Walter Cronkite: Liberalism in the Guise of Objectivity

Cronkite's conclusion was of course a lie; America had won the Tet offensive, as Diana West noted in 2009, in the wake of Cronkite’s death at age 92:

Cronkite never clarified the record, never admitted that the Tet offensive -- the Vietcong's surprise holiday attack on cities across South Vietnam -- resulted in a military and political fiasco for North Vietnam.

This was becoming apparent even before the dust had settled in 1968, as we learn in Peter Braestrup's indispensable "The Big Story" (1977), one of the signal historical works of the 20th century, which meticulously analyzes the media's failure to assess Tet correctly as a defeat for North Vietnam. Even Leftist journalist Frances Fitzgerald in her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fire in the Lake" (1972) reported that Tet had "seriously depleted" Vietcong forces and "wiped out" many of their "most experienced cadres," noting that such losses drove "the southern movement for the first time into almost total dependency on the north." Her conclusion: "By all the indices available to the American military, the Tet offensive was a major defeat for the enemy."

And the enemy agreed. In a 1995 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bui Tin, a member of the North Vietnamese general staff who in 1975 personally received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam, called North Vietnam's losses in Tet "staggering." Communist forces in the South, he explained, "were nearly wiped out by all the fighting in 1968. It took us until 1971 to re-establish our presence, but we had to use North Vietnamese troops as local guerillas. If the American forces had not begun to withdraw under Nixon in 1969," he added, "they could have punished us severely." And who knows? If Cronkite had not used Tet to nudge for negotiations, maybe American forces would not have begun to withdraw.

Bui Tin said North Vietnamese commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap told him Tet was "a military defeat though we had gained the planned political advantages when Johnson agreed to negotiate and did not run for re-election."

Well, who could blame him? The president had "lost Cronkite."

The Halberstam Connection

As with most American liberals, Cronkite initially supported the Vietnam war, but in 1968 he turned against it in his now infamous primetime broadcast of February 27th, in which he declared the war unwinnable. Brinkley credits his fellow leftwing journalist David Halberstam, then a New York Timesman in his early 30s, for turning Cronkite against the war. (Likely not coincidentally, Brinkley dedicated his book to both Halberstam and Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, which represents a much more inclusive form of television journalism than Brinkley’s eponymous subject ever practiced.)  When Halberstam died in a car accident at age 73 in 2007, Marvin Olasky wrote that it was Halberstam’s early declaration of the Q-word in Vietnam that caused a generation of journalists to look for a quagmire seemingly before a war they disapprove of begins, tossing aside any pretense of objectivity for an oikaphobic sneer in the process:

Halberstam was the first big-time journalist with whom I ever had dinner, in 1969 or 1970 when I was a college student. My fellow leftists and I venerated him for winning a Pulitzer Prize on the back of anti-Vietnam War reporting that had gained the ire of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As William Prochnau, author of "Once Upon a Distant War," later noted, Halberstam in his reporting of those he distrusted ''didn't say, 'You're not telling me the truth.' He said, 'You're lying.'"

We loved that -- Halberstam wrote like a god -- but four decades later, the epigone of Halberstamism is found in books like Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." Unlike some of his successors, Halberstam was a hardworking reporter who didn't grab for sneering laughs, but his 1965 book about Vietnam, "The Making of a Quagmire," has inspired journalists for four decades to look for a quagmire as soon as the first American soldiers set foot on sand.

Halberstam's perceptiveness and blindness were both evident in an interview he gave to the San Jose Mercury News in 1993. He said he was worried about journalism's future because "The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant." But he went on to state his version of the problem: "We give a jarring perception of reality to people." Journalists knew reality, and people weren't strong enough to handle the shrink-wrapped truth.

Did I say that journalists now invoke the Q-word “seemingly before a war they disapprove of begins?”  By 2003, that was literally so in CNN’s case.