Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Imagine if it were revealed that Scott Pelley or Diane Sawyer had met with Chris Christie last year to implore him to enter the presidential race in order to save the country from political crisis, and had offered the platform of their evening newscast for the announcement. Then imagine the reaction if Brian Williams made a speech decrying extremism in the Republican Party and describing the Right as a threat to the national discourse. For good measure, consider the aftermath if the Romney campaign made back-channel inquiries to Sawyer about running for vice president and Sawyer failed to disclose the offer to her superiors, much less her audience.
Any single one of these scenarios would be explosive and would ignite a gusher of passion about the decline of objectivity in journalism. The specter of national news anchors venturing so blatantly into politics would be cited as toxic proof that their craft had been corrupted.
If you have waded through Douglas Brinkley’s thick, detailed book on Walter Cronkite’s life, you know that each one of these far-fetched sounding examples is borrowed from actual events. The venerable news legend exhorted Robert Kennedy to challenge Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and prodded him to announce his bid on the CBS Evening News. Cronkite publicly assailed the Nixon Administration for seeking to subvert the press specifically and political dissent broadly. On one occasion, in 1972 with George McGovern, and perhaps with an independent candidate in 1980, Cronkite entered discussions about taking a vice presidential slot, and kept the conflict of interest from his public and his bosses.
There is not much condemnation of Cronkite’s line crossing in Brinkley’s account; to the contrary, there is a tone of mourning for how much Cronkite’s stature is missed, and a lot of wide eyed admiration for the role he played as “America’s most trusted man” for a span of about 20 years. If Brinkley is at all discomfited by the times Cronkite crossed over from observer to participant, they are overshadowed by the many occasions when Brinkley applauds Cronkite for shaping the public debate, from Cronkite’s televised takedown of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, to his overt endorsement of the environmental movement, to his open jousting with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (the night Agnew resigned after admitting he took bribes, Cronkite editorialized on air that he and Agnew had been “ideological enemies”).
The effect of Brinkley’s narrative is that Cronkite seems simultaneously inspirational and irrelevant if you are a fan of the nightly news as a source of national authority and credibility. Inspirational because of the unmistakable impact Cronkite had on the dual traumas of civil rights and Vietnam; irrelevant because it’s a model that seems irretrievably broken. The irony is that the evening broadcast that made Cronkite famous (or is the other way around?) is an anodyne, rarely newsworthy slice of background noise these days. In a culture where the nightly audience for each of the Big 3 news anchors averages between five and eight million—the cable remake of “Dallas” outranks two of the three—Cronkite is an anachronism who embodies a power and a prestige that no anchor could conceivably wield today, and a leeway to engage the public debate without forfeiting his popularity that is unimaginable in the age of sponsorship boycotts and online outrage campaigns. He is about as plausible a career path for an aspiring anchor as Nelson Rockefeller would be for a Republican politician.
But the other half of Cronkite’s legacy, namely his fondness for news as a social morality play, and his sense that the medium of journalism has an obligation to be on the right side of history, actively thrives in the cable world. Indeed, both instincts are amplified by a cable ratings dynamic that punishes news without a perspective and elevates Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper on the left while casting Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as counterweights on the right. And it is the smaller but more buzzworthy cable universe, much more than the networks, that candidates strive to influence and where ambitious politicians and presidential primary candidates are a ubiquitous presence (and star as commentators and surrogates).
The environment that results is one that an MSNBC executive has just described as more programming about news than actual journalism, and it seems less authoritative than news has ever felt. Is there a direct link between the “most trusted man in America” and a polemical approach to TV news that has made its noisily influential cable version so suspect and untrustworthy? It’s a question that Brinkley barely mentions but is worth examining.
The best interpretation of Cronkite as advocate is that the trauma of the sixties required a national truth-teller. Southern blacks were being brutalized under the cover of law and order by genteel sounding men whose clubs and tear gas needed to be revealed on the national stage. Lyndon Johnson did wage a deceptive war that disguised both its aimlessness and the appalling kill rate on both sides of the carnage. But in both instances, it is noteworthy that Cronkite let the facts talk for themselves. With civil rights, it was the images from the atrocities in the South that mattered more than anything Cronkite said on air. The legendary special report on Vietnam was much more measured in its time than is generally remembered: the pronouncement of stalemate was a claim that resonated with both liberals and conservatives by the time Cronkite said it, and in 1968, it was a less a partisan charge than a sober rendition of facts that were widely accepted across the political spectrum (although spawning diametrically different solutions).
Of course, the popular retelling of the story, and Brinkley hardly counters it, is that Cronkite broke ground by lending his prestige and his eloquence to the progressive cause. And to journalists on the left to center left, the range which encompasses most members of the craft in the last 50 years, Vietnam and civil rights are templates for moral crusades that resurface periodically in our culture. In this worldview, the degradations on truth in Vietnam had their echoes in the Bush 43 era policies on torture and detention of terrorists; the underestimations of Sunni resistance in Iraq looked eerily like the misreading of the strength of the Vietcong circa 1968. Similarly, under this left leaning interpretation, the Republican Party’s drift to the right in response to Barack Obama is as morally dubious as southern intransigence in the sixties, and contemporary causes like reproductive rights and gay equality seem cut from the same cloth as black aspirations in the early Cronkite years.
Of course, to the center-right which has won a majority of the vote share in every modern presidential election except 2008, but which contributes relatively few members to non Fox journalism, the trauma of the sixties is a more ambivalent legacy. Vietnam is remembered less for official lies, more for a fracturing of national unity at the expense of our soldiers. To these Americans, the icy reaction to returning servicemen from the war is the defining immorality of the times, not the air-brushed Pentagon press releases or the profligate use of napalm. To the same group, civil rights are widely regarded as a moral cause that turned complex when ending discrimination segued into busing and affirmative action. In this corner of the political universe, stopping southern brutality has next to nothing to do with terminating unwanted pregnancies or sanctioning same sex marriage.
The irony is that these competing visions of the peak Cronkite era play out not on the relatively sanitized network newscasts that are conflict averse but in the free fire zone of cable. While Cronkite’s own march steadily leftward happened largely after he was out of regular public view, he left behind a trail of cable imitators on the left who openly conflate reporting with moral interpretation, who think they have squandered the public square if they don’t speak truth to power, and who view their political advocacy as a conduit to free media that will augment their lackluster ratings. They are matched on the right by a generation of conservatives who feel just as portentous an obligation to tell the other side of the story, and whose market share pushes them in the same hyper-partisan direction.
In fairness, cable’s zest for ideological combat most echoes only one phase of Cronkite’s career, the early seventies, when he was in declared warfare with the Nixon crowd. But even at his most unbound, Walter Cronkite enjoyed a stature and broad appeal that his copycats and their counter-warriors wouldn’t remotely recognize. As well as a sense of discernment: Cronkite was a Middle America sensitive, ratings conscious, company man who knew the limits of taking sides. In contrast, his successors in the New Media have fashioned a climate where the next cause seems as morally weighty as the one before, and the sins of their adversaries are all comparably outrageous. But then the one thing Marx got right is that history eventually repeats itself as farce.