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.