Ed Driscoll

Uncle Walter's Ultimate Legacy

Found via Newsbusters, Jeffrey Lord makes a great point: Walter Cronkite’s ultimate legacy is that he led the way towards the creation of a conservative media to counterbalance the increasingly out of touch groupthink of the mass media.

Which makes Cronkite an important transitional figure–as we’ve noted several times before, what we now call “the mainstream media” was once a diversified group of newspapers, magazines, and pamphleteers, each with their own unique viewpoints, serving audiences of like-minded readers. But the invention of radio, and its limited number of available frequencies changed all that in the early 20th century, as Shannon Love noted in 2004:

Since broadcasters functioned as public utilities and had monopoly use of a public property, they could not follow the openly partisan traditions of the newspapers. Broadcast journalists began to advertise themselves as “objective” and lacking “partisan” bias. They had no choice. Nobody was going to tolerate their own political opponents having a monopoly on the broadcast media. Also, broadcasting was supported purely by advertising, so the broadcasters had a profound interest in making sure they did not offend any large chunk of their audience by overtly taking sides.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone abused that privilege–and if Cronkite wasn’t the first, he’s certainly the best remembered by history, as Jeffrey Lord notes:

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this transformation took place, and no doubt there are differences to be had on exactly when this occurred. Surely one of the most notable moments of Cronkite’s liberalism being unmasked in a highly visible fashion was his now famous series on Vietnam. It was Cronkite, personally, who took to the airwaves to inform the American people not about the facts of the Vietnam War — but rather of his quite liberal opinion about the War. (It was, in short, get out.) Former CBS reporter John Laurence was so taken with this Cronkite decision that he rhapsodized in the PBS show that it was a “breakthrough” for a journalist to “express opinion.”

Well, now. It was surely news in 1968 that Cronkite would devote valuable air time to such an out front opinion on the war. But by this time conservative Americans were already well awake to the realization that this powerful new institution of television was being used in ways both subtle and not, to convey the message that there was no more enlightened or superior world view than modern American liberalism. Broadcast by broadcast it was increasingly apparent that those who disagreed or who challenged the liberal media status quo would be given either no air time or have their own views graphically misrepresented.

Lord continues:

Physicist Fritjof Capra, in his bestseller The Tao of Physics, writes that “by the very act of focusing our attention on any one concept we create its opposite.” In other words, to use the language of physics, when Mr. Cronkite’s very focused liberal world view blinked into the American consciousness, its conservative polar opposite blinked into existence along with it. The problem with Cronkite and his fellow “cultural artists” is that over time there emerged what seemed to many Americans as a very, very conscious decision to shut out the conservative world view altogether or, if forced to give it air time, to misrepresent it.

Thus Barry Goldwater found himself being portrayed on the CBS News as a Nazi sympathizer. A Republican Senate move to broaden the authority of the Senate Watergate Committee to investigate not just the 1972 presidential campaign but reports of Democratic malfeasance in the presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1964 was not simply defeated in the Democratic Senate but uninvestigated completely by Cronkite’s CBS. The failure of the Viet Cong Tet Offensive attacks was made out as a Communist success and an American failure, when the fact was the reverse. Later in Cronkite’s career social issues such as abortion or busing were all presented with the view that the proponents were honorable, well-intentioned people with solid, sensible policy — and those opposed either nuts or racists. It is a liberal world view of journalism that, by 2004, was so perfectly rational to CBS executives they let Dan Rather roll right ahead with a phony report on George W. Bush’s national guard service.

Unwittingly, Cronkite’s adamant liberal insistence of “that’s the way it is” had not only created Capra’s opposite concept to a liberal media. With an unexpected assist from technologies old and very new the conservative world view was blinked into a highly visible national and global existence. Rupert Murdoch’s invention of Fox News was a television network waiting to happen. Suddenly, beaming into American living rooms through satellite and cable was a different world view altogether, a conservative world view that millions of Americans recognized from their every day existence in places far distance from a Manhattan TV studio populated by liberal “cultural artists” such as Cronkite. AM radio, once assumed to be close to dead air in the liberal world view, stirred to life with the presence of Rush Limbaugh and, eventually, hundreds of conservative talk show hosts in local markets. And of course the Internet appeared, allowing conservative writers such as the ones on this site to communicate instantly with a national and global audience that was once the almost exclusive preserve of Mr. Cronkite.

Mr. Cronkite’s creation has shaken the world he created as a “cultural artist” to its very core. The liberal media monopoly he personified has vanished into the ether that gave it birth. Sometimes the results are amusing. The PBS program recalls the vigorous protest of Nixon Vice President Spiro Agnew about the liberal dominance of the television media in 1970, a protest that included a hint that the government should pull the broadcast licenses of offending networks. Cronkite, of course, took immediate umbrage, going out of his way to give a speech attacking Agnew’s threat in a return visit to his Missouri hometown. By 2004 the media world had changed so dramatically that it was liberal Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean who called for the break-up of Fox News. There was no word from Mr. Cronkite criticizing Howard Dean.

In his retirement, Cronkite has been unabashed in his liberal sentiments. He is a semi-regular on the liberal Huffington Posts, out front attacking Christian conservatives and assailing the Bush administration policy on global warming. His view on Iraq? But of course — get out!

Is Walter Cronkite a man who deserves to be honored for his contributions to American life? Absolutely.

But for the record, all of those contributions should be honored, however unintentional. For Fox News and every conservative radio show, magazine, website, and editorial page to succeed they had to have an audience. Walter Cronkite, with his relentless, decades-long delivery of his liberal world view as “the way it is” created that audience almost single-handedly.

Thanks, Uncle Walter. What would conservatives have done without you?

That’s a bit hyperbolic of course–you can argue that the rise of the Web and the Blogosphere would have shattered the traditional mass media even without Cronkite. But by repeatedly demonstrating how out of touch television was with the majority of voters, Cronkite certainly accelerated the process by a good decade or so.