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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Walter Cronkite Remembered
Aired July 19, 2009 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KURTZ: It was a day we hoped would never come, though we knew that inevitably it must. Walter Cronkite was the preeminent journalist of his time. A man who virtually invented the modern evening newscast, who had an enormous impact on national and world events.
I was fortunate to have gotten to know him. But he also represents an era that has slipped away, an era of mass audiences, before cable, before the Internet, before bloggers and Twitterers, when much of the country waited for the headlines at 6:30.
An era when the news business was still held in high esteem, when the anchor of the "CBS Evening News" could be called "the most trusted man in America."
KURTZ: And so in mourning this 92-year-old man who died Friday night, we're also mourning an America that has faded into the mist of history.
WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER CBS ANCHOR: Good evening from the CBS News Control Center in New York. This is Walter Cronkite reporting.
KURTZ: He was a fixture at the political convention and he delivered the sad news to the nation on November 22, 1963.
CRONKITE: From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central standard time, 2:00 eastern standard time. Some 38 minutes ago.
KURTZ: in 1968, Cronkite returned from Vietnam with a verdict that made Lyndon Johnson feel he had lost the battle for public opinion.
CRONKITE: To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion.
KURTZ: Cronkite was a huge booster of the space program and was there when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Eagle has landed.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot.
CRONKITE: Oh, boy. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
CRONKITE: Boy! Wally, say something, I'm speechless.
KURTZ: When the Watergate scandal was unfolding before Richard Nixon's re-election, Cronkite devoted two-thirds to the CBS Evening News to explaining its complexities.
CRONKITE: At first it was called the Watergate Caper: five men apparently caught in the act of burglarizing and bugging democratic headquarters in Washington.
KURTZ: He became a newspaper columnist late in life and on this program, six years ago I asked Cronkite about his increasingly liberal writing.
If you have been a liberal, does that mean -- when you were anchoring the "CBS Evening News" did that affect the way you looked at the world and did it affect story selection, that sort of thing?
CRONKITE: I don't think, Howard, it had any doubt, without any doubt, that it's affected how I looked at the world. But I do not think it affected my reporting on the air.
KURTZ: Joining us now from Santa Barbara, Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS's "Face the Nation" and a former anchor of the "CBS Evening News." In New York, Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of CBS' "48 Hours." Here in Washington, Bernard Shaw, former CNN anchor, of course and a former Washington correspondent for CBS News.
Let me start with you, Bob Schieffer. There have been a lot of good network anchors, including you. What was it -- what were the qualities that set Cronkite apart?
BOB SCHIEFFER, FORMER ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": Well, number one, he just loved the news. Number two, he'd let nothing get in the way of the news. With Walter, the news always came first. The "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" was about news. It was not about Walter Cronkite. People understood that. He came through to people.
The other part, Howie, and the part that I think was most important, Walter was just the same off camera as he was on camera. He loved the news. He loved to talk about it. He sounded exactly like he did on television. And everything about him was just the same, that, too, came through.
KURTZ: He was not a showman, he was not flashy in the style of so many today's television personalities. He was also very competitive, wasn't he, even when he became a big success?
SCHIEFFER: Oh, he loved a scoop and he loved no scoop better than when it was his scoop. He thought broadcasting was about getting the news. You know, I was listening to that little sound bite there, did people think his philosophy impacted on the way he covered the news. With him it was just finding out what happened. That was what drove Walter Cronkite. It wasn't ideology or some sort of an agenda. He just wanted to find out and find out before other people.
He was the most curious person I have ever known. If Walter saw a car wreck, it would be the first car wreck he had ever seen in his life, he'd want to know all about it. He'd want to check it out. He was amazing.
KURTZ: A very old-fashioned approach.
Susan Zirinsky, back when you were a kid, you joined the "CBS Evening News," was it a little intimidating to be dealing with Walter Cronkite?
SUSAN ZIRINSKY, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, CBS "48 HOURS": You know I don't think it was intimidating but it was awesome. You know, I was 19 years old and working part time for CBS, hired two weeks after the Watergate break-in. And as Bob said, he was a man who wanted to find out the truth.
And working under Walter even though we were in Washington and Walter was in New York, you had a central voice. You knew you were on a team and the team was about finding out the truth. I was in college and obviously most people are dating, I was going to garages around Washington thinking we could find deep throat. I was staking out the attorney general of the United States.
Quite frankly I didn't care about dating because I was on team Walter and how great was that?
KURTZ: I hope you eventually got around to dating.
ZIRINSKY: I did. You know, my husband's probably watching, so I'll give him the nod. But he was a CBSer.
The reality is a young person in the newsroom was that there was a mission and Bob was really right, it was about finding out the truth. Walter was on and off camera the same. It was very exciting when Walter came down to Washington to anchor special report after special report with Bob and other reporters.
I can remember one Watergate where indeed the transcripts had come out and everybody was assigned a role and they virtually read the parts of Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman the key players in Watergate. It was a dynamic time. You understood the power.
KURTZ: Let me jump in here and turn to Bernie Shaw.
