Transcript:

Speaker Sailing's a very challenging sport. It's it's it's wonderfully intricate and ultimately your life is at stake because if you get it wrong in a storm, you're dead. Good God. And for someone like Walter, who covered World War Two and Korea and Vietnam, it's no surprise to me at all that he loves sailing. It's like long distance skiers or mountain climbers.

Speaker Wherever there is a risk that you could really hurt yourself or get killed. You get all the rewards that go with a successful voyage or a successful mountain expedition, whatever it may be. Once you've had the taste of adrenaline in your mouth, it never goes away. And and without suggesting that it may be an addiction, it certainly is a hobby that that someone like Walter would really love. You know, he's he's got that sense of adventure and it served him well.

Speaker His daughter, Kate Cronkhite, said that there is a quality of a Walter Mitty about Walter and knowing him outside of just the work situation. Can you tell me a little bit about him? Did you ever see that side of Walter Cronkite?

Speaker Some of us in this profession have learned how to be all things to all people. It's it's how you get a good story. It's by being receptive to whomever you're with. You know, you could be with a criminal. And in order to get that story, you'd have to be polite and amenable and all the rest. Walter certainly has had to use those skills of being polite to everyone to get the good story, to get the details of a good story, to win people's confidence and and trust, to be able to tell it. He he also loves the approbation of his colleagues. He said it in his book. He respected the opinion of his colleagues more than anything else in life. And and his colleagues truly respected him. But he would have a party every Christmas time at his home in New York for the staff of the CBS Evening News. Just the staff. And my partner was one of his secretaries invited me to go along to one of these Christmas parties. And it was lively and lovely house and great, great food and and all the rest. But 30, 40, 50 people all there, all the technicians, all the secretaries and Walter and Betsy. And at a certain point, around 11 or twelve o'clock at night, Walter would would put on the record player as a bump and grind dance. That's the only way to describe it. And Walter would get a towel and slowly take his clothes off to this music, doing the deaths, doing a strip tease. And it was the highlight of every Christmas party at Walter's house that this great man would take his clothes off to the music. And he seemed as blissfully engaged in in in his performance as he would be sitting in front of in front of the desk doing the evening news. Yeah, there was a quality of Walter Mitty about him.

Speaker Now, I understand that you also conducts loves conducting and you do.

Speaker Have you ever seen him? No, I haven't. No. That's amazing.

Speaker I can understand it. Walter likes challenges. He always has. The tougher the count, the challenge, the harder he'd try, whether it was mastering the intricate details of a space launch with, you know, booster power and and feet per second and all that stuff. All that scientific stuff.

Speaker Or it was the the the the proper beat of an orchestra. Walter. Love challenges, you know, sailing from point to point, whatever it may be, learning a story inside out so that he'd be able to tell it correctly, accurately. Yeah. The man loves challenges.

Speaker I want to go back to picking up something that you said about Walters. He said he spoke like most of us. I would rather have the approval of my colleagues than at any other jury.

Speaker Was that part, do you think, of the change of heart on Vietnam that he wanted to be with his journal journalist colleagues on on this one?

Speaker In Vietnam in 1968, when Walter came to visit, journalists were divided in their personal opinions about what was going on in the war. You had those of us like Walter, who went out into the field and got shot at and got the story from the soldiers, you know, the captains and majors and lieutenants and sergeants who were in the field. And you had a larger part of the press corps sitting around Saigon in Danang and only occasionally making a brief foray into the field to get their stories. And and journalists were divided about how the war was going. You know, most journalists would not have expressed a view about it. Some journalists would have expressed a view that was wrong, simply inaccurate. You can draw a conclusion about how a war is going.

Speaker Just as we do in this day on inconclusive evidence, it's much wiser to wait for things to take shape, to develop. To write the Vietnam War by 1968 had reached the point where you could see that it was going to go on forever, that it was going to go on for another 20 years, just as you could see in 1970 that the war in Northern Ireland would go on for 20 or 30 years and that no one would. That the result would be inconclusive. That's what Walter saw when he got to Vietnam.

Speaker And it wasn't the it wasn't the efforts of his colleagues at CBS or anywhere else to convince Walter that the war really wasn't worth fighting any longer. It was the fact that he could read it, read it for himself.

Speaker I'm interested in your opinion. I mean, when do you feel that a journalist. I mean, as you said, you you want to report what you're saying and be as objective as possible. But in one situations, do you feel that a journalist has the right? A news correspond has a right to cross over and offer. I mean. What is your opinion about that?

