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Interview With Walter Cronkite

Aired December 28, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): He dominated network television like no one else before or since. From the Kennedy assassination...

WALTER CRONKITE, CBS NEWS: President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.

KURTZ: To Vietnam, to the space program. He brought history into America's living rooms. Now he's launched a newspaper column and has plenty of opinions about the media.

A conversation with Walter Cronkite.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the man to sat in the CBS anchor chair for two decades, telling us the way it was, Walter Cronkite. An old United Press reporter was with television from its infancy. And as the medium grew up and came to dominate the news business, so too did Cronkite, so much so that Lyndon Johnson famously said, after a critical report on the Vietnam War, "if we've lost Walter Cronkite, we've lost the country." I sat down with Walter Cronkite in his CBS office in New York.


KURTZ: Walter Cronkite, welcome.

CRONKITE: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: Some people are surprised that you, the most trusted man in America, now say you're a liberal. Should they be?

CRONKITE: Well, I think if they read the whole column, in which I explain what I consider a liberal to be, the definition for a liberal, they shouldn't be surprised.

KURTZ: Now, Fox's Bill O'Reilly says that you, by using the "L" word about yourself, have come out of the closet.

CRONKITE: Yeah. Oh, boy. Well, he also says that I'm an internationalist, and that certainly worries me, if I'm concerned about the rest of the world as well as the United States. KURTZ: If you have been a liberal, does that mean -- when you were anchoring "The CBS Evening News," did that affect the way you looked at the world? Did it affect story selection, that sort of thing?

CRONKITE: I don't think, Howard. Without any doubt, without any doubt it affected how I looked at the world. But, I do not think it affected my reporting on the air. I looked at the world with the humaneness, I think, which is one of the hallmarks of being liberal in my mind. But at the same time, we in journalism, I have always felt, are likely to be liberals in the sense of understanding the concerns we have for humanity. Because we're brought up -- many of us -- at least in the older days we were, maybe not quite so much today, with television being the dominant form, but in the old newspaper days, as you know yourself, we usually apprenticed sort of our cub reporters covering the police run, and the tragedies around town.

KURTZ: That's how you worked your way up the ladder.

CRONKITE: You worked your way up the ladder...

KURTZ: You were a wire service reporter. People forget. For UPI.

CRONKITE: Yeah. And as a consequence, I think we've got some feeling for those people who are less fortunate than we are, and as -- if that's liberalism, then that's what I am.

KURTZ: Now, former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, who wrote the best selling book "Bias" says that CBS and the rest of the media are not only liberal but elitist, and kind of out of touch with the real America. Is there anything to that?

CRONKITE: I think there is a little bit of something about being the elitist, since the salaries, the remuneration became so great. It's a little hard not to be an elitist when you're making millions of dollars a year. Which incidentally, I don't. I think of myself not in rating the talent that way, but I'm sort a Micky Mantle of television. Mantle, of course, played ball and was great before the salaries went into the million dollar bracket as well.

KURTZ: Right. In that era if you made $100,000, you were considered to be extraordinarily well paid.

CRONKITE: Absolutely.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) television contracts.


KURTZ: Let's talk a little bit about your views. You were opposed, no question about it, to the war in Iraq. Why?

CRONKITE: Well, not so much the war in Iraq, as the way we entered the war in Iraq. Without any support from our previous allies, or the United Nations as a whole. It seemed to me that this was -- this unilateralism is a very serious breach of diplomacy, of strategy.

Assuming the difficulties of a solo operation in first winning the war, which we did very handily, and with some pride, we can say that our military was pretty effective. And also, we also have to be very careful always in criticizing this Iraq war, to be sure that we're not talking about the performance of the men and women of our armed forces.

KURTZ: Is it fair to say you were not the world's biggest fan of the current president?

CRONKITE: No, I'm not a big fan of President Bush, that's correct. I like him personally. I've met him several times, I guess, particularly earlier when he was governor of Texas. That's my -- one of my home towns is Austin, so I got to know him pretty well -- not pretty well, that's wrong. I saw him on several occasions, but I liked him. He's a very, very pleasant man to be around.

KURTZ: Do you think the press has been tough enough on the president in the coverage of George W. Bush?

CRONKITE: Yes, I think the press has been pretty good on telling the truth of what's happening and what -- where the faults lie -- and what I consider faults, anyway. And most of the press seems to.

KURTZ: The White House is unhappy with that. The White House says in Iraq, for example, the media are painting an unduly negative picture, we're not reporting the good news. You've heard that kind of thing before over the years, I'm sure.

CRONKITE: Oh, yes. Well, that, of course, that's inevitable, not only in politics, but in business or any other source of the news. The business people can't stand, of course, to have something go wrong that gets into the newspapers. They'll claim all -- nearly always that we've not given them a full, fair treatment.

KURTZ: You've also written very critically about Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act, and you've likened Ashcroft's Justice Department to the Spanish inquisition. You feel pretty strongly about that?