I want to ask you when you were at CBS, whether Cronkite was a tough task master and I also want to ask you about this letter -- this typewritten letter that he sent you when you were about to join the network. BERNIE SHAW, FORMER CBS CORRESPONDENT: He was very, very tough but that was part of the CBS News culture. We new reporters coming into bureau, the rookies, we had a responsibility and we had standards to live up to and to uphold.
Cronkite and I go back to when I was in the Marine Corps in 1961 in Hawaii. And I called his hotel 34 times and he returned my call. We had a lobby meeting. He could only spare 20 minutes because he and Betsy had a formal to do go that night. But 20 minutes elapsed to 40 minutes. We were friends every since.
And I didn't say anything to him when I went from Group W Westinghouse to being hired by Bill Small in the Washington Bureau for CBS.
KURTZ: It's a great picture, by the way, what we're showing of all of the anchors including you while you're talking. There's the letter.
SHAW: This is the letter which Cronkite said, "Congratulations in joining CBS. I know you're sophisticated enough not to let petty thing annoy you." And the last graph was, "I look forward to seeing you on the "CBS Evening News."
Three weeks later when I had a piece on the Cronkite show you could see the small smile curling at the edge of his mouth.
Could I go back just briefly to the point about Walter's uncontrollable curiosity? January 1994, I was in my hotel bed in Los Angeles, the chandelier started shaking, the TV popped out of the console, and I knew what was going on, it's a major earthquake. I reached for the phone and called CNN's hot line in Atlanta, I was on the air in eight minutes.
The phone rang again, it's my boss, Tom Johnson, "I want you on camera on the air reporting on your earthquake." I hung up, I'm pulling up my pants, the phone rings again, "Hello?"
"Bernie, are you all right?"
"Yes. Walter. How did you know I was here?"
"I've been listening to you for the past 45 minutes."
He had a taxicab, drove to my hotel, came to the lobby, rang me up, said let's go around and inspect the damage.
SHAW: I said I would like to but I've just been ordered on the air.
KURTZ: 24-hour cable. Bob Schieffer, I've been talking to people in last 36 hours realizing that probably more than half of the country is too young to have seen Cronkite in his anchor role. We live in an all-news age now where everything comes every 12 seconds. Explain to people if you would why Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were so dominant in the '60s and '70s.
SCHIEFFER: For one thing the only two places you could get news on the day that it happened on a national scale was at CBS and at NBC at that point, when Walter first came into his prominence. ABC was not even a player. So you had very limited choices on the dial; that was one of the reasons.
The other reason that people came to know Walter is, Walter was there through very traumatic events in our history. Of course he was there at the assassination of John Kennedy. He was also there at the much happier occasion when we first set foot on the moon.
Walter was with us all those years through the good times and the bad times. And that's one of the reasons that people really came to trust him. KURTZ: Right.
SCHIEFFER: The thing I go back to, though, is there were no bells and whistles on Walter Cronkite. He was just a reporter. He was a reporter's reporter. People knew that and they understood that. And they appreciated it.
KURTZ: Bob Schieffer we appreciate you joining us. You have to go prepare for your own broadcast so thanks very much. We'll let you go.
And joining us now by phone is Don Hewitt from his home in Bridge Hampton, New York. Don you were the producer before your "60 Minutes" fame before you helped launch that program. You were the producer of the "CBS Evening News" in 1963, when it expanded from 15 minutes to a half an hour.
How revolutionary was that? Is that something Cronkite pushed for?
DON HEWITT, CREATOR, CBS' "60 MINUTES": Yes, he pushed very hard for it. And it was not a difficult sell. I think the corporation realizes it was time to do a half hour of news every night.
KURTZ: You've dealt with a lot of huge egos in your long and illustrious career. To say the least, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and all the other stars you've worked with. Did Cronkite ever reach a point -- I mean, he was so famous and he was on the cover of "Time" and he's the most trusted man all that -- where he got a little full of himself?
HEWITT: No, he never got full of himself. America was full of Walter Cronkite. Walter was very modest about himself and maybe the best news guy I ever worked with.
KURTZ: Susan Zirinsky, you talked a little bit about the CBS coverage of Watergate. You were there the night that Richard Nixon resigned August 8, 1974. What was the atmosphere like? And I understand you have a souvenir from that fateful evening? ZIRINSKY: I do. And you know Bob mentioned this before about Walter's coverage of big events. I mean, what happened the night that Nixon resigned, obviously we had many specials but we had a prime time special.
And I was one of the researchers in Washington. You know helping Walter with copy and info, and at the end of the night everybody was kind of taken and a little upset but really excited that we had been there and this historic moment had been recorded.
And Walter cavalierly threw his script into the garbage can and I picked it out of the trash and I said, "Walter don't you want to save it? Can I ship it to New York for you?" He said, "No, no, no, they'll make a transcript."
I'll hold it up. I fished out of the trash can this Cronkite script. The writer was Charlie West whose initials are here. Walter's own corrections are made in pen. And it goes on, it's close to 20 pages long.
I'll read you just a hair of a line from the end where he says, "As President Ford said in his acceptance speech our long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, Washington, good night."
ZIRINSKY: I felt like Walter took us through moments of history and this was part of history.
ZIRINSKY: And so I think that's why, you know, I held on to it. But it kind of feels really important. I hold it, and when I talk to a young person coming into my office I always pull out my Cronkite script.
