One of the best moments of my life was when I got the opportunity to interview Walter Cronkite, the legendary newsman who died today after a long illness, when I was working as a reporter for Birmingham Post Herald in 1998. Cronkite was the guest speaker for the Business Council of Alabama’s Chariman’s Dinner and I had the privilege of attending the press conference prior to the dinner.
Several city and state reporters jammed into a small conference room at the Richard Scrushy Conference Center to interview Uncle Walt who would in the upcoming months (and for the second time in his career) cover Senator John Glenn’s return to space. Right away, Cronkite moved the podium set up for him by Conference Center employees–opting instead to pull up a chair and talk as if we were having a conversation instead of him looking as if he was giving a lecture. Afterall, he was one of us.
He was warm and friendly and extremely sharp. He could recount, to everyone’s awe and amazement, specifics about shuttle launches, both in the 1960s and present day.
The best part of the interview was the end in which I got to ask him a question for the Post-Herald. As I put my hand around the microphone that had been passed around among various TV and newspaper reporters, a Conference Center staff member announced that my question would be the last question. This of course put a big smile on my face–a smile that became even bigger once he answered the question.
Cronkite’s response caused the room to erupt in laughter and gave me great appreciation for a man who truly brought a human eye and heart to television news and the stories of the world we live in–something that has long been lacking in the popular media with its sensationalized and sloppy mix of soundbytes and poor reporting.
We’ll miss you Mr. Cronkite. Thank you for your honest and heartfelt reporting.
“Cronkite cites changes” from The Birmingham Post-Herald by Andy Acton, Fall 1998
Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite said there was never pressure to be “the most trusted man in America.” “All it did was keep me out of singles bars,” said the 81-year-old broadcaster as he sat in the press room of the Richard Schrushy Conference Center Thursday Night.
Cronkite, a speaker at the Business Council of Alabama’s 1998 Chairman’s Dinner, took time before the 6 pm event to answer questions from the press about his career and view of today’s media.
He said journalism has changed immensely since his beginnings as a campus correspondent for the Houston Post in the early 1930s. “It has changed particularly in the mode of communication since I got into journalism,” he said. “Newspapers were still the primary means of news summation, radio became more important, but never replaced newspapers.”
Cronkite said the creation of television and its high impact medium eventually cut deeply into newspaper readership. “I said when I first joined CBS News in 1950 that this medium is nver going to replace newspapers as a prime source of information, ” he said.
“The time allotted is simply inadequate and the nature of the beast–the pictures, sound and text–distracts from the text that you get alone from a newspaper,” he said.
Cronkite, a reporter for CBS for 46 years, said people shouldn’t expect to be informed completely by television. “The attention span required to get enough information from the television other than an immediate impression of something is not adequate to inform people so that they can intelligently exercise their franchising opinion,” he said.
Cronkite said sloppy journalism has been used by both broadcast an dprint journalists in the coverage of President Clinton. “My problem with the press on the whole investigation of the president has been the excessive use of unidentified sources,” he said. “I would’ve not amplified the inappropriate nature of the grand jury investigation, the terminonly and the description of the activity.”
This summe Cronkite was photographed with the Clinton family onboard his boat in Martha’s Vineyard. He was asked by one reporter if the Clintons expressed any emotions about the scandal. “That was recreational in a sense, family time and I’m not talking about what went on,” he said.
Cronkite has won numerous awards for his coverage on CBS that included the shooting of Gov. Georce C. Wallace in May 1972. He said the hardest story he ever covered was the assasination of President John F. Kennedy.
“It was tough one in every aspect of the journalism exercise,” he said. “As an emotional problem it was also very difficult.” Cronkite said he was proud of the production staff who pulled the story of the assasination together.