Among the many encomiums upon the passing of Walter Cronkite at 92 is the typical painting of the “end of an era” and the lament that “we shall never see his like again.” Actually, the era of reliable broadcast journalism did not recently expire with Cronkite; it has been in its death throes for years, especially since the corporate consolidation of the media (GE [NBC], Westinghouse [CBS], Disney [ABC], Time-Warner [CNN], and Murdoch [Fox]), and the proliferation of the celebrity journalist, whose goal is not to report the news but to be seen with and to be a mouthpiece for the powerful.
If we mourn Cronkite, let it be not only because he was a humane man, or at heart an old-fashioned newshound with fedora and press card, but because he was also, and increasingly so in his later years, one of a now almost extinct breed of journalist who still believed in speaking truth to power. Almost single-handedly in 1968, “the most trusted man in America” turned the tide of public opinion in middle America against the war in VietNam by his reports from the field: in effect, we should not trust what our government was saying, the war was a “bloody…stalemate,” and, by inference, official Pentagon or White House reports were lies. As LBJ mournfully told staffers, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Cronkite was not always the conscience of America, nor was he, as a newscaster, ever a completely independent journalist. He was after all an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting Network. Earlier in his career, and indeed up to 1968, he was typical of many a newsman trained in the trenches as a WWII correspondent, bullish on the military, trusting of power. His earlier newscasts during the VietNam conflict reflect little of the later critic. But something happened to change his mind: in his 1968 trip to VietNam, seeing the war up close, he began to ask questions, and the answers troubled him. So deeply in fact, that he decided to spend that capital he possessed as America’s most trusted man, to go out on a limb and cry the “Emperor is naked.” He went on in later years to be an outspoken critic of Watergate and other government cover-ups, capitalistic greed, the Iraq war, and the corporate consolidation of the media, which he regarded as a “threat to democracy.”
Having retired back in 1981, Cronkite had plenty of time to watch his beloved industry descend into the corporate lickspittle it is today. What is his legacy? In a 1996 interview he was asked if he had any regrets. “What do I regret?” he said painfully. “Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn’t make them stick. We couldn’t find a way to pass them on to another generation.” It’s sad to consider that as great a legacy as this man had, none of today’s major newscasters has inherited it, since none has had the guts to pick up the mantle.