KURTZ: Well, it's a great thing to pull out.
Let me turn to Bernie. I want to play for you a sound bite from Cronkite interview some years ago with Larry King about -- he was really talking about cable news and its culture of instant news. Take a look.
OK. We haven't got that quite ready. We'll have it served up.
The reason I'm asking you this question because you became one of the first employees of CNN in 1980. It's the advent of cable news, I think that we -- we can take a look. I'll finish my question on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER CBS ANCHOR: It's good to have 24-hour news. I think that's important. People can indeed tune in any hour of the day, any minute of the day, and get caught up on what's going on.
What is not so important, however, is the first news. I'd like to see us back up a bit and spend a little time thinking about a story before we put it on the air.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I don't think Cronkite was a huge fan of cable news. I think he preferred the old fashion preparatory, produced package news.
SHAW: I understand the requirement for reflection, but when you're sitting at this anchor desk and you've got a breaking news story and you're on the air for three or four hours you don't have time for reflection.
But what you're bringing to the task is every journalistic skill you ever acquired. The ability to listen, the ability to write, the ability to edit, and you're doing this live on worldwide television. It helps to have experience.
Don Hewitt, you were there, among other important historical events, for the moon landing. We showed the clip earlier of Cronkite just kind of saying, "Oh, boy" -- his enthusiasm came across. What was it like being with Cronkite during those space missions?
HEWITT: Let me use this moment to tell you my favorite Walter Cronkite story. John Glenn's mother arrived at Cape Canaveral before it was called Cape Kennedy, to watch her son go into orbit and she was asked, "What would you like to see, Mrs. Glenn?" And she said, "I'd like to see Walter Cronkite." And that knocked all of us out.
KURTZ: Really tells you a lot.
Let me add my thoughts. And that is, you know, one of the reasons that Cronkite loomed so large in our collective consciousness is that most people don't completely trust the media these days. There's been a lot of self-inflicted wounds in the news business and Cronkite reigned in an era when journalists could be trusted, when there was still that sense a journalist got it right most of the time; tried to get it right.
Things are very different today.
Let me thank you very much, Bernie Shaw, Susan Zirinsky, Don Hewitt on the phone, Bob Schieffer earlier.
Coming up, Connie Chung will join our discussion.
But first, here's a clip we found of Walter Cronkite in 1970 bidding farewell on the last night of one of his competitors over at NBC, Chad Huntley.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CRONKITE: He leads the daily broadcast scene; a giant departs the stage for journalism and ourselves, we hate to see him go. But that's the way it is Friday, July 31, 1970. Goodbye Chad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good-bye and good luck, Walter.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In color, this has CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CRONKITE: Tonight, this broadcast originates from outside the United States for the first time.
This wall was begun 2,300 years ago.
A week-long meeting in the Kremlin with leaders of the only nation whose power rivals that of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now as we continue to talk about the impact and legacy of Walter Cronkite, from Stateline, Nevada, Connie Chung, the former co-anchor of the "CBS Evening News" and had a correspondent for Walter Cronkite.
In New York, Sandy Socolow, former executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" with Walter Cronkite, and here in Washington, Daniel Schorr, former CBS news diplomatic correspondent, now a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.
Connie Chung, you started at CBS in the '70s, you were a young person. Was everyone a little bit afraid of Cronkite?
CONNIE CHUNG, FORMER CO-ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": Was everyone a little afraid, is that what you said?
KURTZ: Were you a little bit afraid? Yes.
CHUNG: Oh, yes, of course I was, because we -- my family grew up in Washington, D.C. We used to watch Uncle Walter every night, after dinner. But you know, I always dreamed that maybe someday I could work on the "CBS Evening News" with Walter Cronkite and then suddenly I was there.
It was very intimidating. But what made it all easy, in many ways, was that Walter was so nice. He was a very, very cordial, kind person. So when he met all of the little people, which we were, he was very, very nice to us.
And I think the key with Walter was that he was normal. You know full well anchor people are not normal. KURTZ: Right. They have different kind of gene. He got to the top without being abnormal; they have a different genetic structure. And Schieffer told us earlier Cronkite was the same way off the air as he was on the air.
Let me turn to Daniel Schorr.
CHUNG: He was -- no, but let me tell you one thing that when I became co-anchor and I actually sat in half of his chair, as co-anchor of the evening news he called me up in his inimitable way with that memorable voice, "Connie, he said, I have one bit of advice for you." He said, "Be yourself." And that was key because he was himself.
KURTZ: And his voice, of course, has provided the lead-in every night to Katie Couric, although I think that CBS is now going to end that in the wake of his death.
Daniel Schorr, you were the lead correspondent at CBS during Watergate. The Nixon White House as we all know put a lot of pressure on the media in those very tense stages.
DANIEL SCHORR, FORMER CBS CORRESPONDENT: Especially on CBS.
KURTZ: Especially on CBS. How did Cronkite deal with that?
SCHORR: Well, Cronkite talked to us one day back in October 1972. At that point the Watergate story was basically a newspaper story, starting with "The Washington Post." And he decided that television had to make its bow on this.
