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Cronkite: News industry 'vastly different'

'We're not entertainers. We're journalists'

Walter Cronkite
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CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviews legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.
Bob Schieffer
Walter Cronkite
Dan Rather

(CNN) -- Twenty-four years after taking over the job from Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather will anchor his final "CBS Evening News" broadcast on Wednesday.

Rather's departure comes in the wake of a controversial "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment on President Bush's National Guard service that aired in September 2004.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke with Cronkite on Monday about his successor and the state of the industry.

BLITZER: What goes through your mind during this turnover at CBS News?

CRONKITE: Well, it's a rare occasion, of course. There have only been the two of us who were anchor people at CBS News for the evening news and for all of the important broadcasts of the period. It's too bad to see Dan go. He's done a great job, I think. And he's very popular in the CBS group and I think among the public.

BLITZER: Well, he's leaving under a cloud, as you well know, the circumstances surrounding that "60 Minutes" report. It's unfortunate for him, given his career. But, looking back, there were lots of sloppy mistakes that were made.

CRONKITE: Well, you're speaking of this particular episode, of course.

And that was most unfortunate. He hung on too long [with the story due] to his faith in his staff. They had provided this material. And he trusted them implicitly in all things and insisted that the information was correct for a whole week, when evidence was beginning to pile up that it wasn't.

BLITZER: Should he not have been more hands-on in preparing this report, rather than simply relying on his staff?

CRONKITE: Well, certainly, looking back at it, that is the case.

But we're awfully busy on those anchor desks. And it's perfectly possible, in a thing of this kind, which takes a lot of research and pulling together, to accept what your producers provide for you. And that's what he did without any question.

BLITZER: But going into a story like this in the middle of a bitterly fought campaign, accusing a sitting president of the United States, in effect, of lying many years earlier, you would think that he would want to make sure that everything had been authenticated perfectly.

CRONKITE: Well, we don't know, of course, what conversations went on between Dan and his producers. Whatever the conversation was, he accepted, obviously, their version of the story.

I think he did make a mistake. We all know he made a mistake by now. But would we have done much the same? I just -- I would not be sure that I wouldn't have followed my producers and accepted what they had to offer.

BLITZER: He told David Letterman in an interview a couple days ago, he said this: "We were not able to authenticate the documents as thoroughly as I think we should have. Given a little more time, perhaps we could have." He's still laying out the possibility that those documents were real, as opposed to forgeries.

CRONKITE: Well, of course, we don't have any evidence of that. That turned out to be more his hope, as he got deeper into the story, than the actuality would have indicated.

BLITZER: You were quoted in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine by Ken Auletta as saying this, comparing Dan Rather to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. You said, "Dan was playing a role of newsman, that he was conscious of this, whereas the other two appeared to be more the third-party reporter."

What did you mean by that?

CRONKITE: Well, I think that there was a general feeling among quite a lot of us around the CBS shop and, indeed, some of the viewers, that Dan gave the impression of playing a role, more than simply trying to deliver the news to the audience.

I don't know. It's a personality question. I don't think he was thinking of himself of playing the role, although I don't know that. But that is the impression that came across.

BLITZER: You mean when he used to go into a hurricane or he went into a combat zone ... was that what you are referring to?

CRONKITE: Well, no. He was satisfying the ambitions of a reporter, which he is, and a good one, to be on the scene. That's what many of us would like to have done, would like to do. And we did, many of us, on occasion.

But he made more of a practice of that. The company apparently went along with his desires to be on the scene. And he did a darn good job when he was there.

BLITZER: Bob Schieffer, as you know, is going to be the interim anchor of "The CBS Evening News," a good friend of all of ours, an outstanding journalist. Who do you think should emerge as the next anchor, the main anchor of CBS, after Bob Schieffer's interim period?

