Published July 19, 2009
When I was a young reporter covering TV news for People magazine in the late 1980s, I won a dream assignment: interviewing Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, who had retired to Martha's Vineyard after two decades of anchoring the "CBS Evening News," had co-authored a coffee-table book about sailing; and that's what he seemed to think a young reporter from People magazine would want to talk to him about. I had grown up in the great era of broadcast news, when the so-called "Big Three" (and only) broadcast networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, dominated the airwaves, in news and entertainment.
I wanted to talk to Cronkite about the state of TV news, specifically cuts in news-gathering and staffing at CBS News under then-owner Laurence Tisch, cuts that I knew from my sources that Cronkite abhorred. I also wanted to ask Cronkite how he felt about stepping aside a few months before his planned retirement to make room for Dan Rather as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." Again, my sources had told me that Cronkite, who was on a $1 million-a-year retainer from CBS News, thought when he left that he would be doing more for the network in retirement than a couple of documentaries a year.
The day I arrived, Cronkite took me and his family and crew on a cruise around Martha's Vineyard, piloting the 48-foot ketch himself at one point, with race-car-driver enthusiasm, through the narrow harbor as the sails flapped wildly in the wind.
Fortunately, the next day it rained; and I finally had a chance to talk to him.
"I haven't quite got the hang of this retirement thing," he acknowledged. "I wanted to have more time to play and reflect, but I find retirement more stressful than having a nice, steady job because I have to make decisions about where I want to be. I'll tell a lot of people that I like, no, and then I get so worn down feeling guilty that when somebody calls up and says, 'Will you speak to the Boy Scouts in Sioux City?' whammo, I'll say yes."
The TV newscasts at the time were doing more glitzy, pop-culture features and fewer of the Washington-based, wire-service stories that Cronkite favored. He didn't approve of the changes. "In terms of production values 'The CBS Evening News' is far better than what we did," he said. "But the scope of coverage is extremely limited. With all this dolling up and featuring of the news, it's getter harder and harder just to get the facts of the story. I worry that we're not getting enough of the news that we need to make informed judgments as citizens."
(Interestingly, Cronkite later lent his famous voice to the introduction of the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," a program that has returned more to its hard-news roots since a splashy beginning in 2006.)
Cronkite clearly was unhappy with the new CBS management and with not being asked to be on the air more, although, as he and his friends said, he also was enjoying retirement. "The network is losing a lot of wisdom," Cronkite said that day, more in sorrow than in anger. "It's being thrown in the ash can."
I teach aspiring journalists as a college professor, and I am not one of those who says that everything in the past in journalism was great -- and everything today and ahead of us in journalism is bad. It's not true -- and the current news environment also offers great reporting --and innovations, across media, as yet unseen. But -- at a time when the nightly news was called "our national seance," Walter Cronkite stood for the best traditions of straightforward reporting and journalism.
Conservative critics likely will say that he held liberal opinions that he expressed later in life, when he was not on the air. But when Walter Cronkite got up out of his anchor chair and went to Viet Nam to report on the Vietnam war after the Tet offensive in 1968, or when, as is forever replayed, he reported the news of JFK's death, showing his own reaction only by slowing taking off and putting back on his horn-rimmed glasses, the editorializing and the emotion were powerful because they were rare.
Walter Cronkite stood for the best in journalism, in challenging times, before the media --rightly or wrongly --were questioned daily. It was a time when a TV anchor with Cronkite's talent and news organization behind him could be called--un-ironically-- "the most trusted man in America."