So what he did was to give orders to have several correspondents, including myself, take various pause (ph) of this. We would use a lot of information which we got from the newspapers but we were going to put it into television terms. And he took two packages, one of 14 minutes, just simply going over all the ground of what happened in Watergate, break-in, and all the rest of it.
KURTZ: We showed a little bit of that earlier. And boy that gave the story visibility, you had to laugh.
SCHORR: Yes. Kate Graham who was the publisher of "The Washington Post" said this wasn't a story until CBS made it a story.
Sandy Socolow, how was it that Cronkite could sign off every night with "And that's the way it is." What if that's the way it wasn't? What if CBS had blown it that night? How was he able to make the claim?
SANDY SOCOLOW, FORMER EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "CBS EVENING NEWS": Well, because he was stubborn, that's why. Dick Salant then-president of CBS News was very much against that tag line. And they had infinite, infinite discussions about what to do about it on the grounds that it wasn't the way it is. That in 22 minutes of editorial time we weren't telling the world or people of the way it was. But Cronkite, who just kind of stumbled into that line and insisted he had to have a line, just stuck to his guns although at one point he wavered in the wake of the dick Salant onslaught.
KURTZ: Well, it's interesting because it's probably the line most closely associated with him now.
Connie Chung, after he left the anchor chair, Walter was not a fan of the growing tendency on evening news toward running feature stories, the health stories, medical stories and so forth. I remember, he told me, "Too much time is taken up with your pocketbook and mine, your beauty and mine, and your garbage can and mine." I wonder if -- was he so devoted to hard news that maybe he was stuck in the past a little bit as television evolved?
CHUNG: I was with him 100 percent in that respect. He -- I don't think so. I think that he didn't like that the pendulum had swung so dramatically away from straight, hard news.
He had always been -- as you had noted, with John King, that he was a wire service reporter. He wanted to report the news directly and straight. He said, "I'm not a pundit, I'm not an analyst."
See, he understood news to be something that he reported straight, unbalanced -- I mean balanced and unbiased. And so, I think that once he saw all of the opinions on the news, on cable and what have you, it really offended him. He was not in favor of anything that we see today. He was -- he was confined in his mind to straight news. And I respected that totally.
SCHORR: That's true, Connie.
CHUNG: Howard, one other thing...
KURTZ: Let me go to Daniel here please.
SCHORR: Look, Connie, still it said in spite of the fact that he said hard news, all the news all of the time, the fact of the matter was that some of his most telling moments were moments where he showed his own emotion.
For one thing when President Kennedy died and he had to take off his glasses and say, "President Kennedy is dead." When it came to real emotion, even for example on the moon walk he said, "Oh, boy." Oh boy is not a neutral thing to say.
CHUNG: But it wasn't -- the key, I think the key, Howard, is that it was not manufactured. I think that he was himself, no one else. And I think with many of the people on the air he perceived them as creating an image, creating smiles or tears for the sake of television.
KURTZ: That is such a shocking accusation. Shocking accusation that people on television would do that.
Sandy Socolow, I want to play a piece of tape for you first showing Walter Cronkite's final sign-off from the "Evening News" in 1981 as he made way for Dan Rather, and then a question that I asked him on this program about his decision to step down.
Let's roll that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CRONKITE: And that's the way it is Friday March 6, 1981.
KURTZ: You stepped down from the "CBS Evening News" after what seemed like just an eternity at the relatively young age of 65. Any regrets about that looking back?
CRONKITE: Yes. If I had known I was going to be in such good health so long, I would not have stepped down at that time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And Sandy, Walter's being somewhat diplomatic there. Because CBS essentially forced him to retire, right?
SOCOLOW: No, that's not quite right. I mean there was conjunction of many events. Walter, for several years, up to his retirement, had talked to the officers at CBS News about retiring. He was very anxious that he go out as the undefeated champion in ratings sense.
Coincident with that was the negotiation going on with the emerging ABC News operation trying to seduce Dan Rather away from CBS.
SOCOLOW: And all of these things came together while a fellow named Bill Leonard was president of CBS News. So, there's a lot of room for interpretation. There's a lot of gray area. But I don't think it's correct to say that CBS forced him out.
KURTZ: Although he certainly had hoped to play a larger role in CBS after he stepped down and didn't get on the air very much.
Just briefly, Sandy, tell me a story that you worked on with him where he was sort of the driving force. Give us an insight into how he was behind the scenes.
SOCOLOW: Well, Watergate of course is the most dramatic. He came in one day just full of fury about the fact that it was a "Washington Post/New York Times" story, namely "Washington Post", and it didn't make any sense to anybody outside of the Beltway in Washington because every day there was a new episode and the papers didn't relate it to yesterday or discuss what was going to happen tomorrow.
And he just pounded the desk and said, "Let's put together an ABC; beginning, a middle, and end, of what we know. The fact of the matter is, although he devoted a total of up to 20, 21 minutes to the story in 2 episodes, there was not one new fact in that whole arrangement we put on the air, not one fact that hadn't been published before...
KURTZ: And yet that's what television does, is that it makes a story understandable to a mass audience.
Connie Chung, we've a minute left. You had some observations you wanted to make earlier? Let me toss the floor back to you.
