At the Daily Beastweek, Howard Kurtz has a hit and miss review of Douglas Brinkley’s new biography, Cronkite. Kurtz writes that Walter Cronkite’s liberal bias was visible on the air as early as the day of the Kennedy assassination. He adds that it would only get worse as the years progressed and Cronkite’s power increased, during the monolithic era of the Big Three TV networks:
But he was far more liberal than the public believed, and he let it show in unacceptable ways. Had Cronkite pulled such stunts today, I would probably be among those calling for him to step down.
Barry Goldwater distrusted him from the start, and with good reason. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Cronkite nodded his head in thinly veiled contempt when handed a note on air that the Arizona senator had said “no comment.” Goldwater was attending his mother-in-law’s funeral that day.
“Whether or not Senator Goldwater wins the nomination,” Cronkite told viewers another day, “he is going places, the first place being Germany.” Although Goldwater had merely accepted an invitation to visit a U.S. Army facility there, correspondent Daniel Schorr said he was launching his campaign in “the center of Germany’s right wing.” During Goldwater’s speech at the 1964 convention, some conservatives fed up with the networks gave Cronkite the finger.
Four years later, after Cronkite had belatedly turned against LBJ’s Vietnam War, he met privately with Robert Kennedy. “You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war,” he said in Kennedy’s Senate office. Soon afterward, Cronkite got an exclusive interview in which Kennedy left the door open for a possible run—the very candidacy that the anchor had urged him to undertake. (Kennedy announced three days later.) I am shaking my head at the spectacle of a network anchor secretly urging a politician to mount a White House campaign—and then interviewing him about that very question. This was duplicitous, a major breach of trust.
Gosh, imagine the US media being that deeply in the tank for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, to the point where they dubbed themselves his “non-official campaign,” and yet still attempted to maintain a thin veneer of “objectivity” — at least until the election was over, and they really dropped the mask, at least for a time.
More from Kurtz on Cronkite:
As everyone from presidents to astronauts catered to him, Cronkite used that access to drive unflinching coverage of civil rights, corruption, and especially the morass of Vietnam—when his own reporting led him to declare that ill-fated conflict a stalemate. When LBJ said that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” he was acknowledging that a single newsman had the power to change a national narrative.
Except that Johnson likely never said such a thing, as Joseph Campbell, the author of the 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism points out today on his Media Myth Alert Website, in response to Kurtz:
The power of that broadcast stems from the immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s critique supposedly had on the president.
It is, though, exceedingly unlikely that Johnson had any reaction of the sort. After all, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the president wasn’t in front of a television set that night.
He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.
About the time the anchorman intoned his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t lamenting any loss of support from Cronkite. Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:
“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
So it’s difficult to fathom how Johnson could have had much moved by a television program he didn’t see. Or ever discussed with Cronkite.
Here’s Kurtz on Cronkite’s final years, leading up to the incident that cost his successor his job, and inadvertently led to the original name for our parent company:
Cronkite came to regret handing the anchor reins to Dan Rather in 1981. “Rather and company shut me out from doing anything,” he complained. I remember listening to him rail against Rather in his Upper East Side apartment, his anger still palpable after so many years.
On the day that CBS chairman Les Moonves fired several people over Rather’s botched story on George W. Bush and the National Guard—having already deposed Rather as anchor—Cronkite barged into Moonves’s office and congratulated him on doing the right thing. Moonves was able to sleep that night, he recalled, because “Walter said it was OK.”