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Cronkite: On Iraq war and JFK assassination

Cronkite, shown in this file photo, said the embedded reporters' work was
Cronkite, shown in this file photo, said the embedded reporters' work was "quite valuable" when they had something to report.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite sat down recently for an interview by CNN Anchor Aaron Brown. The longtime CBS Evening News anchorman discussed news coverage of the war in Iraq and also talked about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

CNN ANCHOR AARON BROWN: What did you think of, both technologically and journalistically, how the war was covered?

WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER CBS ANCHOR: How the war was covered? I thought that technically, it was -- it was grand. I mean, incredible. Absolutely incredible.

I have long believed we would never have live coverage of war -- the battlefield -- because I had never realized that they could somehow ... send up a satellite signal that could not be intercepted. And I assumed you could not possibly send up a picture of a scene behind your lines when the opposing general sits in a blockhouse three miles away, looking at the same picture. You couldn't ... It would be incredible.

But obviously they beat that problem. And I think that journalistically, where the embedded correspondent -- I hate that word, it sounds too much like in bed with, which I hope it wasn't in most cases -- but any rate, where the correspondent had a story, it was pretty good.

The trouble was that many of the correspondents, of course, found themselves with units that weren't doing anything. And yet the networks had put all of money in having them there, and they had a satellite available so the networks went to them, including CNN, went to them and they didn't have anything to say, really, basically. So it was kind of a wasted report.

Where they had something to say, it was quite valuable reporting. And the important thing about the embedded correspondent tactic was the fact that the military let us be there at all after Persian War I. In that war, as you know, we had no coverage whatsoever. This -- this nation of ours, our people, our history -- was denied the facts about the Persian Gulf War I. We don't know now today what really happened as the troops progressed around the desert.

There were no reporters with them except those reporters who were assigned by the military. I mean, the soldier-reporters reporting for history. And that history, of course, is obviously somewhat unbalanced. It's a version that the military wanted of what we did in that war.

What we didn't -- my gosh, of all of the important -- important events of our time, when the president orders the American boys and girls into action somewhere, there's no more serious time for us to be shut out of all information. We're not only entitled to know what our boys and girls do in our name, it's our duty to what boys and girls are doing in our name in case of what they are doing in our name is not what we want them to do. We should have a voice in them.

BROWN: In moments like that, when the nation's at war, on the 9/11s, on those days of enormous journalistic and national importance, do you wish you were still sitting in the chair?

CRONKITE: Always. It doesn't take even a big story like that. Daily, I miss not being on the air, but I miss the managing editor role of helping set the agenda, if you please. Deciding what is the more important story ... what is the story most likely to affect our viewing audience -- the American people, in our case. This is the highest journalistic calling. And I miss it.

BROWN: I don't think I've ever asked you this.

CRONKITE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ... too polite.

BROWN: Sometimes.

CRONKITE: If so, don't ask it now.

BROWN: Sometimes I am too polite. It's been a generation since you sat in the chair every night. And still today both to people who do this work, but to viewers, you are the standard. Why is that? What was it about Cronkite that separated him from Huntley or separated him from ...

CRONKITE: It wasn't Cronkite, it was the CBS News team, CBS News ethic, the CBS News, if I may please, superiority of correspondent core. The core that originally Ed Murrow put together in World War II and that carried in the peace afterwards, where I was lucky enough to be the front man.

I did have -- and I do have, and I'm very proud, I think I have a very keenly developed journalistic ethic. I had very good mentors, beginning in high school. I was lucky enough to be in high school, which at an early age when most high schools didn't have journalism teachers or journalism courses, I had an old city editor from a local paper who donated his time to teach us journalism.

And he was -- he had journalism in his gut. And he just was so firm on honesty, impartiality, lack of prejudice and accuracy. It was embedded in me. And I was lucky enough in my college and then in my very early jobs to have that kind of a mentor.

And I think -- I'm not saying that I'm that different from others. I think there are many of us who have that. But I'm one of them. And it was just a point of pride to me every night that we did our job, adhering to the finest principles of ethical journalism.

BROWN: Let me ask one more question on this. With due respect to your colleagues at CBS who were remarkable journalists, how important do you think it was that you were in the chair when President Kennedy was assassinated, in terms of how people from that point on viewed you as the anchorman? That day ...

CRONKITE: Well, I suppose it's a moment clearly when you're reaching directly into their hearts. We are all suffering the same emotional reaction to a tragedy. The tragedy that affected people whether they were Republicans or Democrats, whether liberals or conservatives. It was the youth of the president and being denied his future. And our future with him, whether you agree with his particular policies or not.

This was a moment of high emotion. And I was sharing it with them. I don't know why this would seem to apply to me more than to the people on the air at NBC and ABC at the time. I don't know because I don't know what they did. I have no idea what was on over there. They may have been that they shifted back and forth to people where I stayed at the desk the entire day and night and for three days and three nights with various, very little relief.

And that might have -- I don't know. I really don't know. It may have been the moment when I just seemed to lose it there for a second when I had to announce that the president was dead. And it was certainly not, you know a long delay in the broadcast. It was just a momentary thing where my voice caught ...

BROWN: You take your glasses off. You take your glasses off and you take a tear from your eye.

CRONKITE: Yes, right.

BROWN: And do you -- are you embarrassed by that moment? Do you regret that moment?

CRONKITE: No, not at all. Not at all. And I don't criticize any reporter for showing that he or she is human. ... That is almost the mistake, to suggest that we are so hardened at our work that we don't react like our viewers do. I don't find that despicable at all or in any way damaging to our pose of impartiality and that sort of thing.

BROWN: I know you have a busy summer. And you know how much I look forward to these conversations. Thanks for some time today.

CRONKITE: You bet. Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

CRONKITE: Good to be with you. I am a great admirer of your broadcast.

BROWN: You're a very kind man. Thank you.


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