Some 34 years ago, Walter Cronkite gave a wide-ranging interview to The Daily Beast’s Allan Dodds Frank about the burden of being "the most trusted man in America." Here’s Uncle Walter, in his own words, at the top of his game.
In April 1975, the newsman on top of the world, Walter Cronkite, generously gave me an hour-long interview. I was then a 27-year-old reporter for The Washington Star who had called to ask what the end of the Vietnam War meant to him and the country.
Invited to his office at CBS on West 57th Street in New York, I quizzed America’s top anchorman about his role in the world, his views of the news business and what he said during the seven minutes he actually talked on the 30-minute CBS Evening News broadcast.
“What the newspaper can do better than anybody else is cover news in depth. I don’t mean analytical pieces necessarily or first-person pieces, or subjective journalism. I mean just get out and get the facts.”
To anyone who was serious about news in those days, Cronkite, of course, loomed as the giant—the man who as much or more than his sainted predecessor—Edward R. Murrow—kept the flame of true reporting alive.
What was most impressive about Cronkite was his clear-eyed assessment of the news business he so cherished. He understood the burden of being the most trusted man in America.
Sometimes, he told me, it meant astronauts told him top-secret facts that were supposed to remain classified and he had to decide whether to protect them or reveal the nuggets they had given him. He developed a rule of thumb: If two reporters knew, it was no secret.
Much of what he said, especially about newspapers, rings even truer today, even though he was considering all this before cellphones, before the Internet, before cable news.
My thanks to Faye Haskins of the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C., who retrieved the interview published April 22, 1975, from the library clips of now-defunct Washington Star.
Here are some of the highlights of that interview.
Allan Dodds Frank: Do you think that television could have changed the course of the war in Indochina if it had been reported differently?
Walter Cronkite: Well, if it had not reported the war, perhaps. If it had failed to do its job, it might have had an effect on the war in Indochina. The fact that the American people saw the horror of war, night after night, lived the frustration of our policy in Vietnam through visual representation of what was happening out there, night after night, must have had an effect. I don’t see how it could have failed to. That was what upset the administrations of both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon so much, was that the public was let in on the secret of what war is really like and what we were doing out there. It was impossible for them to carry on a foreign military policy behind the curtain of remoteness which wars in the past permitted.
Certainly that curtain isn’t as opaque as it once was for the CIA either. What’s your reaction to William Colby’s briefing newsmen on the submarine story and then urging them not to use the material? (Director of Central Intelligence William Colby had briefed a select group of reporters about the operations of the Glomar Explorer, a ship built by Howard Hughes’ company that had allegedly had fumbled a secret effort to recover a sunken Soviet submarine.)
That’s a very peculiar story. It seems rather clear to me that one of two things happened there—and both of them involved a kind of politics. Either he had some reason to want to get the story out or if he was concerned about it not getting out, there must have been an internal political reason for it, more than a real security reason. He just wouldn’t have revealed the facts that he did to members of the press.
Do you think that the press should have held the story?
No. I don’t think that the press should have held the story. Once a story is abroad in the land, once more than one person outside of the intelligence community or the military or whoever knows about the story, you can be pretty sure so, too, do the intelligence sources of foreign nations in Washington. They are not stupid. I think it is perfectly possible for one newsman to really have a story unto himself. Maybe he stumbled on something that is still secret and is of vital national security and hold onto it for a while, maybe forever. But if two newsmen know it, and each of them knows that the other knows it, you might as well print it. If two newsmen know it, so does the Russian spy network and the Transylvanian spy network and everybody else in Washington.
It can’t be contained?
There are not many secrets in Washington that are not abroad in the drawing rooms of the foreign embassies and if there are any secrets abroad in Washington, then it ought to be abroad in the land throughout the United States. All the American public ought to share it. I don’t want any American knowing less the Russians know about us.
What do you think is the most dangerous effect television has on people?
It is people depending on it too completely. The polls that show most of the American people getting most of their news from television are somewhat disturbing. I think they should be getting most of their news from multimedia. They ought to be reading the newspapers more thoroughly than ever before, listening to the radio, reading opinion journals.
What do you think of the future of the printed word?
It has got to be good. Television and audio-visual communications generally have tremendous impact and they haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the use of them for education. But it is an evanescent form. It is here at the moment that you receive and then it is gone. You have got to have the printed page to study and go back and review, to absorb more deeply than you possibly can audio-visually. There is so much that needs to be communicated that we can’t do it in the time we have. You’ve read the figures elsewhere that all the words spoken on an evening newscast of a half hour are equivalent to about two-thirds of the words in a standard newspaper page. Well. We still are best at introducing people to their word, to where the news is made and who makes it. We can give them the headlines—and for a lot of people, that’s all they’re going to read anyway. Our educational system needs to teach them that they have got to go deeper than that; they’ve got to read more, not less. I think the printed medium is here to stay.
How should newspapers be changing to stay with television?
More news and less entertainment. The newspaper, when television first became a threat 15 or 20 years ago, went exactly the wrong direction, most of them. They met television in television’s own backyard, where television could do the best job and that’s entertainment. They shortened the news and tried to put in more features and that was wrong to my mind. What the newspaper can do better than anybody else is cover news in depth. I don’t mean analytical pieces necessarily or first-person pieces, or subjective journalism. I mean just get out and get the facts. Tell people what’s happening in their communities and too many newspapers aren’t doing that.
How do feel when you show up in the polls as the most trusted man in America?
If it is complimentary, obviously I like it. I think it is a mistake for anybody, however, to assume I’m any kind of fountainhead of wisdom, which I, sure as the devil, am not and do not pretend to be. What I try to be is a newsman. I have never wanted to be a pundit. I don’t think I am equipped to be a pundit. I don’t feel any privilege of intelligence or knowledge that would make me a pundit. I like trying to tell the facts each day, the news. Be sure they are facts, be sure they are not colored. Try to make it as objective as I possibly can. I think that is the highest calling of journalism. That’s what I want to do and what I want to do best if I can.
How much do you earn at it?
I don’t like to go into that. I don’t think there is any reason for public knowledge. It is a good journalistic question and I would ask it if I were you, but I am not going to answer it.
Do you think as a newsman you should earn as much money as you do?
No, I don’t. But I think that television personalities should. If you are working in a business where they pay rock stars and comedians and actors what they do, then God bless them all if they can get that much money. But if that’s the criterion, then I think the newsmen ought to get their share. When I say “No”, I am putting it on the basis that I am certainly not worth more than you’re worth or (New York Times columnist) Scotty Reston is worth or Tom Wicker is worth, guys who are writing for print, by any means.
Is that's the way it is?
That’s the way it is.
Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white collar crime. He also is president of the Overseas Press Club of America.