Saint Cronkite: Journalism's Twice-Blemished Icon

A myth congeals around memories of Walter Cronkite. Burnished by President Obama and former President Clinton, among others, at what Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz called "an extravagantly produced ceremony" in New York City's Lincoln Center on September 9, it apparently admits of no critical scrutiny. How odd for a man who, according to Clinton, epitomized "an inquiring mind and a caring heart and a careful devotion to the facts."

Cronkite defined the role of anchorman on CBS TV's "Evening News" from 1962 to 1981. At the New York farewell, Obama praised him for "his passionate defense of objective reporting." Former NBC "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw called Cronkite "a seminal force in the transformation of this country."

One or the other, but not both. After Cronkite's death at 92 in July, nearly all eulogies for him lauded his tendency, even as anchorman, to report from the field, exemplifying his roots as a distinguished World War II correspondent. They also highlighted his 1968 "speaking truth to power" declaration against the war in Vietnam.

The official version avoids an inconvenient but central truth:

Cronkite became "a seminal force for transformation" by abandoning "a careful devotion to the facts." Although prevailing orthodoxy suppresses objective reporting on the matter, Cronkite was wrong about Vietnam. And by the time he made his famous "quagmire" utterance, he'd become a political partisan. Though he was, according to one poll, "the most trusted man in America" during his "Evening News" reign, Cronkite violated that trust in a way that helped transform journalism, and perhaps the country, but not for the better.

For many of us who grew up watching him, there really was something of the trustworthy "Uncle Walter" about the man, an impression strengthened by his sonorous voice and authoritative demeanor. When Cronkite gave the Journalism Week address at Ohio University in the fall of 1968, my classmates and I listened. He epitomized our largest ambitions. And he emphasized, among other things, the need for objectivity.

Yet today, journalism schools (the highly-ranked School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University is named for Cronkite) often prize competing "narratives" by "diverse voices" over the power of the unadorned who, what, when, where, why, and how of mid-century print and early TV. One person's objectivity is suspected as another's ideology in drag. The older J-school model of learning to recognize one's preconceptions and professionally filter them -- somewhat like an emergency room doctor treating a patient regardless of the former's opinions of the latter's race, religion, or creed -- is made to seem not just quaint, but limiting. Ironically, Cronkite's unacknowledged example rather than his advice is one reason why. 

Cronkite closed his Feb. 27, 1968 broadcast with thoughts he acknowledged were "speculative, personal, and subjective." He declared that even if the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had not won the Tet offensive and the war itself, the United States was "mired in a stalemate" and the "honorable" way out was through negotiations. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously complained that if he had lost Cronkite, he'd lost middle America.

But as Victor Davis Hanson writes in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, "even the North Vietnamese admitted they suffered a terrible defeat," losing around 40,000 of the roughly 80,000 regular army and Viet Cong soldiers committed to Tet. U.S. and South Vietnamese battlefield fatalities have been estimated at one-tenth the communist total.

Regardless, Hanoi capitalized on speculation such as Cronkite's. As Gen. No Nguyen Giap, North Vietnamese Army supreme commander, explained later:
The most important result of the Tet offensive was it made you [Americans] de-escalate the bombing, and it brought you to the negotiation table. It was, therefore, a victory. ... The war was fought on many fronts. At that time, the most important one was American public opinion.

Washington eventually did negotiate a way out, although not before the South Vietnamese military, without assistance of U.S. ground forces, defeated the 1972 North Vietnamese invasion known as the "Easter offensive." For that year, the North "was believed to have lost more than 100,000 troops." That compared to about 40,000 fatalities for the South, according to Richard Botkin, author of Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph

Nevertheless, in 1973, Congress passed the Fulbright-Aiken amendment cutting off funding for all direct and indirect combat activities in, over, or offshore of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The latter three dominoes fell. The biggest, South Vietnam, was left with a nearly one-million-man military essentially out of fuel and ammunition when the North made its 1975 conquest. One and a half million perished in the Khmer Rouge's Cambodian auto-genocide. So did perhaps 100,000 or more of the one million-plus South Vietnamese "boat people" and other refugees. Likewise tens of thousands in communist "re-education camps" and outright massacres.

Western news media, enthralled by their antiwar narrative, acknowledged late the Cambodian holocaust. They reported the South Vietnamese bloodbath barely at all. Objective reality didn't fit subjective belief. And Cronkite never reevaluated his '68 "quagmire" broadcast, standing by it in 2006 and offering a similar, pre-surge assessment of U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Though Cronkite made his declaration on a special report, not the "Evening News," and prefaced it with the "personal, subjective, speculative" advisory, the example of Uncle Walter arguing that America could not prevail and should cut its losses became news itself and bolstered what was then still a minority political position. Rather than embodying "truth to power," Cronkite's Tet commentary loosened strictures against injecting opinion into news coverage. That, in turn, helped erode public trust in journalists' non-partisanship.

Reaffirmation of Cronkite's own partisanship came in an encomium. In a Washington Post Op-Ed ("Vice President Walter Cronkite," July 25) Frank Mankiewicz, campaign manager for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), disclosed that the anchorman lobbied Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) to run as an anti-war candidate in 1967, months before Tet. Mankiewicz also revealed that Cronkite said he would have accepted the vice-presidential slot on McGovern's ticket if he had been asked.

The conservative Media Research Center has compiled a list of Cronkite's post-retirement left-leaning columns, speeches, and interviews. After 1981, he opposed welfare reform; opined counter-factually that terrorism was caused by inequalities of wealth; urged Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, to embrace his liberalism; plumped for higher taxes; and enthused over a more powerful U.N. and/or world government. With naïve certitude, Cronkite equated liberalism with humaneness, asserting that empathetic journalists necessarily tilted left.

Cronkite himself had begun that tilt before his Tet commentary. His abdication of professional balance, his slide from objectivity to subjectivity, subverted the journalistic reliability he seemed to embody. He also unwittingly supported the enemy's psychological warfare strategy. Denial of these twin effects, rooted in part in the dogmatic belief that American involvement in Vietnam was doomed to (or deserved) defeat, elevates the icon of the later Cronkite over the praiseworthy reality of his early career. It also makes it that much harder to stem the pureeing of news and opinion too common in old media and virtually omnipresent in the new.  

Eric Rozenman, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.
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