Walter Cronkite’s press freedom legacy

Walter Cronkite had such a profound impact in so many ways that one might overlook an important part of his legacy–his long efforts on behalf of international press freedom and his advocacy on behalf of local journalists around the world. Cronkite was a vital participant in the launch of the Committee to Protect Journalists 28 years ago and, though his title here may have been honorary co-chairman, he was an active force throughout the years.

In 1981, Michael Massing, then executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, and CBS News writer Laurie Nadel formed the Committee to Protect Journalists to fight for the rights of journalists around the world. Dan Rather, who had just taken over from Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News, summoned Nadel into his office demanding to know more about the Committee. Rather not only offered to join the board, he offered to help recruit Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite with CPJ founder and board member Michael Massing. (CPJ)
Walter Cronkite with CPJ founder and board member Michael Massing. (CPJ)

Massing and Nadel drafted a letter and sent it through CBS inter-office mail. Cronkite wrote back saying that he didn’t generally lend his name to organizations in which he could not play an active role and, given his schedule, he knew he could not be active. But because of the importance of CPJ’s mission he would make an exception and serve in an honorary position. But there was nothing honorary about Cronkite’s involvement with CPJ.

Not only was Cronkite America’s best-known journalist, he had led a group during the Vietnam War that gathered information about reporters and photographers who were missing in action. His involvement with CPJ suggested to U.S. journalists the seriousness of the new organization, and his name at the top of the letterhead had the potential of getting the attention of government officials around the world. It did.

In April 1982, for example, after Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, starting a war with Britain, the government there arrested three British journalists on charges of espionage. The Swiss government, the pope, and the U.N. secretary-general all appealed for the release of the three journalists, Simon Winchester of The Sunday Times and Ian Mather and Tony Prime of The Observer.

But Winchester remembers that it was the CPJ letter, signed by Walter Cronkite and sent to Argentina’s foreign and justice ministers, that gave him the greatest hope. After he learned of the letter, he wrote to his wife and children in England saying that he believed that the end was in sight because Cronkite and CPJ had taken up his case. After 77 days in captivity–during which British Marines retook the Falklands Islands–Winchester, Mather, and Prime were released and put on a plane out of Argentina. Mather later sent a letter to CPJ noting that, “we are totally convinced that it was outside pressure that the led Argentine authorities to realize that our continued incarceration could never be beneficial to the reputation of Argentina no matter how well they looked after us.”

The next year, when CPJ sought to visit apartheid South Africa, it was a letter from Cronkite to the South African Embassy that secured visas for our delegation. Our representatives, including Nadel and then-board member Aryeh Neier (who helped found Human Rights Watch), tried to persuade South African officials to ease the country’s practice of imprisoning journalists and taking other highly repressive steps such as “banning” them from public life.

Minister of Law and Order Louis La Grange was unabashed about procedures that clearly lacked due process and indignant that they were being challenged. Yet later in the meeting, La Grange’s tone softened: He told our delegation that he had once met Cronkite. “Should I give Walter your regards?” asked Neier. “No, he wouldn’t remember me,” said La Grange. “But I certainly remember him.”

For Neier, the interaction was a lesson in the power of the U.S. media and one of its leading figures. A government official who was so powerful in South Africa that he proudly took credit for approving journalist detentions was in awe of Walter Cronkite.

At the 2005 International Press Freedom Awards, Cronkite appears with then-Executive Director Ann Cooper, left, and awardee Beatrice Mtetwa, the Zimbabwean media rights lawyer. (CPJ)
At the 2005 International Press Freedom Awards, Cronkite appears with then-Executive Director Ann Cooper, left, and awardee Beatrice Mtetwa, the Zimbabwean media rights lawyer. (CPJ)

Cronkite’s involvement continued through the years. He continued to write letters, host fundraisers, and attend our annual International Press Freedom Awards. In 1995, Cronkite helped persuade Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to drop charges against Reuters correspondent Aliza Marcus, who faced prison for reporting on counterinsurgency strikes against Kurdish rebels.

In a 2006 interview for our magazine, Dangerous Assignments, Cronkite recalled CPJ’s efforts on behalf of Turkish journalists: “The committee’s long-running efforts to persuade several consecutive governments in Turkey to adopt basic democratic principles of free speech and free speech and free press resulted in wide recognition of our devotion to these freedoms. It’s an enduring effort and I’m proud to say that (former chairwoman and current board member) Kati Marton and I were early representatives of the committee, dispatched to try to relieve the Turkish leadership’s incredibly repressive treatment of the press.”

Michael Massing recalls Cronkite’s contributions as invaluable:

In its nearly 30 years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has undergone many changes, growing from a tiny group of volunteers in New York to a global network working on behalf of beleaguered journalists around the world, but throughout its existence one thing has remained constant: Walter Cronkite’s position as its honorary chairman.

Walter’s association with the organization proved invaluable. Indeed, without it, the Committee might not have survived. His name has remained prominently linked with the Committee’s–a seal of integrity and trustworthiness. On the occasion of the Committee’s 25th anniversary, Walter appeared at a private dinner held in his honor and attended by executives from national news organizations whose backing CPJ was seeking. He spoke with great feeling about the Committee’s work over its first quarter-century and about the gratitude he felt for being associated with it. The real gratitude, of course, is the Committee’s, for the unwavering support he showed for its work over all these years. CPJ remains committed to continuing that work in the spirit of the ideals he so faithfully embodied.

As CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger said in remembering Cronkite’s enduring contribution to press freedom, “From putting his own life on the line to cover the battlefields of World War II to challenging the ‘thugs’ who physically harassed his reporters on the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Walter Cronkite knew firsthand the challenges journalists face bringing news to the public, and he never forgot them. Whenever press freedom needed a champion, he was there. We will miss him.”