Guideposts Classics: Walter Cronkite on Honesty

In this story from July 1970, the respected newscaster shares how important honesty was to him—in his career and in his prayer life.

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Guideposts: Acclaimed news anchor and journalist Walter Cronkite

Once, when I was a boy, I saw a dollar Ingersoll watch in the showcase of our local drugstore. I wanted that watch very much but didn’t have the dollar, so I asked the druggist if I could take it and then pay for it as I earned the money. He agreed.

The next day my mother happened to come into the store, and the druggist casually mentioned the arrangement we had made.

Well, my parents would have none of it. To them what I had done was the next thing to dishonesty.

“Don’t you see,” my mother said to me, “you already consider that watch yours but you haven’t paid for it. That’s deception. If you have to use the slightest bit of dishonesty to get what you want, you’re paying too high a price.”

She paid the druggist the dollar, took the watch from me and kept it until I earned the money to retrieve it.

That lesson has stuck with me. Today I have almost a compulsive desire to be honest, not because I think it makes me any better than the next man, but because I feel so strongly about the need for honesty in our national life.

If we want to see straight dealing in our country, the place to begin is with ourselves.

Sometimes there is no problem in knowing the honest thing to do. Some speculators once offered me a large parcel of land. There was no suggestion that I talk about their property on the air. They just wanted to be able to say that I owned land in the area they were trying to promote.

They weren’t able to say it.

Another time, a group of uranium-stock promoters were ready to give me a large sum of money if I would broadcast their “find” in Colorado. They’re still waiting.

Some years ago a highly placed man in Washington suggested to newsmen that a little management of the news, now and then, would be in the national interest. The man who made the suggestion was a friend of mine.

But I felt so strongly against the idea of manipulating news that I spoke out against it publicly. Our friendship was strained. That was painful, but it would have been more painful to have allowed such an idea to go unchallenged.

Then there is the situation—which every newsman faces—known as attribution. A man will look you in the eye and say, “Please attribute what I’m telling you to ‘informed sources’—not to me.”

When the CIA first decided to reveal its role in the Green Beret case involving the death of an alleged Vietnamese double agent, it requested newsmen to attribute its version of the story to “informed sources.”

We couldn’t do that at CBS News. We reported the story the way it was: “A new version of the Green Beret case, reflecting the views of the CIA, has begun to circulate here.” Again, such honesty made a number of people unhappy, but I felt we had no choice.

Is there, in fact, any ideal today that demands more commitment—in public, business and private life—than Saint Paul’s injunction, “Put away falsehood, speak every man truth with his neighbor; for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).

I call it an ideal rather than a rule, for the more I struggle with questions of honesty, the more I learn how complicated the subject is. I also know that each man has to come to his own understanding of how to put away falsehood.

The Democratic National Convention of 1968 was a complex experience of honesty. We knew at the time that we could not possibly report every man’s understanding of the events taking place in Chicago.

Because we could not present the whole truth, pressure was put on us not to report some of the actual events themselves. Demonstrations and brutalities, we were told, were dangerous facts, too confusing for the average citizen to understand.

We just could not agree to those arguments. “Give people the light and they will find the way,” said one of our great American journalists, E. W. Scripps. I agree. To me, honesty and light are synonymous.

We went ahead, even in the face of criticism, and reported what we did see as completely as we knew how.

And because I believe that honesty and light are the same thing, I also believe that a genuine religious life must submit to this standard. Before every prayer I utter, I ask myself, “Is this honest?”

In 1951, when I had been with CBS for only a year, I was given my first big tv assignment—covering the return of General Douglas MacArthur from Korea. We were on the air with cameras grinding when we learned that the general’s plane would be delayed in coming down.

I realized right then that I hadn’t done enough spadework. In the pit of my stomach was the awful fear that I would run out of words and that this broadcast would be embarrassing, perhaps even disastrous, and the end of my career.

Could I ask God to help me here, when I had not done my homework? Not by the standards of the Ingersoll watch. I could pray that I never make this mistake again, but that was different from asking Him to bail me out now.

MacArthur’s plane was delayed 15 minutes, which seemed like as many years. During that time I recited all of his biography I could remember and ad-libbed wildly to fill the gap.

It was not my best broadcast. But to my way of thinking it would have been a worse loss if I had let panic make me try to cut some corners with God.

At other times, prayer is the honest thing—the only honest thing to do. For instance, when my daughter Nancy came down with a mysterious high fever and lapsed into a semi-coma, I prayed hard.

Or earlier, when Nancy was an infant and my wife, Betsy, was flying in from Kansas City with her, I went to a rainy, fog-shrouded airport to meet them. I squeezed through the crowd to the airline counter and inquired if the plane from Kansas City was on time. The man looked at me, very concerned.

“Sir,” he said, “I’m afraid we’ve lost contact with that plane!”

A woman screamed. Another fainted. And I prayed as I never had before. Then I rushed to find a phone, to see if I could find out anything about the missing plane—and bumped into Betsy herself. Contact with the plane had been lost simply because it had landed early.

I am not suggesting that my prayers here brought about the story’s happy ending, but I do suggest that this was an honest time to ask for God’s help.

This is an era when we need honesty in every phase of living as never before, because never before in history have we been so irrevocably members one of another.

And while our efforts to be honest can be perplexing—even cost us friendships and material gain—I believe there is a greater compensation: the awareness of being true to something and Someone bigger than we are.

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