Walter Cronkite was labeled – I don’t know by whom, probably the marketing department at CBS News - as “the most trusted man in America.” He, and many others, used that trust to create an aura around the news business that it has taken literally decades to reveal as a false front. At a time when information was one-way and media outlets were severely limited in number, the version of reality that was reflected by Walter Cronkite shaped public opinion so massively that opposing opinions stood no chance. That is why it was Walter Cronkite who ended America’s quest for victory in Viet Nam.
When Lyndon Johnson said that "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." He recognized a political truth. Consider this.
In mid-February, in the immediate aftermath of the Tet Offensive, both Gallup and Harris noted a surge in American support for the war. Both pollsters said 61% of Americans favored a stronger military response against the North Vietnamese Army. 70% of Americans favored increased bombing of North Vietnamese targets, which was up from 63% in the previous December.
Then came Cronkite's February 27 commentary.
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.
In early March, just a few days later, 49% of Americans said it was a mistake to have entered the Vietnam conflict. Only 35% believed the war would end within two years. 69% now approved of a phased withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.*
It is impossible to imagine CBS News, journalism or indeed America without Walter Cronkite," CBS News president Sean McManus said in a statement. "More than just the best and most trusted anchor in history, he guided America through our crises, tragedies and also our victories and greatest moments."Repeat that in your mind: "He guided America." An employee of CBS news "guided America." This is not a brief for Lyndon Johnson or the literal crooks and clowns who inhabit the house and senate, but the power that Cronkite wielded over America is troubling to me.
From the same article we are reminded that Cronkite had a team. And who was on that team? Eric Severeid, Daniel Schorr, Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Mike Wallace. See anyone there who you would recognize as a Conservative voice? Neither do I. Today Daniel Schorr delivers diatribes against the Right from his sinecure at NPR and Dan Rather maintains that it was those damn Right Wingers who smeared him by exposing his phony Bush papers story.
Cronkite, it was said, “did not editorialize often.” Well, let’s put it this way, he did not come out and say “this is my opinion.” But his way of editorializing is the same craft that the media used in his time and ever since: selective use of facts, the omission of this story, the emphasis on that story, all used to weave a version of reality that people believed about the world around them beyond the reach of their five senses.
Walter Cronkite gained immense power and, in my opinion used that power badly to advance his personal wealth and his personal ideology. There’s a lot of money to be made if you are the “most trusted man in America.” And you can convince a lot of people that “that’s the way it is” if they believe you.
The healthiest thing for American democracy has been the internet, having broken the death-grip that the mainstream media have had on American perspectives of reality. Had Walter Cronkite lived with the internet, his title and his sign off line would have been laughed at.
Rest in peace.
His success was not a matter of substance. It was a matter of tone. As that piece in the LA Times acknowledged, “The news that Cronkite reported was barely distinct from the news his colleague-competitors reported.” Indeed. He didn’t research or write the news. He read it. He emitted the same platitudes every other news reader mouthed. He did so, however, with a sort of cardigan authenticity that used car salesmen would climb naked over broken bottles to emulate. When JFK was assassinated, Cronkite wept, almost. He swooned when Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon. He was righteously indignant over the war in Vietnam Watergate and the war in Iraq. How he loathed President Bush, how he admired President Carter, the “smartest” president he ever met. He was a partisan news reader whose reputation for impartiality survived only because he espoused the same ideology as those in the media who determine who is awarded points for impartiality. Liberals like Cronkite suppose they are objective because they are secure in the belief that their opinions represent a neutral state of nature. It is (they believe) only those who dissent from those opinions who bring politics into the equation.