Walter Cronkite’s death at age 92 has triggered a wave of nostalgia among his successors in the world of journalism. It’s easy to understand why. Cronkite was a giant at a time when both his profession and his medium were enjoying halcyon eras. In today’s fragmented media world, no journalist can aspire to “Uncle Walter’s” ubiquity. Nor can any journalist today pretend that the nation trusts him or her in the way that it allegedly trusted Cronkite.
Cronkite was a skilled performer and a hard worker, but he helped to sow the seeds of his profession’s decline. He was a liberal who often wore his ideology on his sleeve. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, local newsman Don Shelby says:
He was your uncle, he was your father. He would never, ever lie to you. He was never accused of having a position, he was never accused of being political.
What nonsense! Shelby, like Cronkite, is a left-winger who views liberalism as just “the way it is,” not “a position.” But the fact is that Cronkite’s liberalism was widely recognized and criticized, as by Spiro Agnew. Cronkite crossed the Rubicon with his ill-informed pontificating about Vietnam following the Tet offensive, but his liberalism was often on display, as in his notoriously biased and politicized coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Cronkite warred openly with the Nixon administration; he once said:
Many of us see a clear indication on the part of this administration of a grand conspiracy to destroy the credibility of the press.
Actually, though, the press destroyed its own credibility. The current tributes to Cronkite emphasize that he topped one or more polls as “the most trusted man in America,” beating out not only the President but all members of Congress. That was a time when Americans had caught on to politicians, but had not yet caught on to journalists. I don’t know who would win such a poll today–Oprah Winfrey? David Petraeus?–but I’m quite certain it wouldn’t be a journalist. For that, Walter Cronkite bears as much responsibility as anyone.
PAUL adds: I don’t have many regrets about blogging, but I regret that we weren’t around to puncture Cronkite’s work. John is probably being charitable when he calls Cronkite’s reporting on the Tiet offenseive “ill-informed.” It was no secret that Tet was a massive defeat for the Viet Cong. A family friend in the State Department, who was not supporter of the war, told me as much.
So why did Cronkite report Tet as a defeat for the U.S. and the South Vietnamese? I doubt that he was flat-out lying. On the other hand, he surely had the information necessary to conclude that this wasn’t a victory for the VC, or (if he was unwilling to believe the State and Defense Departments) at least to doubt that it was.
Assuming, as I do that Cronkite was neither lying nor more poorly informed than I was, my conclusion is that he chose to believe Tet was a victory for the VC because that’s what he wanted to believe. That doesn’t necessarly mean he wanted to VC to win and the U.S. to lose, just that he wanted us to leave Vietnam and was committed to a narrative in which we were on the road to defeat.
In any event, Cronkite’s reporting on the Tet offensive was a criminal disservice to the truth and to his country. So it was disappointing last night to hear Fox News touting the influence this reporting had on public opinion without mentioning its lack of accuracy.