Walter Cronkite foreword for “We Interrupt This Broadcast”

American broadcast journalist and TV news anchor Walter Cronkite keeps his eyes on his monitor as NASA's Apollo 11 mission touches down on the moon, July 20, 1969. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

We are living through a period in history when journalism again faces great responsibilities and unexpected challenges. 

This generation of journalists is faced with the heavy responsibility of recording as faithfully and honestly as is humanly possible the vast political and economic reorganization of the post-war era. That would be a demanding task even if our own profession was entirely stable and we could count on pursuing our craft with the wisdom assembled through past experience.

But that, alas, is not the case. Television has changed the face of journalism.  In a time when, using the magic tube, political leaders can go over the heads of their own parties, when heads of states soar over national boundaries to address the people of other countries, the journalist’s job takes on a new dimension. In broadcasting, there is need for instant analysis and the provisions of background information so that the people shall not be misled by skillful demagogues with these new means of persuasion at their command. 

Such is also the need when the big stories break, and I have covered more than a few of them. When the events that change the world occur, we journalists must step up with all the instant thoughtfulness and knowledge we can muster in the face of triumph and tragedy.

It is an interesting thing about newspeople. We are much like doctors, nurses, fireman, and police. In the midst of tremendous events, our professional drive takes over and dominates our emotions. We move almost like automatons to get the job done. The time for an emotional reaction most wait. Even so, we are, at the same time, very human. When something changes your life, comma, it also changes hours.

I covered all the moonshots, but the pinnacle of all of them, and of my quarter century covering them, was seeing Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon. I believe that of all our achievements in the twentieth century, this is the one that students will read about in history books hundreds of years from now.

My reaction to the landing reflected that belief – it was goose pimples on goose pimples. When the moment came for Neil to step out of the Eagle, I was speechless.

“Oh boy! Whew! Boy!” I said, profundity to be recorded for all the ages. I had just as long as NASA to prepare for that moment, and yet, these were my words.  They reflected my joy, awe, and admiration for those remarkable astronauts and for the daring and courageous spirit of humankind period. 

As is the nature of many events which warrant interrupting broadcasts, I also was there to report on the terrible tragedies. 

Our flash reporting the shots fired at President John F Kennedy’s motorcade was heard over the “CBS News Bulletin” slide and interrupted the soap opera As The World Turns.

For the first hour, I reported sketchy details to a nation in shock. Then came the report from Eddie Barker, news chief of our Dallas affiliate, and Bob Pierpoint, our White House correspondent. They had learned the president was dead. We were still debating in New York whether we should put such a portentous but unofficial bulletin on the air when, within minutes, the hospital issued a bulletin confirming the news. It fell to me to make the announcement.

My emotions were doing fine until it was necessary to pronounce the words: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash – apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 PM central standard time – a half hour ago…”

The words stuck in my throat.  A sob wanted to replace them. A gulp or two quashed the sob, which metamorphosed into tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I fought back the emotion and regained my professionalism, but it would be a few seconds before I could continue: “Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly, and become the 36th President of the United States.”

The potential of journalism today is greater than it has ever been. Today, news people in general are far better educated than ever, many holding advanced degrees. With strong academic backgrounds, they have been far more aggressive in covering politics, business, and the social movements of our time 

At the same time, this potential is often nullified by the problems facing the journalistic profession, problems which impact the core of our democratic society. Today’s journalists face continual pressures from corporate ownerships and stockholders to dramatically increase profits. This requirement often means less reporters, writers, and editors covering more territory. It can also push good journalists in the direction of the sensational, the entertainment aspects of the news. The end result is oppress lacking a sense of public service, which is the vital, fundamental component the press contributes to the nation’s welfare. 

Press freedom is essential to our democracy, but the press also must not abuse this license. We must be careful with our power.  We must avoid, when possible, publicity circuses that make the right of a fair trial a right difficult to uphold. We must avoid unwarranted intrusions upon people’s privacy. Liberty and, no less, one’s reputation in the community are terribly precious things, and they must not be dealt with lightly or endangered by capricious claims of special privilege.

Above all else, however, the press itself must unwaveringly guard the First Amendment guarantees of a free press. The free press, after all, is the central nervous system of a democratic society. No true democracy, as we understand the term, can exist without it. The press may be irresponsible at times, obstreperous, arrogant, even cruel when innocent individuals are caught in the rip tide of damaging publicity. But a free, unintimidated, and unregulated press is democracy’s early-warning system against both the dangers of democracy’s own excesses and the approach of tyranny. And inevitably, one of the first signs of tyranny’s approach is its heavy footstep on the threshold of press freedom. 

The preservation of our liberties depends on an enlightened citizenry. Those who get most of their news from television probably are not getting enough information to intelligently exercise their voting franchise in a democratic system. As Thomas Jefferson said, the nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never can and never will be. We can bring that up-to-date and amplify it a bit: the nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headlines service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who prey upon the semi informed. 

The secret of our past success as a nation may be traced to the fact that we have been a free people, free to discuss ideas and alternatives, free to teach and learn, free to report and hear, free to challenge the most venerable institutions without fear of reprisal. The First Amendment, with its guarantees of free speech and a free press, has been at the heart of the American success story. It must be guarded zealously if we are to gird for the challenges of the new century ahead.