributing correspondents and John Chancellor and Sander Vanocur and Jack Perkins and Douglas Kiker. And you didn't quite know who was going to be on there and when. And it wasn't not as driven by the. Day's news, as we had been in the past.

Speaker Now, when you start your career with Porter, that's OK. You started as a reporter. You and you were growing up, in a sense, with television. Were you aware of Cronkite? Oh, sure. I mean, were there any particular stories that sort of stick out in your memory from those early years?

Speaker Everyone remembers, Walter, on the day that Jack Kennedy was assassinated. When the president was murdered, CBS was on the air first.

Speaker As I remember, NBC was in a down period. We were not on the network because I was doing local news in Omaha and I had to go down and broadcast it to our Omaha audience. And Walter was on the air on the CBS station and he was in place in the newsroom. NBC got Chet back from lunch and it was kind of confusing at the beginning.

Speaker And then he was just such a great reporter with such humanity when he announced the death of the president. You know, he teared up, took off his glasses. And I thought that was a quantum leap forward for CBS.

Speaker Do think that in a way, during the turbulent time of the 60s and 70s, Cronkite played a role in sort of reassuring the public. I mean, what kind of role did he play?

Speaker Well, the word that's always used with Walter is avuncular. Uncle Walter was there every night. And it was a different time in America. There were really only two networks, NBC and CBS. And people would come home at the end of the day and tune to one or the other.

Speaker And when you go back and look at the numbers, they did it pretty much with parity. Walter was ahead. But, you know, there was pretty even distribution.

Speaker And Walter was there like an uncle in your living room, someone that you could trust. He had gravitas. He was obviously committed to what he was doing. And he looked like somebody who belonged in your family. So I think that was an important part of it. And as I say, he had a very strong supporting cast.

Speaker You yourself became number one anchor at NBC. Did you do you feel that as that second generation of serious news anchor people, did you feel that there was something that you learned from these that your generation? Was there something you took from someone like Walter Cronkite?

Speaker Sure. I think my generation of anchors, Dan, Peter and I. What we did was continue the tradition of being reporters, not just anchors. Were there just not to put on makeup and read out loud. That we brought our reportorial instincts and skills to that job every night. And then we had the advantage of the technology that allowed us to get out from behind the desk easily and go to South Africa when Mandela was released, because we had satellites that could get the story back or go to the Berlin Wall the night that it came down or be in Tiananmen Square to go around the world with these cataclysmic events were happening and take our reporter not just skills, but passions with us. We wanted to be on the scene as correspondents. If we hadn't been anchors, we would have been there as as the lead correspondents. I like to think.

Speaker Television news is a business now. It was them, it was them, it was them.

Speaker Yeah, people often say, oh, what's happened now is that these networks are owned by corporations and it's become a business. Bill Paley was in business. He was not running a nonprofit organization. RCA owned NBC. It was a company that made television sets, Defense Department components and a variety of other enterprises. It's always been a business. And when people say but they weren't in the business of making a profit in the news division. But in a way they were because the success of the news division would help determine the profitability of the rest of the network. And certainly the affiliates, the affiliates were making a lot of money out of news. And one of the ways they made a lot of money out of news is that they had a big attraction, if you will, in the success of the network broadcasts that came on the air at the dinner hour around the country. So I've always felt that that argument that it's changed is a little bit specious. I just want to get right to the brink.

Speaker I'm going to just ask the question. Yeah. I want to talk a little bit. You were reporting while Vietnam was happening. You were here reporting on what was going on in the United States. What role do you feel you played in the civil rights movement?

Speaker And can you be a little specific about things like this that Selma, Martin Luther King's march, Birmingham? Give us a sense of that period and how television helped with the civil rights movement, did it not?

Speaker Andrew Young and the others who were Dr. Martin Luther King's side say without reservation that they could have been successful without the evening network news and the unalloyed truth of the video that came out of the south.

Speaker The rest of the country kind of knew about segregation in the South. They didn't know the depths of it, nor the did they know, I believe, the lengths to which the southern white establishment would go to preserve the old way of life. That became very clear in Selma. In Americus, Georgia. Jackson, Mississippi. At Ole Miss.