CHUNG: When you were asking in the beginning if we were scared of him, you know, when he had the title of managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" and he took that very seriously and we took it seriously because he literally looked at our reports and edited them. And he would call us and, you know, find -- ask us questions about our report to make sure that they -- that the reports were accurate.
He called up a story for me, he said, he wanted me to do a story on Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who was vice president under Ford. And then afterwards there was one key thing that Walter always did. If he liked your report, he called you up and said that was a great report, you did a good job.
No matter where you were in the world, he would find the time, pick up the phone, and give you an "atta boy."
KURTZ: I like having that view of what he did behind the scenes because so many people knew him basically as this figure behind the anchor desk.
We have got to go. Connie Chung, Daniel Schorr and Sandy Socolow. Thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES: the media declared the Sonia Sotomayor hearings a bit of a snooze, but does a Supreme Court nomination take a backseat because there's no fireworks?
Plus "Nightline's" Terry Moran on why late night news is beating Dave and Conan.
KING: Back to RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment. First, though, an update on a news story breaking this morning. The Pentagon just a short time ago identified the American soldier shown in a videotape posted on the Internet late Saturday by the Taliban. This is Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, he is 23 years old from Ketchum, Idaho.
He was first reported "whereabouts unknown" on July 1st, then listed as "missing captured" two days later. His parents just moments ago released a statement saying, quote: "We hope and pray for our son's safe return to his comrades and then to our family. And we appreciate all of the support and expressions of sympathy shown to us by our family members, our friends, and others across the nation. Thank you and please continue to keep Bowe in your thoughts and prayers."
A U.S. military official in Afghanistan also issued a statement today saying: "We're simply saying that we strongly condemn this public exploitation and humiliation of a prisoner. It's a violation of international law of war and we continue to use all resources available to us to return this soldier to safety."
We're, of course, tracking this story throughout the day and we'll bring you any further developments. For now, though, back to Howie Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: Thank you, John.
It had the makings of a classic Washington showdown, Sonia Sotomayor in the hot seat with Republican senators poised to determine whether she was in fact a "wise Latina" or at least qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. It's hard to think of a more important subject with a lifetime appointment hanging in the balance. But the media's interest, well, let's just say it wasn't quite at Michael Jackson levels.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Then the wise Latina woman comment. To those who may be bothered by that, what do you say?
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I regret that I have offended some people. KURTZ (voice-over): Almost from the start, the cable networks kept breaking away from the confirmation hearings to have their own pundits talk about the hearing. By the second day of questioning, the senators and the witness were getting less air time. By the third day, only CNN was still dipping into the hearings.
But there was no shortage of commentators serving up opinions about the woman who would be the high court's first Hispanic justice and her interrogators.
STEVE HAYES, WEEKLY STANDARD: I think she survived. I think she seemed competent, certainly not brilliant.
BILL PRESS, RADIO SHOW HOST: I think if you are looking for somebody with judicial temperament, boy did we see it on display today.
CAMPBELL BROWN, HOST, "CAMPBELL BROWN: NO BIAS, NO BULL": The "Seinfeld" of confirmation hearings, some might call it a show about nothing.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": I admit to having another one of those Matthews thrills today.
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: And I do believe she is an affirmative action appointment by the president of the United States.
KURTZ: So did the Sotomayor hearings get the coverage they deserve? Joining us now here in Washington, Terry Moran, co-anchor of ABC's "Nightline"; Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at National Review; and in Richmond, Virginia, Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal correspondent Slate magazine.
Terry Moran, why did most journalists consider these hearings to be something of a snooze?
TERRY MORAN, CO-HOST, "NIGHTLINE": Well, I think for two reasons. Judge Sotomayor did essentially what the brief that the White House gave her told her to do, which was, be as judicious as possible, not cause any ruckus, not make any waves.
But beyond that, I think having covered a number of these over the years, what makes a Supreme Court confirmation hearing explode, if you will, in the news, is the sense that ordinary Americans have that they've got a question as to whether or not they'd get a fair hearing if they walked into the nominee's courtroom.
And Judge Sotomayor was judicious.
KURTZ: Dahlia Lithwick, you have written that these hearings were a missed opportunity for both parties. Were they a missed opportunity for the media as well? DAHLIA LITHWICK, SENIOR EDITOR, SLATE: Oh, I think absolutely, Howie. I think that one of the things that I found most striking, sitting in a hearing room, was that you had people who were talking to their audiences on five platforms. They were Twittering, live blogging, they were putting up audio, they were doing analysis.
I mean, this was covered in ways that Alito and Roberts were not covered. And yet I don't know that we added value at all. And as you point out, certainly by day three you started to feel sort of stupid Twittering, live blogging, analyzing something that was in effect watching paint dry.
KURTZ: Jim Geraghty, you say it's hard to believe Sotomayor when she retreated from the "wise Latina" comment and some other issues. But weren't the media appropriately skeptical of her testimony when she did that?
JIM GERAGHTY, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: I think certainly she got questioned a heck of a lot of about it in the hearing. I guess it comes down to a question of do you believe that somebody could -- you know, anyone can have a slip of the tongue, again and again, six times and then have that same slip of the tongue in writing.
After a while, you know, you -- (INAUDIBLE) a person says, but when Lindsey Graham is among those who kind of gets this sense of, I forgive you, or this isn't -- this in and of itself is not reason to vote against this.
