Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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Walter Cronkite: Judicious advocacy journalist?

A couple columns that passed my way via Twitter say the real gem in the crown of former CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite’s career was his clear-eyed analysis of the war in Vietnam — one formed by on-the-ground reporting.

From Salon’s Glenn Greenwald: (posted July 18)

“The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past” — Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.

“I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job. I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role” — David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.

Tellingly, his most celebrated and significant moment — Greg Mitchell says “this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million” — was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn’t trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false.  In other words, Cronkite’s best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do — directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed.  These days, our leading media outlets won’t even use words that are disapproved of by the Government. …

In the hours and hours of preening, ponderous, self-serving media tributes to Walter Cronkite, here is a clip you won’t see, in which Cronkite — when asked what is his biggest regret — says (h/t sysprog):

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick.  We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.

It’s impossible even to imagine the likes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and friends interrupting their pompously baritone, melodramatic, self-glorifying exploitation of Cronkite’s death to spend a second pondering what he meant by that.

Will Bunch offered the following in the Philadelphia Daily News: (posted July 19)

I have to start with a confession — I did not grow up in a Walter Cronkite household. I’m not sure why — I was just a kid and didn’t have control of the remot…I mean, knob…back then. One fact that’s been buried in many of the obits that marked the news legend’s passing on Friday at age 92 is that during the 1960s, NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report — which is what we watched — had higher ratings, and it was was with them, and not “Uncle Walter,” that I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Then, a few months before I graduated from college and became a full-time journalist myself, Cronkite left the stage for his retirement. That was 28 years ago.

But today, as we mourn Cronkite’s death and celebrate his remarkable life, I would have to say that no other newsman has had as great an impact on me, and on what I have come to believe about the role that journalists must play in American life. It was only years after the fact that I learned more about — and came to grasp the remarkable significance of — what should be held up this week as the crowning moment of Cronkite’s career. It took place on Feb. 27, 1968, when Cronkite — after days of agonizing about how to balance his roles as a leading journalist and as an American citizen — aired an editorial calling for a negotiated end to the war in Vietnam, an action that he realized posed enormous risk to his career as a newsman.

It was not a choice he made lightly, but only after traveling to Vietnam in person and balancing what he saw and heard on the front lines with the official government spin. In taking the courageous and difficult stand, he undoubtedly — as my friend Greg Mitchell noted the other night — saved many lives. But he also offered a roadmap for saving American journalism — a lesson that was sadly lost on most of the profession when it most needed to be heard, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the time that the nation so desperately needed another Walter Cronkite, but there was no one of his stature to be found. …

President Johnson famously told aides that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” A month later. LBJ stunned America with the news that he would not seek another term and peace talks began shortly after that. There was no Hollywood ending — U.S. combat dragged on for five long years, but the fulcrum had tipped with Cronkite, as the main focus turned to ending the war rather than expanding it. A few years later, Cronkite saw a similar gathering threat to the American body politic in the Watergate scandal, and CBS was alone in devoting two lengthy reports to that abuse of power, well ahead of the competition. Cronkite never lost his journalist’s instincts for thorough reporting, but he also understood something very important, much as his CBS predecessor Edward R. Murrow had shown with Joe McCarthy a generation earlier.

Cronkite understood that the ultimate role that journalism can be forced to play in democracy is, quite simply, to fight to preserve democracy itself, and that the greatest threat to our republic was when elected leaders choose to lie to the American people. That didn’t mean abandoning the core principles of journalism — aggressive fact finding, which includes first-hand observation and talking to all sides, as Cronkite did on his trip to Vietnam, or an innate sense of fairness and justice. But he knew that journalism was more than rote stenography –parroting the untruths that LBJ and the Pentagon said about the war and finding a political opponent to quote deep down in the story for “balance.” He knew there could be a time when the only way to inform the American people of a higher truth was to step outside the straight jacket of objectivity.

To turn a famous phrase on its head, Cronkite realized there are times when a true journalist does yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater…when there is an actual fire. It is not an easy call to make, but Cronkite did the right thing, displaying real courage years before his colleague Dan Rather turned “courage” into a weird catch phrase. Because of what Cronkite did in 1968, some people who would have perished were able to get out alive.

Walter Cronkite lived on for a long time, long enough to see the consequences when there was no one with his bravery and his journalistic principles in a similar position of influence. And so when a new generation of American leaders lied yet again to the citizens, about non-existent weapons of mass destruction and phony ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, none of the nation’s most powerful journalists left the cocktail-party cozy confines of the Beltway to “pull a Cronkite” to uncover the real facts, let alone try to speak the broader truths to the American public (and the handful of grunts who did try were shunted aside).

This time, lives would be needlessly lost, because no top journalist would speak up with the simple American virtue that Cronkite displayed in 1968. In the two days since we learned of Cronkite’s death, so much has been written about the man, about his rare tone of authority, about the avuncularity and comfort offered to couch potatoes by their “Uncle Walter,” about the incredible events that he reported from moon walks to the Kennedy assassination. All those things are true, but they also tend to miss how he was willing to risk all of that because he felt his responsibility to his country and to the truth was more important than his career. That he could make such a choice was the true meaning of Walter Cronkite.

The good news here is that, in my opinion, all is not lost. The failure of journalism in the 2002-03 run-up to the Iraq War may have been a bottom. In the years since then, we’ve paid a little more attention to the people who got it right like Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, we’ve seen conventional journalists radicalized into truth-to-power speakers like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, we’ve been blessed with exciting young talent like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, and we’ve seen journalists using media that didn’t exist in Cronkite’s day — bloggers like Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo — using the Internet to create a whole new way of story-telling with the goal of a broader reality.

Our world is very different from 1968, and it’s not clear if any one newsperson could have the amount of influence that Cronkite could have for one night (or whether that would even be desirable). But on many canvasses, great and small, where journalists are engaged in a quest for real truth and not an artificially manufactured one, the spirit of Walter Cronkite is still very much alive today.

Tue, July 21 2009 » Main Page, Media

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous July 23 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    And then there's Mark Steyn in this week's Macleans. How's that for grateful.

  2. Anonymous July 23 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    I haven't seen the new Maclean's yet. But you've piqued my interest. No one does savage posthumous character assassination like Steyn.