Walter Cronkite: Avuncular Advocacy Journalist and the Origins of the MSNM’s Augean Stables

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.

16 Responses to Walter Cronkite: Avuncular Advocacy Journalist and the Origins of the MSNM’s Augean Stables

  1. [...] Augean Stables » Walter Cronkite: Avuncular Advocacy Journalist … By Richard Landes 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, … Augean Stables – http://www.theaugeanstables.com/ Tags: all days, All Days Long, Avuncular, cell, cellphone, free ringtones, free tv, iphone, latest news, News, ringtones, themes, tv [...]

  2. Lorenz Gude says:

    Neither Rome nor the Augean stables were built in a day but I agree Cronkite’s Tet offensive reporting laid the foundations. In America I think the subsequent Watergate story culminating in the senate hearings destroyed the credibility of government and made heroes of the press. After these two incidents television in particular discovered it could not just manipulate public opinion – it could control it and if necessary even create the necessary facts. They fell in love with themselves and their power and the self delusion that they were revealing a higher truth. Furthermore I believe TV in particular lends itself to self delusion because the methodology of fictional narrative creation in cinema is precisely the same methodology used to prepare news footage for broadcast. In the end they may be indistinguishable to even the practitioners because they are the same thing – narratives carefully constructed from raw footage. RL quoted Enderlin in a recent post as both admitting that Palestinian youths come to protest in front of the cameras and that the resulting footage was reality. Apparently, even the creators themselves lose the ability to recognize when the constructed narrative is false.

  3. Fat Man says:

    “There’s been much to-do about Walter Cronkite’s recent defeat”

    Did you mean death?

  4. oao says:

    The notion that one is objective just by “not using adjectives and opinions” is naive. Even choosing “just the facts” one is hardly objectives, because the sheer choice of facts can be induced by an agenda.

    there are 2 aspects of the MSM and its audience that makes objectivity impossible. one is the fact that the MSM is not in business of bringing info to its audience, but to sell audiences to its advertisers. the other is the willful ignorance and inability/unwilligness to reason of the audience.

    the former induces the MSM to provide popular content, to put the audience in a good mood for buying; together with it the latter induces them to interpret the facts, such that the audience does not have to make serious effort to acquire knowledge or think too hard.

  5. JD says:

    Cronkite was the “great” — in part for his grandfatherly look, non-NorEast Urban demeanor, and big head–important for television.

    But no one can match Peter Jennings for facial commentaries. His face movements and fidgets were part of his spin campaign. He disapproved of many things with his motions, he also had a Judt-esque child-lecturing demeanor about Israel.

  6. Devoirs says:

    WALTER CRONKITE’S JOURNALISM WAS EXCELLENT.

    CRONKITE LEAVES BEHIND A GOOD LEGACY.

    CRONKITE POSITIVELY INFLUENCED OTHERS.
    _____________________
    SCANDALS! SCANDALS! SCANDALS!

    DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!

    GEORGE W. BUSH IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS CRIMINAL STALKER AND SERIAL KILLER!

    “In her suit, Margie Schoedinger states that George W. Bush committed sexual crimes against her, organized harassment and moral pressure on her, her family members and close relatives and friends. As Schoedinger said, she was strongly recommended to keep her mouth shut. . . . Furthermore, she alleges that George Bush ordered to show pressure on her to the point, when she commits suicide” (go to Google, type “blog of drizzten Margie Schoedinger,” and hit “Enter”).

    “George [Bush is personally complicit] in the death (murder to be precise) of my friend Margie Schoedinger in September of 2003. Determining the exact whereabouts and contacts of . . . George Bush on September 21 thru 22, 2003, should be entirely lacking in difficulty” (Leola McConnell; go to Google, type “Leola McConnell blogspot Margie Schoedinger,” and hit “Enter”).

    McConnell is correct: Bush applying pressure (continuously criminally stalking Margie Schoedinger) purposefully to force Schoedinger to commit suicide does in fact constitute murder where it culminated in her death.

    Bush’s method of murdering Schoedinger cannot exist in a vacuum: he must have murdered other people in the same way.

    During Bush’s presidency, of course Bush would have desired to kill people whom he hated or get them out of his way. Insofar as Bush was clearly capable of murdering Schoedinger—even in “broad daylight”—and is clearly capable of getting away with it, in consideration of common sense and the laws of human nature, Bush of course murdered numerous people in the disgusting way he murdered Schoedinger. One can examine public information; in various situations where people who sought to oppose or disadvantage Bush ever so frighteningly ended up “committing suicide”—specifically—Bush murdered them just like he murdered Schoedinger. For example, Bush murdered James Howard Hatfield by continuously criminally stalking Hatfield to the point that Hatfield could not get away from it—purposefully to force Hatfield to commit suicide—and Hatfield committed suicide in desperation to escape. However, the vast majority of such scandalous cases will never come out (the grisly details are typically hard to substantiate). A prosecutor really can lawfully charge a former president with murdering one or more people in the disgusting way Bush murdered Schoedinger. The American people unfortunately live in a world where evil presidents can murder any number of people—figuratively—with a wave of a magic wand and get away with it.