KURTZ: Right. But I'm saying is, you know, when -- to the extent that she was retreating a little bit, at least tactically, don't you think the press took note of that?
GERAGHTY: But in a better place you'd like to be able to cross- examine them, to actually press her herself. Because she, herself, is not available for press interviews. The senators are kind of the surrogates for the media in putting questions to the nominee.
KURTZ: Right, right. We have not been able to talk to her at all.
Terry, is there a certain oversimplification that takes place? Maybe particularly on television? I mean, this woman has had hundreds and hundreds of rulings, over 17 years on the bench, and it all seemed to boil down to the "wise Latina" comment and maybe the Frank Ricci case, which was the New Haven firefighters reverse-discrimination suit.
MORAN: Well, there are always going to be flashpoints in any nomination, whether it's a speech or a case. And I think television will focus on those. But there is a difference, I think, that she was trying to assert that I think people got. That there's a difference between making a speech and ruling in a case, especially for somebody who is, by her nature, judicious. I think one of the other things that might be happening here is that it's possible that the heroic age of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court confirmation battles is coming to a close.
President Obama and Judge Sotomayor come from a liberal perspective where they don't want to see courts ruling from on high and being in the vanguard of social change. Obama has said that before. Sotomayor has said that before.
They're about consolidating progressive gains rather than using the court as a heroic instrument of vast social change.
KURTZ: Which creates a less dramatic story, obviously...
KURTZ: ... for the media.
Dahlia Lithwick, there's a serious and interesting question about whether judges can be fully objective or whether they're influenced by their life experiences, their ethnicity and all of that.
The media, it seemed to me, to reduce this all to empathy, this buzzword, empathy, you know, is she going to let empathy affect the way she rules?
LITHWICK: It is so interesting, Howie. I was listening to the segment on Cronkite that you just did, and he said in one sentence something that I think is a sort of not very controversial principle. Of course my politics influenced the way I look at the world, don't influence the way I report the news, right? And he said that and we all nodded and said, right. That was really the question at the heart of the Sotomayor hearings. How can it be that she can cop to having ideas and politics, how can she cop to the notion that experience matters or that she has empathy for some kinds of plaintiffs and still be fair?
So it's interesting to me that we accept it when it comes from Cronkite. It's completely uncontroversial when he says it. When she says it, it's a different matter entirely.
I think the empathy language, we sort of saw the rise and fall of the empathy trope I think this week. I think Obama introduced it as a way to try to talk about what was missing from the John Roberts court.
We saw her more or less throw empathy under the bus this week when she said, I don't -- not only do I disavow that notion, if it means judging from the heart, I'm running from it. So...
KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE). Let's me turn to Jim, because my time is short.
Sotomayor clearly mouthed a lot of platitudes about applying the law. But shouldn't journalists point out that John Roberts did something very similar in his hearings and then became one of the most aggressively conservative members of this court?
GERAGHTY: I don't know if I'd agree with the characterization "aggressively conservative," but since...
KURTZ: ... conservative?
GERAGHTY: Compassionate conservative. It's safe to say that the playbook is now established for every single Supreme Court nominee coming on out. When there is precedent, say, well, my decision is guided by precedent. When there is no precedent, well, Senator, I can't prejudge the issue if it comes before me in a case.
GERAGHTY: Smile and filibuster as necessary.
KURTZ: All right. Let me get a break, here. When we come back, more on the hearing and another Washington issue that is just breaking. We'll be back.
KURTZ: And we're back, talking about the Sotomayor hearings.
Terry Moran, the most interesting moment, I thought, was when Senator Lindsey Graham said, "Some of the things you say just bug the hell out of me."
But it -- it made me think, is -- in television terms, are hearings boring if there are no fireworks, no sharp exchanges? MORAN: Sharp exchanges, no question, will drive a news story. But the challenge for television journalists in covering a Supreme Court hearing is making the substance sexy.
And you can do that. Because, after all, we're talking about our law, our fundamental law, our values. It's there. And viewers will respond. It's how you tell it, and, no question, how it's sharpened and focused in the exchanges.
KURTZ: And of course, Dahlia Lithwick, adding to the lack of suspense was the fact that everybody knows that Sotomayor is going to be confirmed, so there's no drama there.
Cable daytime ratings were down, mostly, during these hearings, less than the average news audience. So, in a way, aren't the people, kind of, overruling the media, saying, you know, we just don't care that much?
LITHWICK: I think that's right. I think that part of the problem is this is very complicated. Sotomayor herself tried to make the case for why judges are different from legislators.
You know, this isn't about her opinions about the second amendment. It's not about her opinions about the fourth amendment.
And I think, by making that case, she also took the notion that she gets a thumbs up or thumbs down vote on policy off the table.
People came to this wanting a brief sense of who she was. Is she likable? Does she have a crazy temper problem? She allayed those fears, and then people turned it off.
KURTZ: Well, she certainly didn't show a crazy temper problem.
Jim Geraghty, I'm going to switch gears on your now and put up a copy of the cover of the new Newsweek magazine, which has got a cover story by Ted Kennedy, in which he begins by talking about his battle with brain cancer.
And who could not be sympathetic to a guy who has given so much of his life? And -- but then the rest of it is basically a pitch for the Democratic version of health care.
