Walter Cronkite has witnessed some of the greatest moments of the 20th century during his 82 years as a newsman, and has stamped these events with the imprint of his voice.
Cronkite addressed a packed house at the National Press Club Monday in the final installment of the four-part Kalb Report on ethics in journalism.
Previous discussions in the Kalb Report series have featured panels of as many as a dozen guests, but Cronkite was the only guest to share the stage with Marvin Kalb, a visiting scholar at GW and former CBS News correspondent.
“I think if you have Walter Cronkite, you don’t need anybody else,”Kalb said.
Nicknamed “Old Iron Pants” for his grace under pressure, Cronkite has been part of the media world since his college days, serving stints as a college reporter, radio sports broadcaster and CBS anchor.
Cronkite reminisced Monday about the days he spent reporting from the battlefields of Vietnam in the 1960s, and recounted the thrill of talking the nation through the landing of the first man on the moon.
But at the center of the discussion was state of the news industry and the role of ethics in journalism.
“The reason there is a lesser degree of ethics in journalism is due to news organizations putting a priority on their profit rather than the truth,” Cronkite said.
Organizations must profit, however, and they often find themselves pandering to the public, Cronkite said.
Cronkite said the media’s main purpose is to tell people what they need to know, not just what they want to know – a tenet he said journalists often stray from.
“Today’s media does not adhere to that,” Cronkite said. “That is the reason for the great decline in quality journalism.”
The lack of quality news reporting leads to an ill-informed citizenry, he said.
“Without that information (which good reporting provides), citizens cannot be active members of the democracy,” Cronkite said. “We’re already not a democracy, we’re an autocracy ruled by the well-informed.”
The press bears much of the blame for the decline in civic participation, but the American people are accountable because news organizations reflect the society they report, he said.
Cronkite and Kalb discussed the media’s coverage of scandals surrounding President Bill Clinton.
Cronkite said the media should not become involved in the personal lives of public officials unless the story affects their performance in the public realm.
“Although Clinton’s behavior may be crude, there is no evidence thatit has affected his job,” Cronkite said.
One senior graduating with a journalism degree asked Cronkite to give a piece of advice to a beginning reporter.
“Get a job,” Cronkite said.
Kalb and Cronkite infused the evening’s discussion with humor, joking about Cronkite’s status as a living legend in his field.
“When did journalism begin slipping?” Kalb asked.
“I guess the day I left television,” Cronkite answered.
“What do you think the solution to the problem is?” Kalb asked.
“If they just put you and I in charge Marv, all of the problems would be solved,” Cronkite said.