    (There are thousands of copies of the information above on the Internet. Please feel free to go to any major search engine, type “GEORGE W. BUSH IS AN EXTREMELY DANGEROUS CRIMINAL STALKER AND SERIAL KILLER” or “George W. Bush continuously criminally stalked Margie Schoedinger to the point that she could not get away from it, and she committed suicide in desperation to escape: he murdered her” or “George W. Bush applying pressure (continuously criminally stalking Margie Schoedinger) purposefully to force Schoedinger to commit suicide does in fact constitute murder where it culminated in her death” or “George W. Bush murdered James Howard Hatfield by continuously criminally stalking Hatfield to the point that Hatfield could not get away from it—purposefully to force Hatfield to commit suicide—and Hatfield committed suicide in desperation to escape,” hit “Enter,” and readily find hundreds of copies.)

    (Please feel free to go to Google, type “GEORGE W. BUSH IS THE WORST PRESIDENT IN U.S. HISTORY blog of Andrew Wang,” and hit “Enter.”)
    _____________________
    Andrew Wang
    (a.k.a. “THE DISSEMINATING MACHINE”)
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA
    Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993

  7. Cynic says:

    Fat Man,

    “There’s been much to-do about Walter Cronkite’s recent defeat”
    Did you mean death?

    Maybe in his case, for his followers, death = defeat? ;-)

  8. [...] There’s been much to-do about Walter Cronkite’s recent defeat, 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 …Page 2 [...]

  9. oao says:

    kooks and moonbats are coming out of the woodwork. that in itself tells the story of american collapse.

  10. Rich Rostrom says:

    There is no question that Cronkite’s reporting after Tet was a turning point in the war.

    But a great deal of blame has to go to the U.S. military.

    For their previous mismanagement and misunderstanding of the war. (Westmoreland’s emphasis on “Search and destroy” instead of training up ARVN; failure to establish ROE and discipline that would minimizxe civilian casualties.)

    For their crude dishonesty in trying to portray the war as entirely successful. (Continual claims of success, refusal to acknowledge problems, cover-ups.)

    For their failure (despite significant warning intelligence) to prepare for Tet, both militarily and psychologically. (U.S. and allied forces were largely taken by surprise; the U.S. command had not made any reference to the possibility of an enemy “last gasp”.)

    Cronkite and company had come to distrust the U.S. command, and now were presented with evidence that the U.S. command were wrong, and apparently lying. That circumstance was large part the work of the U.S. command. Their reaction was a dreadful mistake, but it was understandable.

    What I will never forgive Cronkite for is his embrace of Bill Clinton after Clinton’s disgraceful behavior was disclosed. He didn’t have to invite Clinton to his vacation home or take him for boat rides.

  11. oao says:

    For their previous mismanagement and misunderstanding of the war.

    obviously. but blame also goes to the political echelon and the technocratic/quantitative illusions of the political echelon dominated by mcnamara. interestingly, the latter’s obsession which efficiency did not affect the mismanagement, just the opposite; nobody focused on the politics of the conflict, which was the core issue.

    What I will never forgive Cronkite for is his embrace of Bill Clinton after Clinton’s disgraceful behavior was disclosed. He didn’t have to invite Clinton to his vacation home or take him for boat rides.

    so much for “that’s the way it is”. looks like he was like everybody else: objective interpretation of facts is selective. army had blind spots in the war, cronkite had blind spots for clinton.

  12. Eliyahu says:

    oao, I got to agree whichou again. In your #11. McNamara was full of this illusion of technology/efficiency/pragmatism, a traditional American illusion. But you have to ask yourself if Washington really wanted to win that war. Maybe it was meant to end as it did.

  13. oao says:

    But you have to ask yourself if Washington really wanted to win that war. Maybe it was meant to end as it did.

    depends who in washington and at what point in time.

    overall americans in general can’t handle anything that is not a fast and easy defeat of the enemy. when that does not happen they’re eager to put their tail between their legs and get out.

    up until now they were so much superior to everybody else economically, politically, technologically. and militarily that some defeats did not count for much. but they have collapsed entirely on all dimensions and their enemies are not just one failing USSR but all over the place and much more dangerous. so defeats now can finish it off.

    as barry rubin says: from superpower to super-pitiful. as iran says, it is reduced to begging to negotiate.

  14. Eliyahu says:

    oao, you think that the USA is losing on all fronts. How about the latest deal with China? It seems that Hag Hillary and Timmy Geithner somehow got the Chinese to agree to something probably foolish and superfluous at best in the economics area. Maybe it was the “climate change” nonsense.

    Now the deal with China [I forget the specifics] may or may not be good for Americans generally. But you know that that’s not a criterion for Washington’s foreign policy.

  15. oao says:

    eliyahu,

    i am not familiar with the deal, but whatever it is, it could only be mainly in the interest of china and not the us.

    the US is practically bankrupt and the only leverage it has over china is the risk of literal bankruptcy, where the dollars and bonds china holds lose all their value.
    in such circumstances — when the US is becoming superpitiful from a superpower there is little it can do to get deals from china other than keeping it from collapsing.

    china does not practice alibama’s begging policy, they use the power they have.

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