There’s been much to-do about Walter Cronkite’s recent decease, and I’m getting emails with articles from a wide range of perspectives, from the adulatory “mainstream” and the disgruntled “right”, people who think he was a wonderful model of what journalism should be like — trusted and trustworthy — and people who think that, behind his verneer of “objectivity,” lay a committed World Federalist eager to put an end to “The American Century” and move on to a UN-run one-world government.
The kudos come from journalists who considered him their model (Mike Wallace, Bob Schieffer, Dan Rather), and from people like President Obama:
He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down… This country has lost an icon and a dear friend, and he will be truly miss.
Icon indeed, and well worth a bit of criticism, particularly since we now live with the toxic waste of his interventionist, advocacy reporting. I highly recommend the carefully researched posts of Neo-Con on this subject, posts she had put up a couple of years ago, and has now updated to reflect Cronkite’s passing. Below some choice passages:
Cronkite earned his trust the hard way: by reporting the unvarnished news. In this 2002 radio interview (well worth listening to for insight into his thought process at the time) Cronkite describes his orientation towards his job prior to that watershed moment of the Tet offensive broadcast.
Previously the top brass at CBS, as well as the reporters there, had understood their function to be reporting “the facts, just the facts.” Editorializing was kept strictly separate; at CBS, it was a function of Eric Sevareid, and clearly labeled as such.
The president of CBS news, Dick Salant, was a man of almost fanatical devotion to the principles of non-editorializing journalism, according to Cronkite’s interview. Cronkite said that, till Tet, he “almost wouldn’t let us put an adjective in a sentence” when reporting, he’d been such a stickler for “just the facts.”
But, according to Cronkite, as the Vietnamese War had worn on, and because of the confusion of the American people about the war, reflected in letters to the station, Salant sent Cronkite on a trip to Vietnam with the idea of doing a piece of opinion journalism when he came back, in order to help the American people “understand” what was going on by explicitly editorializing and advising them.
One can speculate long and hard about why Salant decided it was time to make such a drastic change. From Cronkite’s interview, it appears that the brass at CBS was part of the turmoil of the 60s with its “question authority” ethos. If you listen to Cronkite (and he expresses not a moment’s ambivalence about his actions), you may hear, as I did, an anger at a military that seemed heedless of the difficulties of the Vietnam endeavor, and too sanguine–similar to the “cakewalk” accusation towards the present Iraq War.
Another fact that becomes apparent in the Cronkite interview is that he felt personally betrayed by the military men he’d talked to as Vietnam churned on. He’d been a war correspondent in the Second World War, and that conflict, in which the press had been heavily censored, had featured public pronouncements of public optimism but private “off the record” discussions with the press that were more realistic and often more gloomy. Cronkite had been privy to these. But during Vietnam, when there was no official censorship, the military self-censored when talking to the press—they were profoundly optimistic, because they knew everything they said would be reported. Cronkite seemed miffed that he wasn’t given the inside info, as he had been in WWII.
Cronkite is up-front about these differences in his interview. I think it’s ironic that, if there had been more censorship during the Vietnam War, war correspondents such as Cronkite might have understood better where the military was coming from and might have cut them some slack. However, that’s mere speculation. What actually happened is that Cronkite felt betrayed, and he and Salant thought the American people had been betrayed, and they felt it was important enough that they needed to break their own long-standing rule and spill the beans to the American people.
It never seems to have occurred to them, of course, that in reacting to Tet as they did they were participating in a different falsehood, the propagation of North Vietnamese propaganda about the situation.
Whatever Cronkite’s motivations may have been, it’s hard to overestimate the effect it had when he suddenly stated on air that the meaning of Tet was that the situation in Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated and the war could not be won. We’re used to this sort of thing now, and many of us have learned to brush it off. But then, to much of America, Cronkite’s was the voice of trusted authority that could not be denied—despite the fact that he had no special expertise to make such a proclamation.
