Monday, July 20, 2009

When Cronkite covered the oil industry

Walter Cronkite, who died at age 92 on July 17, had a long and varied journalistic career before he became managing editor of the CBS Evening News. One of his least known stints was his brief tenure covering the oil industry.

I first learned of it in the early 1980s, not long after I became part of the oil and gas trade press. I was managing editor of The Oil Daily, which Whitney Communications Corp. owned at the time. One spring, Whitney brought selected editors and publishers from its magazine division (which also included Interior Design, Art in America, Boating Industry, and Hockey News) to the Bahamas for a conference.

Several Whitney board members were there, including Cronkite. My boss, DeVan L. Shumway, introduced me to him at the opening night reception. “Oil Daily?” Cronkite said. “I admire your being able to report on that industry.” When I asked him why, he said he would explain more fully when he addressed us the next morning.

During his remarks, he emphasized how important our work was in keeping the public informed, and expressed concern that so many people got all their news from the nightly television network newscasts. He said that he recognized that trade publications often break important stories because they are better acquainted with the industries they cover, and urged us to write the best stories possible.

Then he admitted that he hadn’t always followed that advice.

It was soon after he joined the Houston bureau of United Press in the late 1930s. The bureau chief called him in to his office one day to say Cronkite was being sent to Tulsa for a month while the reporter there took a month’s vacation.

Cronkite said that he protested he didn’t know anything about the oil industry. “Don’t worry about it. You’re pretty bright. All you have to do is file an oil column each Thursday,” the bureau chief replied, so off Cronkite went.

“Not too surprisingly,” he told us all those years later, “I didn’t start to worry about what I was going to put in the column until Thursday morning. Then I did what any resourceful young reporter who was in well over his head would do: I looked for something to steal.” He finally found what he thought would be perfect: a weekly oil column in the Chicago Journal of Commerce that was incisive and authoritative. Cronkite reworked it slightly, sent it in, and didn’t think about it until the next week “when I opened the Chicago Journal of Commerce and discovered, to my horror, that its weekly oil column was filed each Thursday by the United Press reporter in Tulsa.”

Once he recovered from the shock, he reworked the column again and submitted it. He did the same for the remaining two weeks he was there. “What horrifies me now is the fact that either no one noticed, or nobody cared,” he told the Whitney editors and publishers.

I met him one other time. Another Whitney publication, Waterways Guide, was opening its new office in Annapolis, Md., near Washington, and my wife Robbie and I were invited to a reception there. I thought that Cronkite might be there too since he was an avid sailor and on the Waterways Guide board, but I didn’t tell Robbie, who was a journalist too. I just waited until we were there, worked my way over to Cronkite and, at the right moment, said, “Walter, I’d like you to meet my wife.”

This obviously happened to him a lot. He was charming, asked about both of us, and said “we caught a break there” when I congratulated him on a story the CBS Evening News had aired the night before from inside Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. He obviously was a journalistic pro who wasn’t afraid to admit that he sometimes made mistakes. That’s the way he was.


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