CRONKITE: Well, clearly, to have made that comparison, I do, yes, indeed. The -- I think this is one of the greatest problems with what has transpired in this administration. And that is the encroachment -- serious encroachment on our civil liberties.

KURTZ: There were pictures of you I guess at one time going sailing with Bill Clinton. Were you much friendlier to the Clinton administration? Was the Clinton administration closer to your views than the Bush administration is now?

CRONKITE: Well, I think that's certainly true, although there was a little difference there. I was doing more active covering of politics and White House in those days, still for broadcasting, not for a column. And as a consequence was closer to the people in that administration, whether I liked them or not, and I did. I certainly did the -- that incident of my taking them sailing, right in the middle of the scandal and the...

KURTZ: The Monica Lewinsky scandal.

CRONKITE: ... the hearings was badly twisted by anti-Clinton people, Republicans particularly, who charged that this was a deliberate trip set up by the White House in which they asked me to take him sailing so that he could get a rub-off of, quote, "the most trusted man," which is kind of ridiculous in its first place. First place.

But it was not that way at all. I invited them, and -- because I sincerely thought that he needed a little sort of cease of pressure that he was getting from the hearings.

KURTZ: Now, after all that you've accomplished in your career, why at the age of 86 start a newspaper column?

CRONKITE: I'm beginning to think it's pure madness.

KURTZ: Having seconds thoughts, are you?

CRONKITE: Well, it's lot more work than I thought it was going to be. I write pretty quickly. Write pretty fast. I was an old press service man. That was part of the necessity of that occupation. The -- but I had not realized how much personal research I was going to have to do in writing this column. And I'm thinking of hiring a researcher, as a matter of fact. I didn't think I'd need one. But in my broadcast career, of course, and in United Press, I had a backstop of a lot of research material available. Now I've got to do it on my own.

KURTZ: Now, some months ago you made a deal with a Florida company to make some health-related videos that critics said were going to look like newscasts. You then backed out of it. Explain what happened.

CRONKITE: That was a terrible, terrible mistake. The -- quite honestly, that is in court -- or about to be in court, and I think that I probably should take the advice I read that others have been given, although I can't say that I've been specifically told not to discuss it, but I have a feeling that it would be a good idea if I didn't.

KURTZ: But it's fair to say that you concluded that you didn't want to be associated with...

CRONKITE: Definitely. Definitely.

KURTZ: Now, you stepped down from "The CBS Evening News" after what seemed like just an eternity, at a relatively young age of 65. Any regrets about that looking back?

CRONKITE: Yes. Yeah. If I'd known I was going to be in such good health so long, I would not have stepped down at that time. I had -- I simply had decided -- since I was 16 years old, I've been in daily journalism. United Press and the Scripps Howard newspapers earlier than that. Fighting deadlines every day of my life. And I really thought that when I stepped down from "The Evening News," I was going to continue doing some of the major documentaries and special events for CBS.

It didn't work out that way, unfortunately. But that would have pleased me greatly. And certainly, I would have stayed, I think, on the "Evening News" desk if I -- if I -- as I say -- had known that I was still going to have another 10 or 15 years after that, I'd have waited another five years to step down.

KURTZ: Of course, CBS had this young guy named Dan Rather, who is now five or six years older than you were when you stepped down, and is still in the anchor seat. Why do you think CBS didn't use you more in those years after you left the anchor chair? You're pretty well known, as I recall.

CRONKITE: Well, I'm -- I still get an awful lot of offers from other networks and do some work for CBS. Nothing of very great note. But -- well, I don't know. I think they feel they've got an adequate staff, and it would just disrupt that staff to keep pulling me back every once in a while.

And I think that's all that amounts to. In fact, I get enough work in documentaries and the speeches I make around the country. I'm very active doing that. I got a pretty handsome fee for it. So I'm not -- I'm not ...

KURTZ: You don't feel underemployed.

CRONKITE: No. No. I'm not in a fit or despondent over not being on CBS.


KURTZ: When we come back, Walter Cronkite tells us whether he thinks the network evening newscasts may soon be extinct. Stay with us.


CRONKITE: This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of "The CBS Evening News." For me, it's a moment for which I long had planned but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we've been meeting like this in the evenings, and I'll miss that.



KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. More now of my interview with Walter Cronkite. I had told him I had grown up watching him and Huntley-Brinkley at 6:30, and asked whether such newscasts had become irrelevant in the 24-news world.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) CRONKITE: Certainly, if you can get the news at any time and any hour that you wish for it, and certainly it's been repeated often enough in the schedule of the cable networks, and local stations today as well, to a degree, there would seem to be a rather redundancy there on the evening news broadcasts.

But to my mind, they are almost traditional in the country, and to my mind also, I think they're well done. Not that the cable news programs are not well done. But the network group, the traditional network groups, the three networks, they to my mind have a kind of a stature, a kind of a social position, if you please, in our day. It's the thing to do, to watch the television networks. I think they're well done.

KURTZ: Some people think that when the current generation of anchors, Dan, Tom, Peter, fade from the scene, that the next group, however good journalists they may be, won't have the same stature because the audience has shrunk. And that maybe these newscasts will eventually fade away. You think that's a possibility?

