By William Urban
Walter Cronkite’s death has rightfully provoked reflection on the state of journalism today. He was foremost among that generation of television anchors who projected honesty and accuracy, so that when he said, “That’s the way it was,” that was the way it was. He was, as some have reported, an adult in a medium increasingly populated by children. Spoiled children, too, who were more interested in projecting their version of politics than in reporting.
This version of history is over-simplified. Walter Cronkite had strong views, too. But he did not allow them to appear until he could make a difference by expressing them. As was once said in a different context, “less is more.” If he had expressed his disillusionment with the Vietnamese War at a time when the public still backed it strongly, he would have merely lost the trust of his audience. His terse statement after the Tet offensive caused Nixon to despair, to fall back more and more into alcohol and self-pity.
This is an awkward legacy, because the Tet offensive was exactly what General Westmoreland had said it was — a total disaster for the Viet Cong. The guerillas had come out of the jungles to fight a more or less conventional war, and they were shot to pieces. Henceforth the war was conducted by the North Vietnamese army.
Westmoreland’s statements illustrated the reverse of Cronkite’s personality. He had said so many times that the Viet Cong were being beaten that their momentary display of strength was a game-changer — not only Cronkite, but Congress and the media lost faith in any hope of victory. Westmoreland was soon out, and though his successor managed to stabilize South Vietnam, the American public was saying what was repeated just before the Iraq surge — that the war was lost. There was a peace agreement that the North Vietnamese immediately violated, but the public didn’t care. Congress went so far after Nixon withdrew American forces, then resigned, that it denied the South Vietnamese and Cambodian governments the money, the ammunition and the air cover they needed to survive. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese had help from the Soviet Union and China.
Walter Cronkite’s experience with war, against Nazi Germany, had been much clearer. The great issue of the Fifties and Sixties — America’s race problem — was a replay of that struggle: America had to break with attitudes that had too much in common with Hitler’s screaming crowds. Vietnam, at the beginning, seemed similarly straight-forward. There was no question that the Communist regime was repressive and brutal. Cronkite left no doubts that the long-term results of a communist victory would be an impoverished, backward, intellectually stunted Vietnam — as proved to be the case. Later he understood that nationalism, not communism, was the driving force of the North Vietnamese, but believed that building a South Vietnamese state was impossible in that multi-cultural region. No one today would imagine that a Buddhist monk burning himself to death would change anything, but in Walter Cronkite’s world, “that’s the way it was.”
And that was the way it was. With three television networks, each with good international services but only fifteen (later thirty minutes) to cover the world news, one had to fall back on newspapers get in-depth daily reporting and on magazines for more detailed analysis.
Some commentators blame the proliferation of media outlets for the disappearance of centrists like Cronkite. This is certainly at least partly true — today each television network has a specific target audience in mind. Some, like FOX, have a large moderate conservative following; others, like MSNBC, is discovering that liberals don’t watch much television. But also important is “advocacy journalism” which blurs the lines between reporting and usually pushes a liberal point of view. This has been, arguably, harder on newspapers even than on television because conservatives read more papers; radio, on the other hand, has flourished. Radio is something that people can do while working at another task, and, unlike newspapers, it is — if you are willing to listen to the ads — free. Also conservatives have found ways to make their radio programs more entertaining than have liberals; on television, in parodies of the news, the opposite is true. There isn’t much room for the calm reportage of “the most trusted man in America.”
Cronkite had his views. After retirement he let it be known that he often agreed with progressive policies. This reflected his upbringing in the Thirties, when FDR was the idol of the chattering class and Stalin was preferred to Hitler. It was a stance that would have earned him a niche in modern journalism, but nothing like the influence that he once exercised.
Review Atlas (July 30, 2009), 4.