Feature

Cronkite: Was he biased?

Was Walter Cronkite less straitjacketed by a false standard of balance and objectivity than anchors and reporters are today?

TV anchors and journalistic celebrities just spent the past week lauding Walter Cronkite, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. Why, then, do they ignore his legacy? As the tributes to the famed CBS News anchor have noted, Cronkite enjoyed an amazing level of trust from his audience—but only because he challenged official lies in a way that today’s news anchors and establishment newspapers “will never do.” Cronkite’s crowning glory was a February 1968 broadcast in which “he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn’t trust” the government’s claims of progress in the Vietnam War. The war, Cronkite plainly said, was a “stalemate,” with no prospect of military victory. No mainstream journalist would dare be that truthful today. Straitjacketed by a false standard of balance and objectivity, anchors and reporters now think it is their job to pass on obvious government lies—“we don’t torture”—while merely noting that certain critics have different views. Cronkite, on the other hand, had the guts to speak truth to power.

And that’s how he helped ruin journalism, said James Taranto in The Wall Street Journal Online. Cronkite “was a great newsman,’’ but he let his ego get the better of him when he began editorializing. By the early 1970s, the Archie Bunker character on the top-rated sitcom All in the Family had begun calling the news anchor that “commie Cronkite”—an acknowledgement that Cronkite’s reputation as a dispassionate newsman had been terminally “compromised.” After Cronkite began indulging his personal biases, a whole generation of journalists decided it was acceptable—indeed, courageous—to blur the line “between reporting and commentary.”

I think you’re both taking Cronkite far too seriously, said Lee Siegel in TheDailybeast.com. Mostly, he was a “consummate performer” who created a pleasing illusion for the audience of his era—that this kindly old uncle told us everything “worth knowing” in a half-hour broadcast. Today, the most popular TV performers—Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, and Keith Olbermann—convey through their smirks that “every claim to knowledge is a sham.” If we have no Cronkite today, it’s because we don’t want, and wouldn’t tolerate, one. And we’re better off for it, said Reihan Salam in Forbes.com. Today’s media consumers have a choice of a dozen TV news shows, hundreds of websites, and countless voices competing for attention and credibility. The resulting cacophony is “far smarter” and is more in tune with “America’s fractious, disputatious, questioning nature.”

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