September 21, 2011

Me and Walter Cronkite: ‘What Do You Know About… ?’

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Len Lazarick, left, and Walter Cronkite in Cronkite's office following an interview Sept. 26, 1980  in Cronkite West 57th Street office. Photo by Paul Abel

Len Lazarick, left, and Walter Cronkite in Cronkite's office following an interview Sept. 26, 1980 in Cronkite West 57th Street office. Photo by Paul Abel

This article appeared in the August 2009 Business Monthly

By Len Lazarick

So I said to Walter Cronkite in the downstairs bar at the fabled Greenbrier resort in the mountains of West Virginia: “What do you know about community journalism?”

I don’t recall exactly what the famous newsman said 30 years ago, then in his 17th year anchoring the CBS Evening News. But I think he laughed at the impertinence of this question from a 30-year-old editor/reporter challenging his expertise in the sort of community newspapers all the many editors and publishers from Patuxent Publishing Co. (PPC) and Chesapeake Publishing had flown in by private plane to discuss.

Clearly, he thought the conversation so amusing that the next day he led off his speech to all of us – including the Whitney Communications corporate execs – with how I had asked him about his bona fides in community newspapers, despite the fact that at the moment he owned 5% of my newspapers. Who did I think I was?
I thought I was a reporter, the kind that asked tough questions of big shots – governors, senators and presidential candidates. Corporate executives in media firms, especially from the sales side, sometimes get offended when their reporters ask tough questions. But Cronkite thought of himself as a tough-questioning reporter too, which is why he gave himself the old-fashioned newspaper title of managing editor.

Visit to West 57th

In February 1980, Cronkite announced he would abide by CBS’s retirement-by-65 rule and leave the anchor chair in ’81. I asked for an interview, and I got one Sept. 26. I was supposed to have an hour with him in his West 57th Street office in New York, in the old milk barn that still houses much of CBS News.

This was in the days before the Internet and digital databases, and I researched Cronkite the only way we knew back then: through articles found in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, then tracked down in microfilm or on library shelves. I also checked out a big stack of books that talked about the world famous Cronkite.

Traveling to New York by train, photographer Paul Abel and I got to 555 West 57th early and we waited … and then we waited. Finally, a half-hour late, Cronkite rushed in, and we waited some more. When we finally made it to his small, cluttered office lined with books, his assistant tells me, sorry, he only has half-hour because he’s having lunch with David Garth, the campaign manager for John Anderson, a Republican congressman who ran for president as an independent.

I was crushed. All of that preparation and I only get half an hour? (These days, a half-hour is pretty much what you get with an important person, unless you’re a really important interviewer yourself.)

The Way It Was

“I don’t do many interviews,” Cronkite said, though “I do more than I’d like to,” he chuckled, according to my article in the Oct. 2, 1980, Columbia Flier. Here are some excerpts:

I asked him about recent books describing journalists as “the new, if unintended powerbrokers, replacing the old political bosses.”

“I don’t buy that at all. Not a’tall,” Cronkite responds with some irritation. He doesn’t want the new title. He said it doesn’t fit.

“We’re doing the same journalistic job that journalists have always done regardless of the size of their publications,” said Cronkite.

“That we have great influence – no question about it. That we could use this influence in a sense of exercise of power is entirely erroneous, entirely erroneous,” Cronkite repeats for effect. …

Cronkite talks about all the layers above him.

“If I tried to pull anything in the sense of manipulation of power, manipulation of the news to achieve some goal, I’d be called down in the first instance by my own writers.

“We are not psychologists and sociologists and economists or any other kind of thing. We’re news people,” he emphasizes, as if it were as plain as the nose on your face. “We are trying to hold up the mirror and that’s all we ought to be doing. …

“If we think of ourselves as shepherds we’re in terrible shape. We are not shepherds. We are reporters,” Cronkite says pointedly, punctuating his sentence with the word “bing,” like an oral exclamation point.

In the past 35 years, I’ve written millions of words and thousands of articles. Sometimes when you look back, you’re embarrassed: The article is na•ve, or inaccurate, or faulty in many ways.

But my interview with Cronkite holds up pretty well in a re-reading. Walter thought so at the time, writing me a one-sentence note that I once had framed. “I thought the piece was exceedingly well done. All the best, Walter.”

A second letter on Oct. 8 to my boss at the time, editor and general manager Jean Moon, was even more effusive praising a congressional debate I had arranged, and then commenting, “Incidentally, I think Len Lazarick did a darn good job on that interview with me. He comes across as a no-nonsense reporter and certainly in my case he did his homework exceedingly well. I was very impressed.”

Jean gave me the letter. It’s in my scrapbook, too. I’m sorry if this column sounds too self-aggrandizing, but at the time, I thought it had been a crappy interview. The letters made me feel good and still do.

After the interview, Paul and I went off to the 21 Club for lunch. I had a couple of Manhattans, most likely, and Paul and I mourned the short time, lousy lighting and cramped quarters in Cronkite’s office next to his studio.

What kind of man was Cronkite

The day after Cronkite died last month at the age of 92, my father asked me what kind of man he was.

Well, obviously, to me at least, he was exactly what you saw: a reporter’s reporter, humorous, blunt, generous with praise (to me at least, but who else counts?), probably because the article portrayed him as he saw himself. He was a genuine and modest Midwesterner despite great wealth, prestige, honor, and yes, even power – conscious of that power, but mindful of its limitations. He enjoyed a laugh and a drink, especially on his big sailboat as it cruised the Chesapeake Bay or Nantucket Sound.
What does this have to do with Maryland politics? Nothing, except Cronkite liked to visit and sail here, was once a partial owner of PPC and, most importantly, shaped the face of journalism in the 20th century. To my best recollection, that interview was the last time I spoke to him.