Speaker And all those places where there was great violence visited upon people who were trying to change the old way of life. And television cameramen and correspondents ran great risks and doing all some of them were beaten up. I was a young reporter working out of Atlanta in those days and I would get on airplanes late at night and go to places like Haiti Ville or Americus, Georgia. And it was scary. The Klan would be out. You would never drive by yourself down a country road. You'd always get kind of a caravan.

Speaker And when you got to a small town, you generally go to the black funeral home because that would be the most successful business in the black neighborhoods. And there you could find sanctuary.

Speaker Do you think that there was anything extraordinary about or anything in particular that you could comment about Cronkite's role in reporting the civil rights movement?

Speaker Well, I think it would be wrong to suggest that one or another had a larger contribution to all that. I think all the networks performed heroically and were very important in engaging the country in a national dialogue.

Speaker As a journalist, looking back, one of the regrets that I have is that we didn't spend enough time in reporting on the black culture. We fully treated that issue as a black and white issue. It was much more complicated than that. There were shades of interest within the black community, for example. And we didn't get at that very successfully, in part because we had a bunch of white boys reporting the story. We didn't do a very good job of integrating our workforce, for example, and finding people who could tell us a story from the ground up.

Speaker That's good. That's great. I'd like to now go back. Well, we had this very term altruist period with the civil rights and war protests going on in the country in the interim. We have the space broadcasts. And I was wondering if. And I think people associate the space broadcasts with Cronkite. Did you feel that he had a special affinity with the space program?

Speaker You know what? When the space program first began, I was still in college and I used to take classes on a moment's notice for a variety of reasons. But when there was a space shot on, I'd literally call my professor and say, I'm going to be there today. I'm going to be at home watching this because it was America's greatest adventure. And you always had the feeling that Walter was going to slip on board at any moment. You know, I was a particular student because I thought this is the kind of work that I may want to do one day. But I knew that he liked to race sports cars, that he'd been a daring correspondent during World War Two. And his utter enthusiasm for the space program really came through at NBC. We had a great expert on space, but was Frank McGee. And he wasn't not the principal evening anchor. So there was that differentiation going on there. And. Walter wanted to land on the moon. He wanted to go into space and I think he conveyed that.

Speaker Now, do you remember the Apollo 13 report?

Speaker Well, I don't. Enough to. Yeah. I mean, I remember it, but I don't I don't have any specific numbers.

Speaker Maybe you could talk a little bit about the reason the space program became so important during the Cold War period. What was that all about? Well, it was.

Speaker First of all, we had these very heroic looking young former test pilots and fighter jocks that were being celebrated in a Life magazine.

Speaker They became our pop stars. NASA knew what it was doing in terms of marketing them in that way. And those days. And then we knew that we were in a great contest against Russia, which had gotten into space first. And it was playing out on television. You could watch it at home wherever you were, if you didn't have to be at Cape Canaveral. You know, you could sit by your television set and watch it. So there was this nationalistic feeling that it's a race. We've got to get there. This is our team, John Glenn and Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, all the others. And there was always the great possibility of something going wrong. And it did from time to time. Gus Grissom was lost in the fire on board. And you had Walter Cronkite there as a play by play man. He was kind of the John Madden of the space program.

Speaker The let's just quickly going to Vietnam when Cronkite came out with his commentary about the stalemate. What effect? From your point of view? Were you surprised by Cronkhite crossing that line?

Speaker No, I admired him for doing it.

Speaker I remember when he did it and I thought he had the credentials and the standing in this country to go out to Vietnam and determine for himself how well the war was going. There was great confusion. And if you go back and read the language that he used. It's much more condition than a lot of people now remember. He was really. Reporting what he was seeing, it wasn't a personal statement. And it was based on facts. And that, too, is a role of a reporter in the famous line of Lyndon Johnson. I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America. I think it was the beginning of the unraveling of our commitment to Vietnam.

Speaker Now, since you are home reporting on what was going on, did you see a shift in terms of I mean, the war continued for another four, five years, Africa. Cronkite made that statement. You. Did you in your reporting, did you see a shift in what was happening on the campuses, people coming out protesting? Was that sort of did that Marcus change, do you think?

Speaker I think it mark more of a change behind the scenes in Washington than it did on the streets.

