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THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Walter Cronkite on the Subject of Reporting

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

November 15, 1975

THE BECK/SMITH VAULT:  Walter Cronkite on the Subject of Reporting

By Marilyn Beck

He walks through a room and murmurs of adoration are heard… “He’s the greatest!”…”He’s adorable!”…”He’s the one guy in this country you can trust!”

He appears on a dais with Hollywood super-stars – and is the one individual accorded a standing ovation from an assembled throng of thousands.

He is Walter Cronkite, newsman extraordinary…America’s favorite father figure…Americans’ Number One Idol – according to such surveys as the Oliver Quayle and Co. ” trust index” public poll, and a recent Bruskin Report listing the most popular faces on TV.

If he’s affected by status, power, position or near-reverence, he gives no hint.  A star attraction in untold millions of homes during the 25 years he’s covered virtually every major news event for CBS, he still comes off as unpretentious and unaffected as the United Press newsman he once was.

His CBS offices in New York (where he prepares the “Evening News With Walter Cronkite” on which he serves as anchorman, reporter and managing editor) indicate another measure of the man.  The desk is cluttered, shelves and bookcases crammed with reference texts and research material – and the room totally devoid of any self-glorifying reminders of the world greats he’s known, or the scores of prestigious awards he’s earned during his lifetime.

“I keep saying I’m going to start taking life easy,” he grins, stretching out against his office chair.  “And I would like to have more time for travel, sometimes think longingly of having a less demanding schedule – but I really don’t expect things to ever change.  I’m still Cronkite, the old fire horse. Just let those fire bells ring – and I’m off giving chase.”

Cronkite’s CBS contract allows him a three-month vacation each year.  He doesn’t expect to use up more than two thirds of that time during the 1975 calendar period, and says, “In ’76, with the conventions and the elections and the Bicentennial, I doubt if I’ll get away from my desk for more than a couple of weeks.

Could it be that, beyond his love of the news game, there’s an insecurity that makes him reluctant to leave his post?  He’s been quoted as saying the reason his ratings dropped in 1973 was that Roger Mudd had replaced him during his vacation, “And it had caught up with me.”

Could it be that at age 60, he harbors fears his employers might discover he’s not indispensable – if a young hot-shot substitute captures public fancy while he’s off vacationing?

He ponders the questions for a moment, then responds thoughtfully, “Perhaps those things are a factor, but not consciously.  I’m the same way now I’ve always been. I’ve always lived to work.  Because work has always provided the most fun, satisfaction, joy out of life.  And even now, well, let the big story break and the adrenalin starts to flow like I’m still a cub reporter.”

Looking back on his life, he says he does regret that dedication to work short-changed him of time he should have spent with his children.  Married to the former Mary Elizabeth Maxwell of Kansas City, their daughter, Nancy, is now 27, Mary Kathleen is 25, and Walter Cronkite III is 18.

“I wish I had put in more time with the kids,” he reveals, “But I try to tell myself I saw them more than many fathers see their children.  Everyone’s life is complicated, and though I never had much contact with my youngsters during week days because I was always working until at least 7:30 – I did fight to keep my weekends clear.”  He pauses, then adds with a grin.  “Unless a big story came up, of course.”

If he harbors any regrets about his professional  life, it is only that, as the scope of his audience has grown, his chance to break the “big story” has decreased.

“In terms of the size of an audience it reaches, CBS is the single most important disseminator of news in the world.  As such, there’s a responsibility which both the network and I feel toward the material I broadcast.  It’s not like working on a small town paper where every little scandal can make the front page.  Let’s face it, there aren’t that many big stories that occur – and it’s pretty hard to stand in front of a camera and shout ‘flash!’ about ecology.”

He prides himself on being totally dedicated to telling the truth, but doesn’t pretend television news coverage can ever compete with newspapers for getting the full facts to the public.  And he acts downright embarrassed that even such a giant television operation as the CBS News department must still rely on the staffs of such wire services as A.P., U.P.I. and Reuters for the bulk of its material.

“We buy our news wholesale form them,” he admits.  “And, of course, also use our own investigative teams here and in other bureaus we maintain.”

If he’s particularly distressed about having to depend on outside news gatherers, it’s because he terms the quality of today’s reporting, “Absolutely terrible!” and says he finds that one of his main functions is questioning material that has been written as fact.  “The longer you’ve been in this business, the longer your antenna becomes for sensing a lie, a half-truth, an evasion.  You can put that ability to good use by checking to find out the real story.”

The search for unblemished truth is his message for college journalism students to whom he lectures, pleading with them to scrap fantasies about becoming glamour-type news commentators, and to become specialists in the old-fashioned business of reporting.

“I tell them there’s such an important job to be done getting the news across, that there is nothing more exciting than being the reporter who uncovers the facts.”

It’s an excitement that’s kept him charged up professionally for the last 40 years – and which still has the ability to make the “old fire horse” go racing off in pursuit of the next potentially “Flash!” story.

THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Cronkite picks Best Presidents – and Worst

December 30, 1999

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Cronkite picks Best Presidents – and Worst

By Marilyn Beck and Stacy Jenel Smith

Walter Cronkite and wife Betsy are spending the week in Vienna, Austria, where, he reports, he’s been working from dawn to dusk preparing “The New Year’s Celebration 2000” that will be beamed from the famed Musikverein Concert Hall via satellite on PBS.

Included on the WNET Great Performances show that Cronkite will host – in addition to a concert of Strauss waltzes, polkas and marches – will be footage of Vienna as it was and as it has become.

One gets the feeling that the 83-year-old newsman will be relieved when the emphasis fades on the last century and the new millennium.

“As the world’s oldest living reporter, it seems I’m looked upon as the sage. I’ve probably been interviewed for more New Year’s Eve programs than anyone.”

Tired of the subject as he might be, one can’t resist asking him just a few questions about his many years of covering American affairs of state.

He still feels, he says, that “Jimmy Carter might not have been the smartest politician, but was the best brain in the White House. And Clinton comes close. It’s just regrettable Clinton got himself involved in such a scandalous affair, which will always serve as an asterisk to his name in history.”

His opinion of Gerald Ford? “The weakest president, though it wasn’t his fault. He never had a chance. He was only in power a couple of years.”

Is he sorry that Richard Nixon was pardoned? “Not anymore. It helped us put things behind and move on.”

The greatest president of the 20th century? “No doubt about it – Franklin Roosevelt. But then, Congress usually gives wartime presidents powers that enable them to do exceptional things.” Among the things Roosevelt did: “Centralizing power in Washington that changed the entire face of government in America.”