Has Newsweek just, kind of, moved to the left, here?
GERAGHTY: I am thrilled Newsweek has finally eliminated the middle man in acknowledging what we have long suspected...
... for a long time, that this is the Ted Kennedy message, week in, week out. Now we get it straight from the source.
KURTZ: Well, I don't have any problem with doing a story about Senator Kennedy, but this is a piece by Ted Kennedy, and I wonder if Newsweek would ever give that kind of platform to a Republican senator.
MORAN: Sure. I think the new Newsweek would. The new Newsweek is obviously trying to redefine itself in an era where the notion that you're going to recap the week's events once a week is just -- is antediluvian.
And so they are looking for ways to make news on the news. And that would get newsmakers, whether it's a conservative leader or a liberal leader, on big subjects.
KURTZ: And as far as making news, here we are talking about it.
All right, Jim Geraghty, Terry Moran, stick around. Dahlia Lithwick (inaudible) thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, we'll have more with Terry on his program "Nightline," the evolution of that broadcast from the Ted Koppel era and way it's been enjoying such a ratings surge.
KURTZ: When Ted Koppel stepped down from "Nightline" 3 1/2 years ago, skeptics thought that the venerable ABC program, born during the Iranian hostage crisis back in 1979, might not be long for this world.
KURTZ (voice over): Koppel, after all, was the program. TED KOPPEL, FORMER HOST OF ABC'S "NIGHTLINE": And this is "Nightline."
KURTZ: The network turned over the franchise to three co- anchors, Terry Moran, Cynthia McFadden and Martin Bashir. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. "Nightline's" ratings improved to the point where the program overtook David Letterman this year, finishing second in its time slot.
And in the last three weeks, "Nightline" has beaten Conan O'Brien's "Tonight Show" as well.
KURTZ: Let's turn again to Terry Moran. We'll get to the journalism in a moment, but was Jay Leno giving up the 11:30 slot a big break for "Nightline?"
MORAN: It was, I think. I don't think there's any question about it. When something like that happens -- Leno just dominated that -- that time slot for so long that a lot of people are going to be saying, OK, well, what else is on?
They're going to be sampling. And I think one of the things that's happening is that they're coming and seeing what's on "Nightline." KURTZ: When you were first picked as one of the three co- anchors, did you worry at all that the franchise might not survive without Koppel?
MORAN: Sure, sure. Before you take a job -- I mean, it is an incredible privilege and honor, frankly, to be working at a program called "Nightline" built by Ted Koppel, who is one of my heroes in journalism and a lot of people's heroes in journalism.
KURTZ: And then there was all of this speculation that Leno might leave NBC, come to ABC and take over your what is now your time slot.
MORAN: Sure. I mean, ABC has to make business decisions that are well beyond my pay grade. And so what we had to do, frankly, was inheriting such a legacy from Ted, with the kind of team that we have, do a program that would bring viewers in, hold viewers and bring new viewers in, and redefine "Nightline" for this time.
KURTZ: You have interviewed, among others, President Obama, Gordon Brown, Tim Geithner, the treasury secretary, and Elvis Costello. So you get to do a lot of different things, don't you?
MORAN: It is fun. It's great that way. I think what we have done with "Nightline" is keep it on the news. We keep that promise that Ted made 30 years ago now, which is that there's a big story, "Nightline" has the last word. It's where you want to be. And I think we do that extremely well.
We also do hard news stuff. In the past week or so, the H1N1 virus, the Sotomayor hearings, health care, and now more lighter fare. I mean, there are different things always I hope on our better nights that are kind of a smart and different angle into trend stories or music stories or that kind of thing.
KURTZ: Well, I want to come back to the mix here, but since you mentioned big stories, there has been one big story in last three weeks. And let's take a look at some of "Nightline's" coverage of that story.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MORAN: We begin tonight with new details in the death of Michael Jackson.
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN, CO-HOST, "NIGHTLINE": Good evening, I'm Cynthia McFadden, reporting from inside the famed Neverland Ranch in Southern California.
MARTIN BASHIR, ABC CORRESPONDENT: Michael Jackson's father Joe Jackson, speaking exclusively to ABC News earlier this evening...
MCFADDEN: The Jackson children. Who will care for Prince, Paris, and Blanket, now that Michael Jackson is gone?
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: "Nightline" led with Jackson's death 12 out of 15 days. As a matter of news value, how can you defend that?
MORAN: Oh, Michael Jackson was one of the most popular entertainers in American history, he was a major cultural figure both in terms of the nature of popular music and race in America.
He was a very odd man and a figure of intense fascination across the country. And I think that people were fascinated by somebody being cut down at that time in his life.
KURTZ: Yes, but come on, Terry, after two weeks, when the story was not exactly having a new breaking development every single day, it's about ratings. You did great numbers with Jackson, and so the decision was made to stick with Jackson, isn't that fair?
MORAN: Well, no, that's actually not fair. That wasn't why we stayed with Jackson. We stayed with Jackson because it's a fascinating story. What we do every day is say, what's the best thing we can do for viewers today? What's the most interesting thing out there that we can offer?
KURTZ: Oh, it's interesting. That's interesting. Most interesting but not necessarily most important?