Speaker I'm pretty patriotic. I take my citizenship very seriously. Possibly because I live abroad and and have for a long time. I don't see all the faults in American society daily as as perhaps many others do. I believe that a journalist has a responsibility. To tell the truth in all circumstances, and when it's no longer possible to tell the truth in your news reporting, you have to find some way of doing it. Whether it's writing a book or an essay for a magazine or quitting journalism and getting up on the stump or becoming a politician, whatever it takes, informing the public is what I was taught. Good journalism is all about. And when your country is at war for 10 years and nothing is being done that you can see rigorously to stop it. And the soldiers are telling you this war ain't going to be won in my lifetime. When when good, honest soldiers turn against a war, it's a journalist's responsibility to say so. And when they have the effect of convincing you that they're right and all the other information you're able to gather convinces you that this is the case. You have a big responsibility to cross over.

Speaker Speak.

Speaker During the Vietnam War, turn the American report into a kind of Cassandra warning us of the pitfalls of this policy. Did Cronkite give the dissidents legitimacy? Did the older Cronkite legitimize dissent coming from the young?

Speaker I don't know.

Speaker We reported. The dissent, the anti-war demonstrations. We reported all of that, but not out of context. And compared to the amount of coverage that the administration got that the military got that. Other parts of American society got who supported the war. It was relatively minor. The anti-war movement in the United States was not as big as some people like. Now, looking back to think that it was until the public decided that it was no longer, my mother took part in a march in 1968 called Mothers Against the War.

Speaker That's when I knew that middle America had been lost. When when my mom, who had two sons and a brother in Vietnam and four nephews, all serving in one capacity or another, either in the military or in journalism, went out and marched against the war, I.

Speaker I realized that that the message was getting through.

Speaker I remember that march.

Speaker I'll give you a direct answer. Yeah.

Speaker I don't think Walter Cronkite legitimized the anti-war movement by broadcasting what it was doing on national television.

Speaker This was all a part of our very turbulent emotional society at the time. And from 1967 onward, the anti-war movement gained in credibility, not because it was on national television and it was only rarely, but because the American public was beginning to realize that the war was going to go on indefinitely without a victory.

Speaker Do you think that the fact that Cronkite had served in World War Two legitimized in some ways make it didn't make it easier for him to criticize Vietnam?

Speaker Do you think the fact that he had had all that experience in World War Two, did that help? Did that factor into.

Speaker I think you judge every war on its merits, and no two wars are alike, except for the fact that people get killed horribly, violently, repeatedly. So Walter's experience in World War Two may have given him more credence. But what's more important is it made it possible for Walter to make a judgment. About Vietnam. To see it for what it was.

Speaker This wasn't a first time cub war reporter going off to have bullish fired at him and to react emotionally when Walter was a cool headed fellow. He's very brave. He knows how to face danger. He knows how to extract some elements of truth from a story when he's being shot at, which is not easy to do. Walter did all that he did in World War Two. And he he did it in Vietnam. So, yes, he was stronger and a more credible reporter for having done it. He was also older. And he also had a track record for being a very good news reporter, working for an organization that had a similar track record.

Speaker I just think I've covered Vietnam fairly well, just. Oh, yes. And this. Walters said. CBS News got it until a lot of hot water over Vietnam, and Cronkite said we must never, never, never consider the consequences that our reporting will have on people or on ourselves. All we must do is to be sure that we are right, that the facts are correctly presented. Do you agree with this statement?

Speaker It depends on the kind of story.

Speaker To be honest, if you're a reporter covering the same story day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and that story is a war, you begin to question your motives for every word. Is this an accurate depiction of what I saw today? Is this a careful analysis of all the information that I've gathered for the past week? Am I being honest to myself? OK. It's it's not enough to be honest to the public journalistically. But everybody tries to do that. I mean, we're not propagandists. We don't do that for a living. No, we're not. We're not self-serving. We're not opportunists. Although there are opportunities, we're not opportunists in that we only seize the opportunities. For us, the opportunity is to get the story. OK. I mean, there there are some very high minded values that good reporters bring to the process of gathering information and reporting it to the public. But when you've been on the same story where the consequences are so great, where lives and and and American, American. The future of the United States is involved. You begin to think about what affect your stories are having. I certainly did. I don't know if Walter Cronkite did, but I certainly do.

Speaker I can do that again if it was to. No, I thought that was very good. I. So what you're saying is that you start judging your own.

