The Way It Will Be: Cronkite Sees Some New Media Angles

So much has been written and broadcast about his life, about his work.

"Kind of hard-pressed to find a new angle, aren't you?"

Walter Cronkite, the consummate meat-and-potatoes newsman, whose eyes brighten when he recalls "filing" stories for the old United Press wire, chuckles. He understands. The news machine is ravenous.

About him, it's all been said before. He is a living media icon. For 19 years he was the anchor of "The CBS Evening News," the most trusted man in America. Taken as a whole, Cronkite's 80-year life defines an astonishing era.

His best-selling book, "A Reporter's Life" (Knopf, $26.95), pretty much sums it up. So does his current series of specials, "Cronkite Remembers," airing on The Discovery Channel.

"It's a terrible thing to sound like an old veteran out on the porch of the veterans' home thumping his cane, but I grew up as a boy with no cellophane tape," he said yesterday during a visit to Seattle to promote the book.

"The whole broadcast business is in my memory."

Not to mention World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the transformation of politics into an extension of television, the early exploration of space, the end of the Cold War.

So much has been written and broadcast about Cronkite's career.

But as every good reporter knows, there's always a new angle, and the newest angle in Cronkite's beloved news business is cyberspace.

Who better to ask about the dawn of the digital-information age than a man who labored through the births of radio and television, a man who once was the ultimate gatekeeper of mass media, and a fan of technology - albeit one who failed physics in college?

Or a man who says he was smeared recently by a home page on the World Wide Web?

Cronkite still is considering legal action against the person who posted manipulated photos of Cronkite and a concocted story about him cursing in a restaurant and spitting in food.

The Web-page author said it was all a joke and removed the page from the Internet.

Cronkite doesn't think it was funny, and he said he will speak with lawmakers about what can be done to encourage responsibility in cyberspace, and try to get the word out himself.

"My position on the Internet and the question of responsibility of those who use the Internet is predicated on (the fact) absolutely nothing should interfere with freedom of speech and press on the Internet," Cronkite said.

"But within that, it seems to me, we should do everything legally possible to assure responsibility" - the same burden "placed on the backs of newspapers and broadcasting and public speakers, of having to identify themselves and be liable for libel or slander," he said.

"If there is the kind of people out there who can write that kind of stuff, I assume there's the kind of people out there who can believe it."

Cronkite is only a casual user of the Web, tapping it for specific research. Sometimes, he said, he peruses sites owned by mainstream media, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, for news updates.

"I have a feeling that the responsible news sources we've known in the past, the responsible purveyors we've known in the past - the newspapers and magazines, in other words - will establish their dominance as news distributors on the Internet because they will have the resources to do it and they already have the name, which in most cases is respected.

"And I think that what might be called the underground - the independents, the freelancers, the pamphleteers - will kind of be in a niche of their own," Cronkite said.

So we can look forward to diversity in the new medium.

But Cronkite decried the profit-mongering among the conglomerates that own the news business today, suggesting that investors weigh the cost of pushing too hard for profitability - the cost being responsible journalism that is not beholden to market research.

"It does appear to be futile, and I'm not sure I can find it in my heart to be optimistic," he said of the future of news managed by corporate boardrooms.

In a way, the business has come full circle from the 1930s, when Cronkite used ticker reports to fabricate play-by-play broadcasts of distant football games for radio in Kansas City.

Broadcasting developed sober news judgment and fairly stringent ethical standards in the 1960s and '70s, and Cronkite was a part of that, too, until his retirement from the evening news in 1981.

Today, he is involved in producing nonfictional programs for The Discovery Channel and other outlets, and watches television news drift farther and farther from meat and potatoes.

As a deadline neared for another interview inside a classically furnished suite at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, Cronkite measured other changes he has seen.

"This world has moved awfully fast," he said. "It's been an incredible century of development, in every sense - the scientific, the technical, medicine. Everything except social welfare and political science. Political science hasn't advanced at all, I think.

"As long as men still settle their problems by killing each other, either on the streets of Seattle or on the battlefields of Europe, we can't make much claim to the advance of civilization."

As every good reporter knows, the same themes recur, story after story.