TVNewsCheck‘s P.J. Bednarski recounts his last e-mail interview with the legendary CBS anchor in which Cronkite discussed some of his biggest stories as well as his take on journalism in the new media.
To the end, Walter Cronkite didn’t quite buy into cable’s 24-hour news cycle. And he may have contributed occasionally to the Huffington Post, but he still didn’t quite embrace the Internet as a sturdy news source.
Cronkite conducted an e-mail “interview” with me in 2008, answering a list of questions I posed to him through his aide, Marlene Adler. At the time, Cronkite was taping occasional commentaries for cable’s Retirement Living Network. The e-mail exchange may have been one of the last times Cronkite commented extensively on news issues, though he was careful to avoid criticizing anyone — networks or anchors, past or present.
He still pushed for a nightly one-hour network newscast (now more than ever an improbability).
Discussing his news menu, Cronkite said, “I depend primarily on what I call traditional news sources — television and print. I do read online newspapers and view national and international television Web sites from time to time, but I would not say I make regular use of them.”
He added, “I enjoyed blogging the few times I contributed to the Huffington Post. My concern about blogging is attribution. The Huffington site and others of its caliber attribute their pieces to known sources. I worry about those sites that operate anonymously and are unreliable or untruthful.”
Yet, he noted jokingly that he employed computer-assisted news gathering long before most journalists did. “The first computer I ever saw used in news reporting was the UNIVAC I, a huge computer system that was so massive it filled an entire room,” he wrote. “It was used to successfully predict the outcome of the 1952 presidential election, which I had the privilege of announcing” (and here a readers should pause for effect) “on television.”
I was told Cronkite preferred the e-mail conversation because he found prolonged conversations too tiring. One associate said a couple minutes could pass before he would complete even one sentence. At the time Cronkite was completing his answers to questions, I had heard from Retirement Living and from Adler that Cronkite was very ill.
In our e-mail exchange, though, he still has a good sense of humor, flashes of which were still evident in the few times in latter years that Cronkite made public appearances. A couple years ago, at an industry event in New York, Cronkite slowly approached the lectern, and then said, “Hello. I’m still Walter Cronkite.” That got the laugh he was looking for and set a slightly self-deprecating tone. There was a way Cronkite carried himself that suggested he really never fit into the “national icon” shoe into which he was placed by history.
In his email exchange with me, he blamed himself for missing the chance to cover the war in Korea after his distinguished reporting of World War II for United Press led to his job at CBS.
“I was a newspaperman in Kansas City when Edward R. Murrow hired me to work for CBS,” he said. “The Korean War was on at the time and being an old war correspondent, I saw it as an opportunity to cover this new war. I believed that CBS was going to send me over there as a television news correspondent. I began doing a nightly news program for WTOP, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., and when months had passed and there was no word about my going to Korea, I contacted the president of CBS in New York, who informed me that going to Korea as a war correspondent was never written into my contract. And anyway, he said, they now had an important sponsor for my news program which was gaining in popularity, and I would have to stay. In looking back now, I would say, no one tried any harder than I not to be a success.”
Recalling World War II, he noted that in those days, reporters could go whereever they wanted as long as they found their own transportation. “It was pretty scary stuff, but that’s where a newsman really wanted to be. All of us involved appreciated that we could have a first-hand part of it. We were proud of ourselves, but it meant being in the front lines of the war and in harm’s way daily.”
Then he concluded, “As a last note I would add that one should walk, run, roller skate or bicycle rather than go to war in a glider” which Cronkite did during the war.
Most Americans remember Cronkite for a few precious moments. They remember Cronkite, shedding a tear, after announcing that President Kennedy had died. They remember Cronkite’s enthusiastic reporting when NASA sent astronauts into space. They remember narrating as Dan Rather was roughed up by aides to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (“thugs,” Cronkite sneered) on the fractious floor of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Most of all, journalists remember his withering, historical assessment of the war in Vietnam in 1968 after the Tet offensive.
Cronkite always said he tried to keep himself out of news stories, but his Vietnam commentary was conclusive. And it was also even handed.
“We had been told for so long that we were winning the war in Vietnam,” he wrote. “But after the Tet Offensive, when the North Vietcong were able to penetrate our stronghold in Saigon and almost overtake our embassy, I had to see for myself what was happening; how this could occur. Our then-president of CBS News, Dick Salant, was an absolute stickler for journalistic ethics, so there never was any thought on my part of editorializing my visit. I was going there to do a documentary on the war for the American people. But when I returned and Salant saw the piece, he suggested that it would be a good idea for me to tell the American public what I thought — if I wanted to. I couldn’t believe he’d allow such a thing, but I felt very strongly about doing it, and with his go-ahead, I did.”
On Feb. 27, 1968, Cronkite concluded his newscast with an essay that summed up the futility of the war. He said in, part, “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion…. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
That broadcast was a pivotal moment, prompting President Johnson to declare to aides, “If we’ve lost Walter, we’ve lost the middle-America.” (That famous quote, however, has lots of variants.)
Safe to say, Cronkite’s report began to change the minds of millions of pro-war Americans because it came from Cronkite, often called Uncle Walter affectionately by millions of Americans, regardless of age or political persuasion. The commentary also changed Johnson, who not long afterward announced he would not run for re-election. And, that, for those days, was the way it was, and the way it will never be again.