Speaker Your own motives. I mean, I'm just torn.

Speaker You get letters from people saying saying how they're reacting to your your reporting, especially if it's, you know, if it's. If you're reporting about death. People getting getting killed out there. My point is that. If you're on the same story, you become a bit of an expert, you become very well informed about that story, and you keep working very, very hard at that, at covering it so that you're not bringing just the experience of a day's involvement in that in that particular story to the task of writing it. You're bringing months and even years of experience at the same place. To bear. So that. When you're writing, you're wondering sometimes. Is that the right thing to say or not? Is that going too far? I think journalists who covered the same story for a long time may wonder if they have as big an audience as the CBS Evening News did. What effect it's having on the public.

Speaker The question I lost it earlier on came back to me, something that Walter said, which I thought was so interesting, is he said that it's like there's there's a new CBS News and then there's this hallway and there's entertainment, like there's this huge vacuum from entertainment that's sort of like trying to suck the news towards the entertainment, become more into entertainment news. Do you? Do you see that the quality of I mean, do you feel that the quality of journalism has changed over the years from the time when you started and you worked with some of these old timers towards you see today? Do you feel like the news is being sucked into entertainment and we as a public are getting less of the important kind of news that we should be getting?

Speaker If you are an American citizen or resident today, you have the opportunity, if you want to make the effort to get the news as never before. Accurately, honestly, in in so much detail. That was not possible 20 or 40 years ago when I was going through through the ranks as a young reporter. There is so much more opportunity today to make up your mind, to form an opinion and to express it than ever before because of cable, because of the new outlets and in print reporting, because of Web sites and bloggers. I think that the reporting today is probably better than it ever has been before. There has been a drift in some areas, particularly magazine reporting for television and magazine reporting in general, for that matter, toward entertainment oriented stories. OK. And there is the cult of the personality today on television in particular, but also in newspapers and magazines. Yes, the American public, for all of its marvelous diversity, has expressed more interest in the lives of the stars or the musicians or, you know, famous people, actors and all of the rest. But at the same time, I know that it's possible by reading papers, by getting on the Internet, by watching cable television and the networks. To get all the facts, you know, they they the presentations may have changed some of the ways in which we are shown or given information may have changed and they've been jazzed up. And, you know, there are a lot more graphics and color pictures today than there were a long time ago and in Walter's era. But I don't think that the fundamental principle of good, honest journalism has changed. In two out of three in the march to Baghdad. I was embedded with a very good battalion of the hundred and First Airborne with two newspaper reporters, one for USA Today, one for the Los Angeles Times. Much younger than me. And they were brilliant reporters. They didn't cut corners. They didn't go for the personalities, they just wrote good, solid news reporting news stories every day that we were there. I went back at the end of the war or what we thought was the end of the war. And I read their stuff and it was excellent. It was really very, very good. So that kind of boosted my confidence.

Speaker And in print reporters here.

Speaker Do you think the modern civil rights movement would have been successful or even possible with that television?

Speaker You know, I haven't thought about it. Let's see. Yes.

Speaker I think that the civil rights movement was a force in American society, in public life for change that could not be denied, whether it was television. There are not whether radio was there or not, whether newspapers were there or not. That was a force whose time had come just in the way that. Women's right to vote. Came of age. Without television or many or slavery, the end of slavery came about without television, without radio and without that many newspapers, either the civil rights movement was a force for change that that couldn't couldn't be blocked, couldn't be stopped. It may have been affected in one way or another by by television coverage, by the shock that many Americans felt when seeing demonstrators being shot with water cannons and dogs and, you know, abused by one means or another. But I don't think that civil rights.

Speaker Could have been denied. They are, of course, in many ways, but, you know. As a movement, it couldn't be stopped. You know what I mean? Yeah. I hadn't thought about that.

Speaker But I mean, in a sense, a civil rights movement came at the same time that television was really becoming the medium.

Speaker I mean, so I guess that was the reason for the question whether somehow television did have an enormous impact on helping the civil rights movement.

Speaker I think it's important for people to see what's going on, just as it was important for people to see police officers beating Rodney King. That wasn't an isolated incident. Just as it's important for us to see what's going on in our country. It was important in the 1960s to see what was going on in the south where the civil rights movement existed, where things were happening. And we all deserve to see that in all its context and and see interviews with people on both sides and people with varying opinions of what was going on. All that was made available. I think we're a better nation because of it. We're certainly a better informed nation.