CRONKITE: Yes, I think that's possible. As a matter of fact, I think that they suffer now compared to what we had when Huntley- Brinkley and I and the various people who worked for ABC through those years, we shared 98 percent of the audience. There were a few independent stations around the country that competed with us. And they got about 2 percent of the audience. But actually, we had about 98 percent. So we shared -- we each had about 32, 33 percent of the audience. They don't have that kind of rating at all because they're sharing less than 50 percent of the audience now.

KURTZ: We'll never see those days again, not with 100, 200 or 500 channels out there.


KURTZ: We talked about cable news briefly. A lot of people think cable news has gotten too sensational. You turn it on, you hear about the Laci Peterson murder case, the Kobe Bryant case, all of these high-profile crimes and so forth. Do you think that it could be improved?

CRONKITE: Yes. On that score, particularly. Yes, I do think they give too much attention to the scandal sheets stuff. I don't accuse them of being scandal sheets. They don't go quite that far, but they still give far too much attention and time. They interrupt the broadcast for a minor event in a criminal trial somewhere, the Peterson trial right now. My gosh. I'm appalled that the people themselves are interested in that enough to justify what the cable people think they want to see.

KURTZ: So are cable news executives just pandering to the popular taste in order to get a bigger rating? Maybe you could say, they would argue, well, we're just giving the people what they want.

CRONKITE: Well, yes. Yes. And that -- you hear that around the network stations as well. There is no question that this is part of the game, is the ratings. And this should not be looked upon as such a terrible invention of television. For heaven's sakes, in the newspaper days, when we had competing newspapers, and the newsstands sale was as important as the circulation, as the agreed upon circulation, whatever you call that, in those days, why, gosh, the sensationalism was tremendous. In afternoon, newspapers competing for that story, that's why we had the banner lines in the newspapers, is to catch people's attention as they passed by the newsstands on their way to the bus line or whatever.

KURTZ: Do you ever watch any of these cable talk shows where people -- whether it's "CROSSFIRE" or "Hannity & Colmes" or "Hardball," where people kind of shout at each other?

CRONKITE: You know, I think there is some merit in what is said on those shows, if I could hear it. It bothers me a lot that part of it is show business and shouting at each other. This is show business.

KURTZ: And that's the way it is according to Walter Cronkite. Thanks very much for letting us visit you here in New York.

CRONKITE: Oh, you bet, Howard.


KURTZ: Walter Cronkite.

When we come back, an embarrassing revelation for columnist George Will, plus what you have to say about the media's most embarrassing moments of the year. That's next.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): Rush Limbaugh has never been a major privacy advocate. But now that a Florida judge wants to give prosecutors access to his medical records in an investigation of whether he bought illegal painkillers, the radio titan says his privacy is being invaded. And he partly blames the media.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: You first heard about this in a tabloid newspaper. And everything in that tabloid newspaper article was accepted as gospel. Media ran with it, it was the truth.

KURTZ: The decision is on hold while Limbaugh appeals.

Columnist George Will and "National Review" founder William F. Buckley have both written favorably about media mogul Conrad Black, without disclosing that they received payments from Black's company, Hollinger International. "The New York Times" says each was paid about $25,000 a year to speak at an annual conference. Buckley's take came to $200,000. But neither man seems embarrassed by the failure to level with readers. Said Will, "my business is my business. Got it?"

And MSNBC has pulled the plug on Jesse Ventura's talk show. It lasted three months.


KURTZ: Still to come, our viewers weigh in on the media's most embarrassing moments of the year.



KURTZ (voice-over): Here are the top stories of 2003 as voted by members of the Associated Press.

Number five, the Northeast blackout, plunging millions of people into darkness, some for days.

Number four, the SARS outbreak, which sickened thousands from Beijing to Toronto, killing more than 800 people.

Number three, the California recall circus, which produced the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Number two, the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts.

And the number one story, no surprise here, the war in Iraq and its violent aftermath.


KURTZ: Last week we asked what you thought was the media's most embarrassing moment of 2003. Daniel in Pennsylvania writes -- "Easy. The Bush press conference where no one would ask a hard question on the war, and Bush didn't call on Helen Thomas. What a spineless bunch the White House press corps is. How dishonorable that not one person stood up to ask the president why he wouldn't call on Ms. Thomas. Absolutely appalling."

But others pointed to President Bush's aircraft carrier event. Rich writes -- "Without a doubt, the biggest blunder by the media of 2003 has got to be the drooling and hype involved in extolling George Bush's landing on the aircraft carrier as heroic, on May 1, declaring "mission accomplished." How wrong Bush and his lapdogs in the media were. What liberal media?"

And Ron says -- "Of all I know that you Northeast corridor media types will give the victory to Jayson Blair scandal, the most embarrassing media moment for the rest of the country has got to be Paris Hilton beating President Bush's in-depth post-Saddam interview in the ratings."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Happy new year to our viewers, and join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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