CRONKITE: Well, I think it's going to be hard to find anybody who is going to be as much liked and appreciated and does such a job as Bob Schieffer. I think he's one of the great television journalists of our time. And he was a good journalist when he came to television from Fort Worth [Texas].

He is, to my mind, the man who, quite frankly -- although Dan did a fine job -- I would like to have seen him there a long time ago. He would have given the others a real run for their money.

BLITZER: Better than Dan Rather would have done? Because he was perennially in third place in the ratings behind Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings.

CRONKITE: Well, that's certainly true. And it's quite a tribute to him that he -- that CBS held on to him so long under those circumstances. It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated his being there for so long.

BLITZER: So, you would have been happier if Bob Schieffer would have replaced Dan Rather a while ago?

CRONKITE: I would have thought so, certainly -- if not Bob, someone else.

BLITZER: Well, what about after Bob Schieffer? Is there anybody inside CBS News right now that you think has the caliber, the experience, the style that could emerge as the chief anchor for CBS News?

CRONKITE: I think there are several, but I wouldn't like to go into that right now. It would be a mistake, I think, to try to single them out in public.

They're going to find it's going to be tough not to follow Dan so much as to follow Schieffer. He's not going to be there very long. I'm not sure he wants to be there. I'm not sure that daily journalism is what he wants at this time. He's got that wonderful "Face the Nation" broadcast on Sundays, which ranks right up alongside of all of the talk shows from Washington. He does a superb job with that.

BLITZER: Do you sense right now that being the anchor of a major broadcast network is the same as it was when you were the chief anchor at CBS News? In other words, has the situation changed now given the Internet, cable news, all the various ways that people are getting their information?

CRONKITE: Yes, Wolf. It's turned -- it's over on its head. It is vastly different.

When I was there, we -- the three traditional networks, NBC, ABC and CBS -- we shared 100 percent, practically, of the audience. There were just maybe 98 percent or 99 percent of the audience, we had every night. That other half a percentage or 1 percent were the few independent stations in the country. We had no other competition.

Today, of course, we've got all of these other channels that are competing. And, actually, the traditional networks are sharing down around 50 percent of the audience, which is still remarkably high, considering all of the excellent competition they have with such networks as yours.

BLITZER: One final question for you, Walter Cronkite. And our viewers will be listening very carefully to this one. When you want to get the news on television, where do you go?

CRONKITE: Well, I know what you want me to say: I watch Wolf Blitzer and CNN -- which I do.

BLITZER: That's the correct answer, Walter Cronkite.

CRONKITE: Yes. I thought you might like that one. I think I've rather assured being invited back.

BLITZER: Very kind of you to say that.

CRONKITE: It's meaningful. I do watch you regularly.

BLITZER: Well, that's very nice of you to say. But I wasn't -- actually, I wasn't really trying to get to you say that. I really was interested. Where does Walter Cronkite go when he wants to get the news?

CRONKITE: Well, I go to my newspapers first. They're more complete than broadcast [news] today. The misfortune with broadcasting today is that all -- even including your network, which is dedicated to the news -- do not take enough time to give us all of the facts and the background. ...

I wish that my network of CBS and the other two, I wish they would spend more time with their magazine programs giving us documentaries to back the news and interpret the news for us, or broadcast time in the half-hour evening news report programs. As we all know, with the commercial time taken out ... we've got 17 or 18 minutes.

We've got one of the most complicated nations in the world, particularly today. We've got a complicated world in which we presume to be leaders. And my gracious, we're trying to cover all the important news in those two great bailiwicks in 17 or 18 minutes. It's madness. And we simply can't do it.

And, of course, meanwhile, you've got your 24-hour news on yours and other networks, with your talk shows added in. You're doing quite a job in competition.

BLITZER: What would you do if you had your way? What would you advise all the broadcast news organizations to do right now?

CRONKITE: Give news a little more time and don't request that they also, in their news time, entertain. We're not entertainers. We're journalists. And we need more time to do our job well.

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