Speaker Certainly an optimist.

Speaker I'm glad to hear that. Because I don't have to live there right now.

Speaker So you're good? Oh, he's he's been away for a while.

Speaker Who is?

Speaker No, I watch all that. I mean, I see the garbage on TV.

Speaker Who is worse for the press? Nixon, Reagan or Bush?

Speaker I don't know. I really don't know. We don't have an opinion.

Speaker When asked if there was a naturally adversarial world between the press and government, Walter Cronkite was wrong. Walter Cronkite said, I hope so.

Speaker Was that the right attitude for a reporter?

Speaker I'm not an adversarial reporter. I don't believe that it's necessary to be an adversary. In the interview process or in the gathering of information, I do think it's necessary to be highly skeptical of all information that comes from people in whose best interest it is to lie to you. So I'm a skeptic. I'm not necessarily an adversary, but I can become one. If you lie to me and if I catch you.

Speaker When Cronkite interviewed Anwar Sadat and confronted him with would you meet him enough in bed again in Israel?

Speaker Do you think Cronkite had some influence in getting these two people together? Do you think he was?

Speaker I know I haven't read the memoirs of either of those guys. And I'm not sure they exist either. But anyway. I don't know if if they were playing the game, you know, the the the public relations game, I think Sa'adat trusted Walter. Whether Bagan did or not. Is another question, but if it seemed at the moment that Walter asked this unexpected question. To stop that, it might be a good thing because Walter was suggesting it, then maybe he went with it. But I know it's awfully hard to tell.

Speaker She worked. Where do you think that Cronkite and the sort of history of journalism, where do you think he will fit in or what will people remember most about him?

Speaker What is his major contribution?

Speaker Those of us who watched Walter Cronkite on television in the 60s and the 70s. We'll probably remember him with some nostalgia as a great presenter of the facts, as somebody you could trust as Uncle Walter. Because he was as avuncular in real life as he appeared on the screen, you know, he he's he's just a delightful man to be around. Great storyteller. One of the best raconteurs I've ever met. A story for for any occasion. A funny one. I think we'll remember, Walter, as someone who helped us get through a really tough period in our history. You know, the 60s, the war in Vietnam, the assassinations, not just Kennedy, but his brother and Martin and the others. It was a period of great stress in American life. And Walter seemed unruffled through much of it. You know, just a slight show of emotion from time to time when appropriate is something else. I don't want to sound sentimental because because it wasn't that great a period in American life. But it was momentous. It was historic. We will remember, Walter for the way he told us about it.

Speaker Now, when he retired almost immediately, he said, with every big story, I wish I were covering it. I still do. Are you surprised by that?

Speaker It doesn't surprise me that Walter would want to be out there covering stories even at his age. Today, there's an excitement that goes with covering a big breaking story that for a journalist is a kind of nirvana. It's something that is in your soul. It's something that you've learned how to do. Maybe well learned how to share with others in your team and in network television. It is always a team. The pleasure of getting it right. And the frustration of getting it wrong. It's when it comes down to the deadline of getting your story on the air. There is nothing I know of others in combat that is similar in tension and in in real dramatic tension. It is nerve racking to to to go down to those final few minutes before you go on the air and hope that you've done everything right, that you haven't got the story wrong, that the pictures are all going to all going to match up with with what you've done. You measure your value that way by getting it right. And, you know, it's it's it's just one of the great pleasures in life to do that with a team of people.

Speaker So you you were in the newsroom with Walter when he was on the air. Were you doing separate kind of stories for him or were you actually sometimes where his work was? There are situations where you would ask me to rewrite something or get something new for the broadcast that night.

Speaker If Walter made a suggestion about a story that I was working on, it would be filtered through a producer. He would not deal directly with the correspondence that is done today by some of the anchors in network television. And I think it's regrettable. I'd rather hear the editor or producer who's working on the story with me make a suggestion without telling me it comes from Walter. Or it comes from the anchorperson. And and trust my own judgment of the facts. Enough. To go with the story, Moore said, as hard as it is, there's a lot of interference that goes on in network television between the anchors and the field correspondents. I don't know why that is, but it's very difficult to get your story done. And Walter, being of the old school wouldn't deal in my case, at least with with the correspondent in the field.

Speaker Know, I just really quickly, one thing is if Walter would talk about being a war correspondent, then a foreign correspondent. Can you just for the audience, tell me the difference between a war correspondent and a foreign correspondent?

