And That's The Way It Wasn't

As you surely know by now, Walter Cronkite's death at age 92 was announced on Friday. This passage by John Podhoretz brilliantly sums up the peak of Cronkite's career arc in the late 1960s:

Cronkite was a key figure in many ways, but foremost among them, perhaps, was the fact that he cleared the way for the mainstream media and the Establishment to join what Lionel Trilling called “the adversary culture.” Cronkite, the gravelly voice of accepted American wisdom, whose comportment suggested he kept his money in bonds and would never even have considered exceeding the speed limit, devastated President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive by declaring that the United States “was mired in stalemate” in Vietnam—when Johnson knew that Tet had been a military triumph.

This on-air editorial, spoken during the most-watched newscast in the country when that meant 30 million people were watching (as opposed to 7 million today, with the nation having added more than 100 million in population), was a transformational  moment in American history.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson was reputed to have said, “I’ve lost middle America,” and shortly thereafter he announced he would not run for reelection. This was a mark of Johnson’s own poor political instincts—a president who thought a rich and powerful anchorman living the high life in New York city was the voice of the silent majority was a man out of touch with reality—but it was a leading indicator of how the media were changing. Cronkite didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to Tet, as the late Peter Braestrup demonstrated in his colossal expose of the scandalous media coverage of the battle, Big Story. But he knew that among the people who mattered to him, and who were the leading edge of ideological fashion, Tet was a failure because the war in Vietnam was bad, and he took to the airwaves to say so.

How did American media get to this point? As I wrote a couple of years ago in "Atlas Mugged":

Prior to the 1920s, American newspapers and pamphleteers had a long, diverse history of vigorous, partisan debate. Which is why there are still newspapers with names like the Springfield Democrat and Shelbyville Republican.

That began to change with the rise of competition from the broadcast media. In the 1920s, because radio frequencies were finite, their allocation became heavily regulated by the federal government. As Shannon Love of the classically liberal Chicago Boyz (www.chicagoboyz.net) economics blog explains, the federal government “took the radio spectrum, and instead of auctioning it off like land, essentially socialized it. And then they made the distribution of the broadcast spectrum basically a political decision.”

That, combined later with the FCC’s so-called “Fairness Doctrine—which required broadcasting networks to give “equal time” to opposing viewpoints—compelled broadcasters to maintain at least a veneer of impartiality in order to get and keep their licenses. A de facto political compromise was reached, Love says, “that the broadcast news would not be political—it would be objective and nonpartisan, was basically the idea. And then that carried over from radio to TV,” and eventually to print media. (That conceit continues to this day, as the media toss around words like “unbiased” and “objective” as easily as Dan Rather tosses off hoary, made-up Texas-isms.)

Completely dependent on the federal government, the broadcast industry’s most urgent priority became “don’t rock the boat.” And aping their broadcast competitors, newspapers began to adopt the mantle of impartiality, as well. A mass media that increasingly eschewed vibrant political debate helped FDR win four presidential elections handily, and Ike’s refusal to dismantle the New Deal in the 1950s only perpetuated its soft socialism. That era’s pervasive desire for consensus was symbolized by the ubiquitous Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his centrist politics.

By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).

Up until the Reagan years, Love says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”

Love calls this “the Parliament of Clocks”: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus. “Really, the only way that consumers can tell that they’re getting accurate information is to check another media source,” Love says. “And unfortunately, that creates an incentive for the media sources to all agree on the same story.”

Back in May, Gerard Vanderluen wrote, "The Media is how America fights its civil wars. In this war at least half the country is both under-served and is painfully aware it is being under-served and lied to." There may have been earlier examples, but Cronkite's attack on America's role in Vietnam was the most visible example of a nationally-known mass media journalist who had held himself out as a quote-unquote objective deliverer of the news taking an advocacy position against America's interests. This made it one of the flashpoints for the long simmering Cold Civil War between rival factions of America's culture .

