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July 26, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

And That’s Not the Way It Is


WHO exactly was the competition in the race to be the most trusted man in America? Lyndon
Johnson? Richard Nixon?

Not to take anything away from Walter Cronkite, but he beat out Henry Kissinger by only four
percentage points when a 1974 Roper poll asked Americans whom they most respected. The
successive blows of Vietnam and Watergate during the Cronkite ‟60s and ‟70s shattered the
nation‟s faith in most of its institutions, public and private, and toppled many of the men who led
them. Such was the dearth of trustworthy figures who survived that an unindicted official in a
disgraced White House could make the cut.

In death, “the most trusted man in America” has been embalmed in that most comforting of
American sweeteners — nostalgia — to the point where his finest, and most discomforting,
achievements are being sanitized or forgotten. We‟ve heard much sentimental rumination on the
bygone heyday of the “mainstream media,” on the cultural fractionalization inflicted by the
Internet, and on the lack of any man who could replicate the undisputed moral authority of Uncle
Walter. (Women still need not apply, apparently.) But the reason to celebrate Cronkite has little
to do with any of this and least of all to do with his avuncular television persona.

What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to
challenge those who betrayed his audience‟s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in
power but his own bosses. Given the American press‟s catastrophe of our own day — its failure
to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us
into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

That‟s why the past week‟s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure
anchor with Cronkite‟s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What
matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted
perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the
multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This
journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.

Moving as it may be to repeatedly watch Cronkite‟s famous on-camera reactions to J.F.K.‟s

death and the astronauts‟ moon landing, those replays aren‟t the story. It‟s a given that an anchor
might mist up during a national tragedy and cheer a national triumph. The real test is how a
journalist responds when people in high places are doing low deeds out of camera view and
getting away with it. Vietnam and Watergate, not Kennedy and Neil Armstrong, are what made
Cronkite Cronkite.
In the case of Vietnam, the anchor began as a reliable mouthpiece for the optimistic scenarios
purveyed by the Johnson administration. It was the contradictions and chaos Cronkite saw in a
visit to Vietnam after the Tet offensive that tardily changed his mind in 1968. Even now, right-
wing bloggers who still think we could have “won” in Vietnam and are busy trashing Cronkite
miss the point of what he said in his on-air editorial. He did not presume to judge the confusing
outcome of Tet itself; he viewed the war as a whole (accurately) as a stalemate.

What really outraged him was more elementary than any prognostication. He saw that the
American government was lying to its own people. “We have been too often disappointed by the
optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in
the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said.

Cronkite was braver during Watergate. The Washington Post, still largely regarded as a local
paper, had been on a lonely limb pursuing the scandal in the months after the break-in of June
1972. Its young reporters Woodward and Bernstein were nobodies. The leading national paper,
The Times, was lagging behind and underplaying the story. The networks, the biggest news
source for Americans, barely mentioned Watergate. The narrative was too complex and didn‟t
yield the kind of visuals that scream Good Television.

What Cronkite did on Oct. 27, 1972, was remarkable. Though CBS News had little fresh
reporting of its own, it repackaged The Post‟s to make it compelling TV. The Post‟s logo and
headlines often served as the visuals. The piece clocked in at an unprecedented 14 minutes —
two-thirds of a news program running 22 minutes without commercials — and was broadcast
just days before the election. As Katharine Graham, then the paper‟s publisher, wrote in
“Personal History,” her 1997 memoir, “CBS had taken The Post national,” giving its Watergate
reporting the credibility and mass circulation that would ultimately allow it to affect the course
of history.

That night the Nixon hatchet man Chuck Colson yelled at Cronkite‟s boss, the CBS titan William
Paley, and succeeded in getting the network‟s management to delay, shorten and neuter
Cronkite‟s second Watergate installment. But Black Rock, CBS‟s corporate headquarters, could
not undo the anchor‟s actions any more than the White House. The Nixon administration‟s dark
criminality would gradually be dragged into the sunlight.

To appreciate how special Cronkite‟s achievements were, consider our recent past. As the Bush
administration hyped Saddam Hussein‟s nonexistent W.M.D. and nonexistent link to 9/11, The
Times and The Post too often enabled the fictions. But at least some reporters at these papers and
others elsewhere were on to the hoax — even if their findings were buried in the back pages. At
the networks, Cronkite‟s heirs were not even practicing journalism. They invited administration
propagandists to trumpet their tales of imminent mushroom clouds with impunity.

Not much changed after the invasion. When Ted Koppel, then of ABC News, dared to merely
recite the names of the American dead on “Nightline” a year into the war, the assault from Bush-
Cheney allies, including in the broadcasting industry, was so fierce that Koppel‟s peers retreated
from the fray. In the months when it might have made a difference, no network television anchor
of Cronkite‟s prominence challenged the administration‟s silver linings in Iraq as he had L.B.J.‟s
in Vietnam.

If anything, the spirit of another recently departed lion of the establishment — Robert Strange
McNamara, born five months before Cronkite in 1916 — may live on more potently at the nexus
of American power and journalism than that of the CBS anchorman.

When McNamara died this month, many recalled his status as Exhibit A of what David
Halberstam labeled “the best and the brightest,” the brilliant and arrogant Kennedy-Johnson team
that blundered into a quagmire. Far less was said about how McNamara, at his height, wielded
that image to spin a dazzled Washington press establishment on his misplaced optimism about
the war. The Washington Post‟s obituary, pointedly or not, included a photo of a smiling
McNamara enjoying cocktails with a powerful syndicated Post columnist (and Vietnam
apologist), Joseph Alsop. The obituary also noted that McNamara served on The Post‟s board —
a sinecure he was awarded after he had helped send some 50,000 Americans to pointless deaths.

What Halberstam labeled the “nice genteel chumminess” between potentates like McNamara and
the Beltway press establishment, though occasionally frayed by scandals like Watergate, remains
intact. Just a few days before McNamara died, Politico uncovered a particularly graphic example
involving The Post: an invitation to lobbyists to shell out $25,000 to $250,000 to sponsor off-the-
record, nonconfrontational “salons” where they could mix with what a promotional flier called
“the right people” and “alter the debate.” The “right people” being pimped were White House
officials, members of Congress and The Post‟s own journalists. The salons were to be held in the
home of the paper‟s current publisher, Katharine Graham‟s granddaughter.

The Post‟s ombudsman called the salons “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions,” and they
were canceled. But the lofty cover charge notwithstanding, one wonders if they would have
differed in substance from that long-ago cocktail party attended by McNamara and Alsop.

As no one has to remind anyone at The Times, The Post is hardly the only news organization to
suffer a monumental lapse in recent years. The bigger problem is the persistence of that clubby
culture Halberstam described, no matter which party is in power. The hagiography that greeted
McNamara‟s arrival in Washington was also showered initially on some of the best and the
brightest in the Bush and Obama administrations. Some journalists even fawn over the worst and
the stupidest. As e-mail released by Mark Sanford‟s office revealed, David Gregory of NBC
News tried to get an interview with the sleazy governor by reassuring him that “„Meet the Press‟
allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to.”

Watching many of the empty Cronkite tributes in his own medium over the past week, you had
to wonder if his industry was sticking to mawkish clichés just to avoid unflattering comparisons.
If he was the most trusted man in America, it wasn‟t because he was a nice guy with an
authoritative voice and a lived-in face. It wasn‟t because he “loved a good story” or that he
removed his glasses when a president died. It was because at a time of epic corruption in the
most powerful precincts in Washington, Cronkite was not at the salons and not in the tank.