Of course, we are reaping the fruit of that moment today. Journalism has changed, and not for the better, mixing opinion and facts in messy attempts to influence public opinion rather than inform. In connection with that radio interview, for example, see this statement, rather typical of the genre:
It was a bold move for Cronkite, and it was an seminal moment for journalism, to go beyond the reporting of events, to tell a conflicted people a higher truth, something beyond the cataloguing of casualties or shifting front lines.
To tell a conflicted people a higher truth. That seems to say it all, does it not?
In Part II, Neo-con specifically addresses the details of Cronkite’s post-Tet Offensive reporting.
Cronkite remained exceedingly proud of this broadcast. He was often called “avuncular,” but I think the following statement of his could be more rightly called paternalistic:
There is a point at which it seems to me if an individual reporter has gained a reputation of being honest, fair as can be, and helps the American people in trying to make a decision on a major issue, I think we ought to take that opportunity.
This illustrates better than anything I can think of the slippery slope that comes from being a reporter and especially an anchorperson. For it’s clear that Cronkite had come to believe in his own persona, and to feel that it conferred a certain amount of wisdom on him. If he was honest and fair and trusted in his reportage of the facts, then he seems to think it followed that his own personal opinions and judgments—even about matters outside his field of expertise, journalism itself—were also reliable ones. And that he was therefore qualified to advise the American people in decisions they made on matters of national and military policy.
So, how wrong was Cronkite about Tet? About as wrong as can be, it turns out. History has declared unequivocally that there were winners and losers in Tet: it was a grand strategy that failed miserably for the North in the tactical military sense but succeeded beyond its wildest dreams as a propaganda ploy—due in large part to Cronkite and his colleagues in the MSM.
One of the oddest things about Cronkite isn’t what he did then; it’s that apparently he remained proud of it for the rest of his life. I’ve read and listened to a number of his interviews on the subject; at no time did he even address the fact that he was wrong about Tet in the military sense—nor did his questioners bring it up. Was this reticence on their part a show of respect for the frailty of an elderly man? Or were both he and his interviewers largely unaware of the discrediting facts that had been uncovered and widely aired in the intervening decades? Or did they not care if they were wrong about those things, because, after all, they were pursuing that “higher truth?”
The “lower” truth (otherwise known as the actual truth) is that Tet was a disaster for the Vietcong and the North—especially the Vietcong, who never recovered from the blow. But, in the end , it didn’t matter. How they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was detailed in the definitive work on the subject, Peter Braestrup’s 1978 analysis of MSM coverage of Tet, entitled “The Big Story.”
…the nationwide Vietcong offensive turned out to be an “unmitigated disaster” for the communist side. But the media consensus was just the opposite—an “unmitigated defeat” for the United States.
Cronkite, along with several hundred reporters from two dozen countries, focused on how the Vietcong guerrillas managed to blast their way into the U.S. Embassy compound (but didn’t make it past the Marines in the lobby). War correspondents were also impressed by the view from the cocktail bar atop the Caravelle Hotel: C-47s, equipped with three Gatling guns on one side, were strafing Vietcong pockets in Cholon, the capital’s twin city 2½ miles away.
Yet the Vietcong didn’t reach a single one of their objectives and lost most of their 45,000-strong force in their attacks against 21 cities. It was also a defeat that convinced North Vietnam’s leaders to send their regular army—the NVA—south of the 17th parallel to pick up where the Vietcong left off.
If you want to read a summary of the conclusions Braestrup—a seasoned war reporter and former Marine who had served in Korea—reached in his book, please see this. You’d do well to read the whole thing; it’s rich in important and informative detail.
Alas, Cronkite did let us down, and those who don’t think he ever did, may be letting us down again, and for the same reasons.
In an age when vicious ideologues fighting their asymmetrical wars against democracies, make the Western MSNM a systematic part of their strategy in attacking the very culture of freedom the press allegedly both embodies and protects, Walter Cronkite may stand out as a major moment in the creation of the MSNM’s Augean Stables.