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Cronkite
Walter Cronkite during CBS News coverage of the Apollo 11 landing. (credit: CBS)

And that’s the way it was on the way to the Moon: an interview with Walter Cronkite


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Walter Cronkite was once known as one of the most trusted men in America, a newscaster with a reputation for telling it like it was. Cronkite, who died in 2009 at the age of 92, reported on many subjects during his decades in the news business, including the Apollo program, about which he could not hide his enthusiasm. He was a space buff, clearly relishing the drama and inspiration of the effort to send Americans to the Moon, and getting teary-eyed when Apollo 11 successfully landed on the Sea of Tranquility.

Whereas it is common these days to think that Apollo was always popular, the reality was that it only had support from a majority of the American public during a brief period during the Apollo 11 landing.

In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC, aired a program about the role of Washington politics in the lunar landing. “Washington Goes to the Moon” was written and produced by Richard Paul and featured interviews with a number of key figures in the story, including Cronkite. After the radio program aired, the producer turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents. These transcripts include unaired portions of the interviews.

Cronkite spoke about how his network covered the Apollo program, as well as its critics. Whereas it is common these days to think that Apollo was always popular, the reality was that it only had support from a majority of the American public during a brief period during the Apollo 11 landing. There were harsh critics of the expenditure on what they considered a needless folly. Cronkite also discussed how the press covered NASA during this time period, and how NASA did not always like that coverage. The questioner is not identified in the interview, but was probably producer Richard Paul. The interview is reproduced below with limited editing for clarity.

Interviewer: With 30 years hindsight, we remember the coverage of the space program being uniformly positive. Are we remembering correctly? What sort of coverage did you give to those who opposed the space program?

Cronkite: Not a great deal of coverage of those who opposed the space program. There was certainly mention of it when one of the anti-space spokespersons stood up and made a particularly strong speech in opposition, I think it was covered. There weren’t any, as far as I know, programs put on the air extolling the anti-space position.

Interviewer: Tell us what reporting CBS did that looked critically at the space program.

Cronkite: Yes, indeed, we reported critical aspects, that is, criticism that was raised at news conferences at NASA, that was a very frequent thing. At our news conferences at the Cape and elsewhere by NASA, the press was highly critical. There were some very bitter moments at those press conferences between the public relations spokesman and the press, which all of us participated in from time to time.

Interviewer: We do get this sense that everything was unremittingly positive.

Cronkite: No. Not at all. Not at all. Certainly, NASA didn’t think that.

Interviewer: Was there ever a CBS Reports or anything like that which looked at the space program?

Cronkite: I don’t recall anything specifically of that nature, although the matter came up frequently in our space coverage. But not as I recall as any special program trying to expose any mismanagement or misdirection of our space program.

“It was a terribly expensive program, quite clearly. But that is an argument that is made in all aspects of public expenditure—the priority that we give our various projects that we feel the government should be pursuing.”

Interviewer: Where the Apollo program was opposed, the opposition seems to come from four areas: people who thought the money should be spent on the poor, scientists who thought manned space flight was a waste, anti-technology people, and people (mostly in the anti-war movement) who thought everything America did was bad. Let’s talk about these groups individually and tell me whether they were perceived as legitimate. First: on the people—Ralph Abernathy loudest among them—who believed the money should be spent on the poor. Was that considered a legitimate point of view?

Cronkite: It certainly was by me. And I think it was by nearly every fair-minded reporter. It was a position that was quite important to the entire consideration of the space program and its cost. It was a terribly expensive program, quite clearly. But that is an argument that is made in all aspects of public expenditure—the priority that we give our various projects that we feel the government should be pursuing. This was a perfectly legitimate argument and it was made by some very intelligent, well-informed concerned people.

Interviewer: What did the media add to the calls for feeding the poor?

Cronkite: I don’t think the media added anything, except reporting on it. What do we add to anything that we report? It was discussed, it was out there. It was part of the entire debate over the concept of the space program and the continuing high expenditures which were beyond that which were predicted in the earliest days of the space program.

Interviewer: Did your coverage of the riots influence the debate in Washington over federal spending priorities?

