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Interview With Walter Cronkite
An Interview with Walter Cronkite
Read G. Burgan
He has interviewed presidents, generals, and royalty. He has experienced and interpreted the worldís major events in the 20th Century. More than any other person, he has defined the role of TV news anchor. In private life he has raced Lotus race cars and sailboats.
His calm and sympathetic demeanor helped America through the Kennedy assassination. His clear explanations and unbridled enthusiasm made him the perfect interpreter for Americaís forays into space.
He is Walter Cronkite, and this extraordinary individual has now chronicled his own life in an autobiography entitled: ďA Reporterís Life.Ē For anyone interested in the early days of wire service reporting, radio in itís infancy, or television and itís growth, this is a ďmust readĒ book.
I interviewed Walter Cronkite by phone about his book and life. What follows is an edited version of that conversation:
What stands out in your mind from your earliest days of radio in Kansas?
What stood out in my mind in those earliest days (and weíre talking now about the mid-thirties) was the fact that news was a pretty schlock performance at most stations. It seemed to be done by people who really didnít have much news experience, or old timers who couldnít make it in the newspaper business.
There was kind of a ďlooseĒ editing. In fact, at many stations, there was no editing -- a one man news staff who wrote the stuff for a trained voice to announce. They werenít terribly proficient news people. I kept running into it across the country, and I got quite unhappy with radio news in those early days because of that.
By the time I went back into radio news in 1950 coming back from overseas, that had changed a great deal. There were some very professional news staffs around in the country. I was broadcasting for a group of stations in the middle west in Washington at a Washington bureau, and I remember some very distinguished stations: WMT in Cedar Rapids with a fellow named Boorman, who was a top notch newsman and knew how to use a Washington bureau.
There was a fellow managing at WOW in Omaha by the name of Lyle DeMoss who was another one who understood news. The staff at KNBC in Kansas City was very good. And KOMA in Oklahoma City was a Daily Oklahoma and Times station and they really understood how to do news. So they had made a lot of improvements in the fifteen years since 1935 -1936.
Why do you think that radio doesnít do a better job of reporting news today?
It depends on management. If management gives the news department enough time, radio news can do a superb job of compressing but still giving an adequate amount of information and carry voice bites from the principals making the news that are compelling listening.
But too many of these stations are doing the same thing television does: The sound bite rules and the sound bite consists of a few words that donít even have a noun or a verb in them.
On radio, the one minute newscast is an abomination. I think it is a lack of responsibility to the public and a failure to utilize the great benefits of the media.
If you were starting out as a young man today and were interested in journalism, where would you want to be?
I think one of the best jobs is as a press service reporter or even a desk editor with a press service. There you still have the old drive of a deadline every minute. Thereís some newspaper or some radio station client that is going to bed around the world just as you are writing the story.
If I didnít do that, I think Iíd want to be in press journalism. But then I started that way. I spent nearly the first 20 years of my reportorial life doing that and Iím probably a little old fashioned about it.
In the beginning, you were essentially an anonymous reporter. Eventually you became a celebrity in your own right. How do you think that changed the way you interviewed people and covered stories?
In the first place, it makes it easier to get the interview than being anonymous -- even when you are anonymous and representing a major news organization. Itís a lot easier if they think they are dealing with a ďcelebrityĒ, I believe. I think thatís probably the wrong set of values for them to use, but nevertheless itís true.
The thing that worries me about the celebrity status today of news broadcasters and the anchor people particularly, is that the salaries are so high that they really arenít living the kind of life that gives them a day-to-day understanding of the common folks out there and their problems.
In the old days of newspaper work, our salaries were the equivalent of the cops and the firemen and the postmen. It was at their bars that we drank and we suffered with them the pangs of budgeting our limited money. I think that gave us a little better understanding of our readers out there.
Do you regret having left your position as CBS news anchor in 1981 at the age of 65 when you could have continued for another nineteen years or more?
(Laughter) Yes, I regret it. I donít know if Iíd have continued for another nineteen years, but I regret it mostly because CBS did not live up to our post evening news contract which would have included me in special coverage, documentaries and things of that kind.
Have you thought of returning to broadcasting like Daniel Schorr did with National Public Radio?
No, I really donít want a daily schedule again. I might have thought about it nineteen years ago, but I donít think about that anymore.
Is there something you might do if you didnít have to do it on a daily schedule?
(Pause) I can think of some things. I would be very pleased to do documentaries for CBS, for instance, and that kind of reporting. I wouldnít like anything that nailed me down by time, you know.
Thereís still too much out there I want to do. Iím working like a fool today. I do documentaries and I speak around the country quite a lot. I do eleemosynary stuff.
What was the most important story of the Twentieth Century that you covered?
The landing on the moon. Itís the one story of all of our great scientific and technological developments and political and economic developments and of all of those stories that will be remembered -- and the date will be remembered as well by school children five hundred years from now.
Even as our school children memorize October 12, 1492, as the date that Columbus landed in America, itíll have possibly even a greater significance to them. They will be living out there on distant planets and theyíll wonder in amazement at that crazy little rocket and that funny little spaceship that men took three days to get out to the moon on. The escape from our own environment to a distant moon has got to be the story of the Twentieth Century.
-- The End --
A Reporterís Life by Walter Cronkite, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1996, 384 pages, ISBN 0-394-57879-I
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at email@example.com.