On the other hand, regarding the extremely hot war in Vietnam, as Ed Morrissey writes, in hindsight, Cronkite's influence on America's involvement wasn't as damaging as it could have been -- or as Cronkite no doubt hoped it would have been:

I have felt for a long time that both his fans and his opponents made far too much out of Cronkite, who was a good news reader — and a better ambassador for CBS than his successors.  Walter Cronkite did not lose us the Vietnam War; that was lost by Congress in 1974-5, after Richard Nixon had managed to put it back more or less to status quo ante years past Johnson’s quote.

Check out Lewis Sorley's 1999 book, A Better War, for more on the period of the Vietnam War post-Tet (and post Westmoreland) that seems otherwise largely forgotten by a history that essentially flash-forwards from Tet to the last helicopters out of Saigon being unceremoniously dumped off the sides of overloaded American aircraft carriers.

Cronkite's moment is thankfully lost since past. Between the Blogosphere and the rest of the Web and cable TV, the parliament of clocks, with Cronkite as ther most visible member, is over. And the cost of entry for those who wish to report and comment on the news is effectively nil, unlike the limited resources of the mass media era.

Also, our relationship with Old Media has changed; while they're busy embarrassing themselves by fawning over President Obama, most of us don't view television newsreaders with that same level of awe anymore. As Hollywood screenwriter and pundit Burt Prelutsky wrote a few years ago:

You can go back to Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor and Walter Cronkite. We treated them all with a deference that was totally out of proportion to the work they did. Essentially, the job description requires that they read the captions to the news footage we’re watching and to introduce the on-site reporters. Do you really think that constitutes the mental equivalent of heavy lifting? For doing what your uncle Sid could do -- and with a lot more pazazz -- they’re paid enormous amounts of money. On top of all the dough, they are constantly the honorees at testimonial dinners, but that’s fine, so long as I don’t have to attend. But the trouble is, they’re regarded as important people by way too many of us, and that’s not good. Why? Because it makes us all look like a bunch of saps -- what H.L. Mencken called the boobus americanus and what P.T. Barnum simply labeled suckers.

Because these anchors get to spend their entire careers talking about important events and important people, they naturally come to regard themselves as important. Self-delusion is a form of insanity and we should not encourage it by fawning over them.

When they finally sign off for the last time, you notice that the testimonials inevitably mention how many political conventions they covered, how many space missions, how many inaugurations, assassinations, uprisings and wars, as if they had had a hand in any of these earth-shaking events. It wasn’t their hands that were involved, it was their behinds, as they sat year after year at those desks, declaiming in those store-bought voices what we were seeing with our own eyes -- all thanks to the journalistic peons who actually went places and did things and took risks so that we could sit home and watch it

Now, I’m not saying we should kill the messengers. I’m just suggesting it’s time we stopped canonizing them.

It seems safe to say that if you're regular consumer of blogs, you're long since past the stage of canonizing news readers, and that's a good thing.

We'll likely never see a journalist with the monopoly that Cronkite and his nightly "competitors" at NBC and ABC had; and frankly, that seems like a very good thing.

Update: Jules Crittenden explores Cronkite's role as war correspondent, before he morphed into opinion an journalist. And regarding the latter phase of his career, Newsbusters' Tim Graham writes, "Time: Cronkite, the 'Patron Saint of Objectivity' -- Well, Actually, Thankfully, No."

As every cable news channel is running their retrospectives this weekend (and silently thanking "Uncle Walter" for one last big news story in an otherwise slow news weekend), the Anchoress writes:

I recall hoping that Tim Russert’s sad death would inspire some self-reflection within the ranks of the press, but that did not happen, so I doubt Cronkite’s death will wake them from their self-destructive sleep, either.

As America's legacy media have morphed into hagiographers for powerful collectivists, introspection is a feature they appear to have universally long since jettisoned.

Update: File these under the title of Anchorman: The Legend of Walt Burgundy: Fellow Pajamas Express blogger Roger Kimball is succinct, as usual: "Walter Cronkite, World’s Most Overrated Reader of the News." Elsewhere, the folks at Newsbusters collate an assortment of Cronkite's more outré quotes after retiring from the night watchman's desk at the Tiffany network.