Cronkite: Oh yes. I think so. I don’t think there’s any question about it. It wasn’t just television’s coverage. I really get a little bit upset when people try to suggest that television alone is the major influence in public opinion these days. This has come up in these current days as we record this with Kosovo and the situation there—that if we weren’t looking at the pictures of these refugees, would we be as sympathetic to their cause? Well possibly not as sympathetic, but we would certainly be sympathetic. People have been moved by such things before television—the hunger in Europe after World War One was a matter of great concern to all people, the civilized peoples of the world, particularly Americans. There wasn’t any television in those days. Television certainly extenuates it, has a tremendous impact, but I don’t think that television alone changes the thrust of history.

Interviewer: Do you think that influence, that the influence you might have over the debate in Washington… do you think that your influence was taken into account when covering the riots? Or were you just covering the riots as a news story?

Cronkite: Oh precisely. I don’t recall that at any time did we have an agenda to try to influence public opinion.

Interviewer: Now, when it comes to the others—scientists who thought manned space flight was a bad idea, and the anti-technology and anti-war people—CBS certainly covered all of these movements, right?

“At that very time, we had Kurt Vonnegut on the air, we had Gloria Steinem on the air. I remember those two particularly who were bitter about the fact we were on the Moon. We should have been taking care of the poor on Earth. We had ’em on the air that very day.”

Cronkite: Of course. To the best of our ability. It was part of our daily coverage of the news. They made news by their opposition and when they did, we reported it. We did not conduct a campaign to be sure that they were given air time at every occasion. Until you bring it up here, I had never even thought of it. Because we covered the news. That was news at one time and we covered it.

Interviewer: What did you perceive was your obligation to make known the grievances that these groups had against the Apollo program?

Cronkite: I suggest that you’re coming from: the protests of these people that they were not given a fair shake in presenting their case. That is the case with every movement of any kind and any position of any kind at all times. They never think they’re given a fair shake by the press, particularly those who are a little out of the mainstream. They always will object that they’re not getting a fair shake in the press. They want the press to present their opinion. (laughs) You don’t do that. That’s not… it ceases to be news.

Interviewer: One gets the sense that CBS at the time was all about scrupulous fairness. Was it fair to make these people “swim upstream” so vigorously?

Cronkite: I suggest they’re poor losers. We had them on, incidentally. We had the opponents on the air the very day of the Moon landing. When the entire world was celebrating. At that very time, we had Kurt Vonnegut on the air, we had Gloria Steinem on the air. I remember those two particularly who were bitter about the fact we were on the Moon. We should have been taking care of the poor on Earth. We had ’em on the air that very day. And incidentally, they got a tremendous amount of insulting mail. I would suggest because it seemed that they were raining on our parade.

Interviewer: Thirty years out from this, it is now practically impossible to find anyone who admits to having opposed the Apollo program. Why do you think that is?

“It spent a great deal of our national treasure, if you please, to make the program work. But there were so many reasons it was necessary at that particular juncture.”

Cronkite: A lot of it is emotional stress of their other causes of which they were involved and quite properly—so concern for civil rights, concern for the poor. They had some good reasons for their views. And since then, we have established that there is this future in space, if you please, that we have things to accomplish out there. And I think there’s an understanding that quite possibly, the success of our space program and the adventure of our space program, in that terrible decade of the sixties, played an important part in maintaining a semblance of morale in a country that was very, very depressed in everything else that was happening. The civil rights fight, the assassinations, the Vietnam War. These were things that split America in a way that we hadn’t been split since the Civil War of the 1860’s. And here was this one program where people could look up. And dream, if you please, of incredible adventure. And there was a pride in that. It had a great deal to do with maintaining some sense of balance in this civilization of ours.

Interviewer: I talked with Lyndon Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, who is of the opinion that the Moon landing was nothing but a big show. That it wasn’t worth the money. What’s your feeling now 30 years later. It was a lot of money. Was it worth it?

Cronkite: It spent a great deal of our national treasure, if you please, to make the program work. But there were so many reasons it was necessary at that particular juncture. John Kennedy had the dream. I don’t know precisely who planted it with him. There was an immediate goal that people could associate with and understand, and beyond that, there was a great deal of scientific achievement from the amount of money we spent on the space program. The defense thing was not an idle goal. The control of space, indeed, was an important aspect in the Cold War. To think what would have happened if we had not gotten into the space program, the Soviets would be out there with the satellites today that this country has perfected.

 

“Washington Goes to the Moon” was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, WAMU FM, WABE FM, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. You can listen to parts 1 and 2 for free here.


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