MORAN: People determine what's important based on what they think is interesting in their lives, and we respond to that and lead it. We didn't just do Jackson. We did the H1N1 virus when no one else did. We did Sotomayor. We did President Obama's health care.
And I'd say it's similar to what we did last year. Last year the election was a focus of intense interest around this country. People were -- you would put the election on, ratings would go up. We did that. People came. They saw what we did on the election. And they stayed...
KURTZ: I want to move on in a second, but you're telling me that if the Jackson -- decision to lead with Jackson every night hadn't made you number one -- you were number one, you were beating everybody, that you wouldn't have done it 12 out of 15 nights?
MORAN: Oh, I don't know. It depends on what was happening in the story.
KURTZ: Well, there was health care and a few other things, the economy. But look, the program has done -- I looked over a list, you've done housing foreclosures, you've done fossil discovery, you've done Iran, you've done exorcism in the Congo, a New York teacher who sings with his kids. And so do you think that variety is part of why "Nightline" is enjoying a bit of a resurgence?
MORAN: No question. As I said, what "Nightline" is, is essentially a daily topical news magazine. And one of the things about Walter Cronkite's death that I was thinking is that when he was the anchor, you just got one story, and everybody did it the same way.
Today, you can't do that. "Nightline" is forced to take the stories of the day...
KURTZ: Because cable news has been on all day.
MORAN: Absolutely. Every -- news is the atmosphere we breathe now. If you just...
KURTZ: Right. You've got to bring something extra to the party.
MORAN: Right. "Nightline" does that. And I think we do that in a creative way on our better nights with big stories and with stories that are interesting, topical, off the news slightly, but that will add value to our viewers.
KURTZ: All right. Well, I like late night comedy, but it's -- I'm glad there is place for late night news as well. Terry Moran, thanks very much for stopping by.
Still to come, desperately seeking Sanford. How far did some journalists go to land an interview with the missing-in-action governor of South Carolina? Some of these e-mails will make you cringe.
KURTZ: Everyone in the news business wanted an interview with Mark Sanford after he went missing. That is, before the governor resurfaced and admitting having an affair with his Argentine "soulmate."
But some journalists were willing to do some serious sucking up, and others just went negative.
KURTZ (voice-over): According to e-mails of The State newspaper, a Washington Times staffer wrote Sanford's office that: "If you all want to speak on this publicly, you're welcome to Washington Times Radio. You know that you will be on friendly ground here."
Editor John Solomon says the note, with its poor choice of words, was sent by a marketing employee. FOX News producer and feature reporter Griff Jenkins wrote: "Having known the governor for years and even worked with him when he would host raid shows for me, I find the story and the media frenzy surrounding it to be absolutely ridiculous. Please give him my best."
An online opinion editor for The Wall Street Journal, Brendan Miniter, dissed his own paper's news coverage saying: "Someone at WSJ should be fired for today's story. Ridiculous."
ABC's Jake Tapper sent a note titled "NBC's spot was slimy," including a transcript of a "Today Show" piece on the governor's disappearance, and calling it "insulting." He also passed along a critical Twitter post from NBC's David Gregory.
Now Tapper is hardly the first journalist to bad mouth the competition, but he admitted he was out of line, and apologized to "The Today Show" and Gregory.
And then there was Stephen Colbert who is from South Carolina. The Comedy Central blowhard started with a joke about proclaiming himself the governor, but then got serious. "If the governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale, I would be happy to have him on, in person here, on the phone, or in South Carolina. Stay strong, Stephen."
Most of the media, though, gave Colbert a pass.
COLBERT: And why not hold me to the same standards as others in the conservative media?
I'm just as much a journalist as Fox News.
Keith Olbermann, I demand -- I demand, you name me the worst person in the world.
KURTZ: All right, Stephen, fine. You're a disgrace to the ranks of right-wing blowhards who appear on comedy channels.
Well, as for the real journalists, well, you wonder how often this goes on in the booking wars.
I mean, Governor Sanford, this morning, and a number of South Carolina newspapers, writing a piece in which he apologizes to the citizens of the state, saying the whole experience has left him "humbled and broken."
And, John King, as I turn things back over to you this Sunday morning, you, like everyone else in the business, wrote a couple of e- mails to the governor's office. But the only thing that you said was that you wanted to offer "State of the Union" as "a sane a place as I think there is, in my crazy business, when you and/or he" -- talking to the governor's communications director -- are ready to solve the mystery.
KING: I did say that in the e-mail. I also did say in the e- mail that -- and some would criticize this -- I said that I appreciated the governor's candor and hospitality in the past, and that was a reference to -- and Joel Sawyer, his communications director, knew it -- the governor invited me for dinner when I was down there, once, during the South Carolina primary, and I had dinner with him and his wife and their boys at the governor's mansion, and he was very hospitable. And I did mention that in the e-mail, saying, if he wants to explain himself, I'd let him come on the program.
KURTZ: Right. Well, there's a big difference, I think, between that and the people who wrote about offering a "friendly place," because that, I think, crosses a line that we as journalists try to maintain, even as we try to get the best bookings that we can.
All right. John King, Sunday morning -- the rest of it is in your hands.
KING: Howard, you take care.