Speaker There really isn't a difference between being a foreign correspondent and a war correspondent, a war correspondent is a foreign correspondent who occasionally covers wars. I don't know anyone who only covers war. That would be a war correspondent. If. A certain number of wars, say eight or 10 or 12. Come your way and you have to cover them.

Speaker Maybe then you get labeled a war correspondent, but you're both.

Speaker OK. I just wanted to get that.

Speaker All right. My last question is, you know, walking has become extremely outspoken now that he's left the anchor position. And I was very eloquent and outspoken about world affairs, domestic affairs, news business, especially about the lack of foreign the loss of international coverage.

Speaker Do you think international coverage has suffered in the last two decades? And why is it that you think Walter now feels this need to really.

Speaker Express his opinions on many different things. Now that he's left.

Speaker Walters, good citizen, always has been. Always been the representative on the air, at least of mainstream American. You know, he's he's he's loyal to to his government. He's he's loyal to his viewers. He's he's a good, patriotic soul. And for him to see from the outside what's happened to foreign coverage on network news is is unbelievable. You know, it's the public is being denied the kind of international coverage that would make it better informed. You can make the counter argument that by. Getting on the Internet by reading a good newspaper, by subscribing to some good solid magazines and by watching cable television, you can get as much information as you used to be able to get on the evening news with. Fifteen foreign bureaus now down to six.

Speaker But the truth is there are fewer foreign correspondents. There are fewer bureaus. There are a few fewer people working for network television abroad than there were 20 or 30 years ago. And that means a loss of information available to the public. It's because the people who run the networks are no longer the executive producers who put on the evening news and the other broadcasts. The people who run the networks now are the stockholders.

Speaker And the stockholders have decided that what matters most in network television news today in the United States is profit, not information. It's profit. And that's what happens.

Speaker But also with the huge salaries that the anchors are getting. I mean, there's less money to go around for the smaller for the for the foreign desks. I mean, when when people are making these kind of huge salaries, certainly wanted didn't get into that. He left at the point where people were getting these gigantic multimillion dollar contracts.

Speaker I think network news anchors get paid what the market will bear. And as a proportion of the overall budget for news that an anchor person gets, it's it's relatively small. It's you know, if the time came that half the network news budget was in in in salaries for anchors, you might be concerned. The market decides how much, how much, how much anchors get. Now, the real problem is that they're cutting news budgets because there are fewer people watching and as fewer people watch, profits go down.

Speaker Is there anything else about Walter Cronkite that you think I should have asked, that I haven't asked that you want to share with this?

Speaker Other people have probably said it, but Walter was wonderfully self-deprecating. He he could make an interesting. Story out of many of the things that had happened to him. I love the story he tells about being in London here during the Blitz and living in a building in downtown London that had had a porter who would bring tea or breakfasts. When you when you pulled a cord in the morning, did he tell you the story? I'll just quickly tell it. You may not be able to use it, but Walter once told me the story when he was visiting London to attend Wimbledon. Of what happened to him during the Blitz in London in World War Two, and it's one of my favorite Walter Cronkite stories, and I probably told it now as many times as he has, but he's he's just woken up. One morning during the Blitz and he rings the chord that will ring a little bell in the kitchen to alert the porter who's looking after him and others do to come up, and he'd tell him that he wanted his morning coffee or tea or whatever it was.

Speaker And just as he rang the bell, the Arun's air raid sirens went off. And as it happened, a German plane dropped a bomb in their street and blew in all the windows. And the sash and the rest and water was knocked down and the plaster fell off the walls. And a couple of minutes later, as he was dusting himself off, there was a knock on the door. He opens the door and there's the porter, the English porter standing there covered with dust and sudden a few cuts and says, You rang, sir. That's such a great story. And, you know, it's not about Walter Cronkite, it's about the people around him. I think I think Walter is just a great fellow and will be remembered, you know, as as the as the heir to Edward R. Murrow, you know, that he filled that generation after Murrow. And and what's come next is, is what's come next. I guess Dan Rather's era. And now and now another Walter gave us the news every night as honestly as he could. And you couldn't have asked for more.

John Laurence
Interview Date:
2006-10-03
Runtime:
0:36:54
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-pg1hh6cw3d
MLA CITATIONS:
"John Laurence, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 03 Oct. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/526
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, October 03). John Laurence, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/526
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"John Laurence, Walter Cronkite: Witness to History." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). October 03, 2006. Accessed January 25, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/526

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