Speaker I don't think current generations have a full appreciation of the utter turmoil of that time about what was going on. You know, you also had Bobby Kennedy out campaigning on campuses and saying to young people who were white and privilege and getting deferments. This is wrong. You know, in the ghettos and the barrios of this country, people are going there and you have to examine your own conscience. Gene McCarthy was a successful challenge against Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire, raising the anti-war movement to a level that no one had anticipated just two months earlier.

Speaker So there was great tumult in the country at that time and America was struggling with how it felt about the war.

Speaker In fact, if you go back and look at what happened in the fall of 1968, Hubert Humphrey had been a supporter of the war and Richard Nixon had been a supporter of the war. Got most of the votes and so did George Wallace, who really wanted to prosecute the war.

Speaker So it was not a kind of landslide turnaround, which Walter said something, and the country turn on a dime. People were still struggling with it. A couple of years later.

Speaker Now, do you feel that there is a liberal bias to the media?

Speaker I don't think there's a liberal bias. What I often say is that if you're a reporter, you spend a lot of time with what I call the unrepresentative constituencies of this country, the poor, the people who are banging their head against the government establishment or the corporate establishment of some kind.

Speaker And we get their stories on the air. I mean, that's part of the function of journalism. And just by putting their story on the air that we became the eyes of those who are opposed to what they represent or opposed to their grievances, we become their messengers and therefore their advocates. You know, journalism is about what's new, what's different. What's changed from yesterday to today. Conservatism is about preservation, not status quo, about not changing things. And so I think a lot of conservatives see that change is dangerous to society. That's what we report on. They'd better find somebody to blame. So they blame us. I'm always astonished. And now at the stage of my life, a little amused at how some so-called conservative watchdogs can find in a sentence some deeply rooted bias that they think that I have my friends who know me well.

Speaker I think Find Me is pretty much a centrist in life, you know. I know who I am. I've been married for a long time. I've successfully raised three young women who are great citizens in this country. They're not out there on the edge in some way. They've got great passions about what they're doing. Some things I feel the country could use a little more government help. A lot of things I feel in the country rely should rely more on individual responsibility. I'm kind of a mix.

Speaker But as as you now that you've left the anchor desk with Cronkite, he's become White House. He has. That's his choice is not mine.

Speaker Maybe in a few years he may.

Speaker Well, I. Yeah. People know where I feel about some issues. I you know, I feel strongly about race, but I see race from both sides of the equation. I've done a lot of reporting on race. I feel very strongly about the environment and the consequences of it. And I choose to reflect my feelings in my reporting.

Speaker But Cronkite has become. Yes. What do you see in his activities? Is that all about you?

Speaker I don't know.

Speaker You'd have to ask what you have to ask Walter about that from the outside looking. I mean, what do you see as being less critical about?

Speaker Oh, I think he's been critical on free speech a lot and about he very concerned, I know, about the imposition of narrow values, especially in the area of religion and imposing them on society.

Speaker That's been a big cause of his. I think he's very skeptical about the so-called neo con movement, the neo conservative movement. And what a lot of people perceive to be their moral superiority. But again, this is for Walter to speak for himself. He's fully capable of doing that.

Speaker Quickly go to Watergate and just have time. About three more Azor of Watergate. Cronkite whenever CBS management didn't like it when he came out. Can you tell me a little bit about the effect? When CBS focused on Watergate, the sort of summary programs. What effect did it have in terms of changing the way Watergate was being reported on? Can you talk a little bit about the reporting on the hearings? Was that the first time that the public public was able to actually view the hearings?

Speaker Well, I think all television networks were behind the curve on Watergate. They were slow to pick up on the magnitude of it. I look at that first broadcast that they did that CBS News did. And I guess my one criticism of it was that it was so dense and so reported from the inside. I think the public had trouble understanding what it was all about. I didn't think it was successfully produced. I thought it was a brave and important effort on the part of CBS News. But it was eye spinning when you looked at it, unless you were a real student of what was going on. About halfway through. If you were just a casual observer, you felt excluded from it. It seemed like an insiders report of some kind.

Speaker And we all learned during Watergate how to reported in a more engaging way.

Speaker I was reporting from the White House in the fall of 1973 and having dinner with Bob Woodward one night.

