Saturday, July 18, 2009

End of a Despot

I write to bury Walter Cronkite, not to praise him. I almost did not write this article, since it is unseemly in the main to speak ill of the dead. What’s more, Walter Cronkite was undeniably a pioneer in broadcast journalism and many of his works and actions are worthy of praise. But then, we could say the same of Richard Nixon.

I mention Nixon because Nixon is rightfully stained forever for his actions in the Watergate scandal. Richard Nixon was also a pioneer in many ways, perhaps most notably his diplomatic strategy which set Beijing against Moscow in the Cold War. Nixon’s 1972 re-election victory is still the most second-most profound popular vote landslide in the history of presidential elections, Nixon having captured 60.7% of the popular vote (FDR in 1936 claimed 60.8%, the only time a presidential candidate ever got more of the popular vote). While no darling to Conservatives, Richard Nixon infuriated the Left, who looked long and hard for something to use as a political weapon against him. President Nixon handed his enemies that weapon in Watergate. There is a broad consensus that if Nixon had not resigned the Presidency, he would have been impeached, and if impeached he would have been convicted. Nixon was not nearly the only politician to abuse his power, but there was no real doubt that Nixon did abuse his office.

And this brings the story back to Walter Cronkite. Ordinarily, members of the press enjoy a certain celebrity and influence, but rarely is one journalist considered to speak as the complete authority on the nation’s welfare and direction. Cronkite built his credibility to the point, where for many Americans he spoke with indisputable authority. Cronkite played on that trust with his tag line each evening, saying ”and that’s the way it is.” A man never elected by the public, and answerable to no one, could say what he wanted and have it taken as absolute truth by many millions, simply because he was the person saying it. There is no indication that Cronkite ever stopped to consider the moral obligation he carried, or to balance his broadcasts in order to make sure he was as objective as his image. Instead, in interviews many years later, Cronkite admitted his liberal agenda and that he saw his role as an advocate for that agenda. Where politicians were known for their bias according to ideology and party support, Cronkite chose to hide his in order to falsely portray his opinion as established fact and popular consensus. In this, Walter Cronkite became a media despot, able to direct national opinion without any checks on his power and privilege. He was able to convince Americans that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, by hiding facts which worked against his argument and distorting the significance of events in Vietnam. Cronkite helped build public support for politicians and programs he liked, while helping build opposition to politicians and programs he opposed. For all the talk from the Left in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, Cronkite had no intention of letting both sides be heard on key issues on anything like even terms. The man was a despot who cost lives and money and damaged the balance of power in America, showing that unelected dictators could claim influence and power here through sheer lies and trickery. In that regard, Walter Cronkite should not be compared to Richard Nixon, after all. Nixon, in the end, resigned and went away, and his actions were properly denounced even by his own party as wrong and against American ideals. Walter Cronkite could not manage even that much honor or integrity. He did much good, but far more damage.


Anonymous said...

Dude...Vietnam was unwinnable...

tfhr said...

Anonymous Dude,

If our Congress had not undermined South Vietnam there was a chance that it could have survived long enough to prosper.

The war isn't over between North and South Korea either but I'd say the Koreans living in the democratic, capitalist South have posted the better score to date, wouldn't you? Which Korea would you prefer to live your life?

You only get one life but it can be remembered by others in any number of ways. It was terrible news for the newsman's family and friends to learn of their loss last Friday but America lost it's most famous newscaster more than forty years ago when Cronkite could no longer maintain his objectivity and in doing so cast his professional ethics aside in favor of his own political agenda. I'm referring, of course, to Cronkite's Tet "reporting".

When a journalist publicly aligns himself with a politician, a political party, or a political cause, they can no longer serve the public interest in a neutral capacity. Worse, when a media figure with Cronkite's stature departs from the task of strictly reporting news and begins to interject his personal opinions on any given matter, it should come as no surprise that others in that profession would follow his example. (And that's the way it was, to borrow a Cronkite signature phrase.)

Cronkite should have resigned from his job at CBS news. He could certainly have continued his advocacy as a private citizen and would have been a strong voice for those that shared his views but Cronkite failed to respect the necessity of Americans to have access to unbiased reporting and he abused his trusted access to the public.

The names of the dead are rightfully and respectfully honored on the wall at the Vietnam War Memorial. A dishonored news media was a casualty of that war too but the wounds were self inflicted and to this day there are few contrasts greater than the public's trust in military and the public's lack of trust in the news media. That will be Cronkite's place in history.