Remembering a different Cronkite
Benne lives in Salem.
Now that a decent interval has passed since the death and commemorations of Walter Cronkite, I would like to offer a contrary opinion of Cronkite's work.
Instead of praising him -- "the most trusted man in America" -- as the last in a line of unbiased, authoritative news readers and commentators, I view him as the first of those who claimed to be objective, but rather infused their stories with a strong point of view.
It took some time for me to come to that judgment. During the Cronkite years, we as a nation were yet naive enough to take network news seriously. We sat down in front of our TVs at 6:30 each night and believed what we heard and saw. Because of that, Cronkite could do great damage -- and did.
Let me give two examples, both from 1968. The first and most disturbing occurred in February 1968, when Cronkite visited Vietnam for a brief time right after the so-called Tet offensive of the Viet Cong, the guerilla arm of the North Vietnam communist state.
Upon his return, Cronkite pronounced the war a "hopeless stalemate" and advised his audience that the United States should negotiate an end to the war and get out as soon as we could. President Johnson, hearing this, was purported to have exclaimed: "If I've lost Cronkite I've lost Middle America." One month later, he declined to run again for the presidency.
The trouble with Cronkite's reporting was that it did not paint an accurate picture of the war or of the Tet offensive. A German friend of mine, who at that time had served a full five years in Vietnam as a correspondent for a major German newspaper, reported quite a different picture of the situation:
"Many combat correspondents soon realized that the Tet offensive was a major North Vietnamese blunder, a detail on which most military historians agree these days. At Tet '68, Hanoi lost at least 45,000 men and its entire infrastructure in the South. And because of the massacres in Hue and elsewhere, it also lost much of its popular support."
But Cronkite's version prevailed. From there on, the American public supported a defeatist withdrawal, even to the point of abandoning our South Vietnamese allies in 1975 after they had more or less won their fight with the communist North. The bloodbath that followed is common knowledge.
The second example is Cronkite's reporting on the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. I lived in Chicago at that time and participated in some of the protest rallies until I sensed that the people controlling the rallies had quite a different agenda in mind than I had.
They were an assortment of anti-American revolutionaries, sympathizers with the Viet Cong, nihilist Yippies, many privileged upper-middle class youth who were plain old hell-raisers, along with folks who genuinely thought the war was unjust. The most organized and activist groups wanted violence, and they provoked the Chicago police to react. Mayhem followed.
Cronkite reported the tumult on CBS News after one particularly violent episode. "The police are beating our children!" he lamented, implying that the rioters were innocent juvenile bystanders assaulted by storm troopers.
That sentence still rings in my ears after all these years because I knew his reporting was bogus, and because I knew it would gain sympathy for the rioters and help turn the Democratic Party decisively to the left. In the end, however, that turn to the left assured a victory for Richard Nixon.
These two episodes involving Cronkite permanently dissuaded me from believing his tag line: "That's the way it is." From then on I, like millions of others, viewed with skepticism what our mass media offered. We realized that what was reported, how it was framed, how it was headlined and how it was "spun" all entered into the message we were given.
Perhaps it is healthier that biases are now more expected and obvious. Given that, it is wise to read, watch and listen to multiple sources and decide for oneself. Read The Roanoke Times, but watch Fox News. Read both The Washington Post and The Washington Times.
However, it is sadly the case that too many of us read, watch and listen only to those sources whose slant we already agree with. At any rate, far from being the "most trusted man in America" who gave us the unvarnished truth, Cronkite became for me a pioneer of opinion masquerading as news.