Speaker And he said to me, why aren't the networks better at doing the follow the money reporting? And I said, because it's tough to visualize that. And we are a visual medium. One of the ways that we'll be able to do that is that we're now working harder at what I described at that time as animated and graphic descriptions of what was going on. And he said, you're going to reduce it to a cartoon. I said, No, Bob, no. But we have to get new visual techniques so that people can follow the money as they can in print. Television is a very ephemeral business. It's instantly here an instantly gone. You have to connect to them in a way.

Speaker And what about the Watergate hearings? Was that the first time that we really, as a public were able to use something that's so well reported?

Speaker Yeah, I think that the Watergate hearings were of paramount importance in getting the country to understand that there was something terribly amiss here in Washington. Hearings have always been kind of theatrical. The old Army McCarthy hearings, for example. First time I ever saw Bobby Kennedy is when he was a counsel and doing the labor racketeering hearings that had that high pitch, very New England voice. It was quite arresting at the time. I was a young man back in South Dakota watching all that.

Speaker The Watergate hearings took that to a whole different level. They played out in part because everyone was so typecast. You had the country lawyer and Sam Ervin reading from the Constitution and that holding way and the scowls and the the arrogance of John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman.

Speaker And then the cool clinical way in which John Dean was his beautiful blonde wife, sitting in the audience describing a cancer on the presidency. That was language that everyone understood.

Speaker And then, of course, that helped the audience understand, be able to deal with the fact that Nixon finally resigned.

Speaker Right. Oh, it died. It was from the moment of the Watergate hearings on the die was cast. As a correspondent, I had a great friend from the Wall Street Journal by the name of Fred Silverman, and we became a buddies. And you kind of needed a buddy system to check against one another. And occasionally we would go to lunch. So I got a story and one anecdotal way. I had this friend from The Wall Street Journal by the name of Fred Zimmerman and every day. Compare notes because you didn't want to make a mistake, and from time to time we would go to lunch and we didn't get out of the pressroom very often. And one day at lunch, I said to Fred, what they're doing doesn't make sense.

Speaker And Fred said, until you remember that they were guilty. And I said, oh, yeah, that. But no one from the White House press went out and said, they're guilty until the smoking gun tapes. We reported what was going on. The case was built much as it would be in a courtroom room, brick by brick by brick. Saturday Night Massacre, expletive deleted. A big show of briefing books that contained very little material that got to the heart of the matter.

Speaker Now, just the question I'm jumping now to Carter. The hostage crisis. Do you feel that the way the media reported on the hostage crisis was sort of destroyed Carter's presidency?

Speaker Crackdown. I don't think you can blame the media for bringing it down.

Speaker Jimmy Carter, the Iran hostage crisis was a real crisis in America. And you go back in American history when American hostages were taken. It got a lot of attention on the tabloids and newspapers every day. And presidents dealt with it in different ways. People also have to remember that during the Carter presidency, interest rates went to almost 20 percent. The economy was in grave difficulty with the money supply. We had a serious energy crisis in the midst of his presidency. Jimmy Carter retreated to the mountaintop. So there's a crisis of confidence in the country and fired half of his cabinet. So there were lots of contributing factors to the undermining of the public confidence in the Carter administration. The hostage situation was just a piece of that. People also have to remember that late into the campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980, it was a very close race in the polls. It wasn't until the end that it broke.

Speaker Last question. Where do you feel? What do you think will be the journalistic?

Speaker Oh, I think Walter Cronkite will always be synonymous with television anchor.

Speaker You know, I work for the other team. Chet Huntley, David Brinkley were my role early heroes. And I learned so much, especially from David. As a reporter, I hate that they occupy an equal and special place as well. But I have no illusions about when people think about television anchors. They think Walter Cronkite. Moreover, I have the highest regard for him personally. He's been a very generous friend to me over the years. That was important to me when I was starting. He's a bon vivant. He loves to go out at night.

Speaker Even his late 80s, late 90s. He's always got something to say here is that we both like adventurous lifestyle. He's a sailor and he's a guy who, you know, raced cars at one point in his life. He likes a good time. He is Walter Cronkite.

Tom Brokaw
Interview Date:
2006-05-01
Runtime:
0:31:13
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-7659c6sk5b
MLA CITATIONS:
"Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 01 May. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/511
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, May 01). Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/511
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). May 01, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/511

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