Published on Saturday, November 8, 2003 by the Capital Times / Wisconsin
Cronkite Fears Media Mergers Threaten Democracy
by John Nichols
The most trusted name in news is worried about what is happening to the news media in America.
"I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to be moving away from that," said Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, whose name remains synonymous with American journalism.
"The way that works is to have multiple owners, with the hope that the owners will have different viewpoints, and with the hope that the debate will help to air all sides, or at least most sides of the issues. But right now I think we're moving away from that approach."
Speaking to The Capital Times before this weekend's National Conference on Media Reform, Cronkite said he is particularly concerned by the decision of the Federal Communications Commission to relax media ownership rules. By a 3-2 vote in June, the commission approved proposals that would permit a single media company to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American households, and that would permit a single media company to own the daily newspaper, several television stations and up to eight radio stations in the same community.
"I think they made a mistake, I do indeed," Cronkite said of the FCC. "It seems to me that the rule change was negotiated and promulgated with the goal of creating even larger monopolies in the news-gathering business."
With or without the FCC's ownership rule changes, the veteran television journalist says he sees monopolies developing at the local level.
"We are coming closer to that (monopoly situations) today, even without the relaxation of the rules," Cronkite said. "In many communities, we have seen a lot of mergers already and that is disturbing. We have more and more one-newspaper towns, and that troubles me. I think that the failure of newspaper competition in a community is a very serious handicap to the dissemination of the knowledge that the citizens need to participate in a democracy."
Cronkite stepped down as the CBS anchor in 1981. But he remains active as a journalist, writing a nationally syndicated column that appears weekly in The Capital Times and other newspapers.
Much has changed since his days at the anchor desk, Cronkite said. And while he shies away from suggesting that everything was better in the good old days, he will say that he is troubled by the timidity of broadcast media when it comes to questioning those in power.
In 1968, Cronkite stunned the nation when, after reporting from Vietnam on the Tet offensive and events that followed it, he went on air and openly questioned whether the U.S. military would ever prevail in that conflict.
"It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate," Cronkite told his national audience. The anchorman went on to call for the government to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese.
Bill Moyers, who was President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, has speculated that Cronkite's blunt assessment of the war contributed significantly to Johnson's decision to propose negotiations and to drop out of the 1968 presidential race. Moyers, who shares Cronkite's concerns about media consolidation and monopoly, will be the keynote speaker at tonight's plenary session of the National Conference on Media Reform in the Orpheum Theatre.
Would a network anchorman dare speak out in the same way today?
"I think it could happen, yes. I don't think it's likely to happen," Cronkite said. "I think the three networks are still hewing pretty much to that theory. They don't even do analysis anymore, which I think is a shame. They don't even do background. They just seem to do headlines, and the less important it seems the more likely they are to get on the air."
In an era of increasing globalization and speed of communications, Cronkite said he thinks the networks should be airing hourlong evening news programs. "For a country this big and this powerful and this diverse, a full hour is necessary," he said. "To try to cover that in 19 minutes is simply impossible."
Cronkite also thinks the networks should get more comfortable with criticism. He believes that, after years of battering by conservative media critics, the networks are increasingly averse to taking risks. During the discussion about whether a network anchor might question the wisdom of the Iraq war, he said, "If they (the networks) didn't do it, I think it would be because they are afraid to get in an ideological fight - or that doing so might lose them some viewers. ... I think that is a bad thing, a bad way to decide how to approach a story."
But what about Cronkite? Does he think that, if he were an anchorman today, he would try to speak out on the Iraq war?
"Yes, yes I do. I think that right now it would be critical to do so," he said. "I think that right now we are in one of the most dangerous periods in our existence. Not since the Civil War has the state of our democracy been so doubtful. Our foreign policy has taken a very strange turn. And I do think I would try to say something about that."
What exactly would he say?
Cronkite said he would suggest that the Bush administration has "confused" other nations about the approach of the United States to foreign policy.
"The policy we're following has involved us in a very expensive set of projects trying to export democracy at the end of a bayonet," he said. "That has caused a great deal of concern around the world and I think Americans need to understand this."
In particular, Cronkite said, he would bluntly discuss his concerns about Bush's view of when it is appropriate to make war.
"Preventive war is a theory, a policy, that was put forth by the president in his policy address," Cronkite observed. "It upsets all of our previous concepts about the use of power. It is particularly worrying when our power is almost unchallenged around the world. It seems to me that this preventive action is a terrible policy to put forth to other nations. If we are viewed as a pacesetter by other nations, this is a policy that could lead to eternal war around the world. If every small nation with a border dispute believes they can go ahead and launch a pre-emptive war and that it will be approved by the greatest power, that is a very dangerous thing."
To Cronkite's view, Bush is a distinctly aggressive president. "I actually knew Herbert Hoover, believe it or not. And my time as a journalist goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. In my time, I don't think we have had any president as aggressive, except possibly Roosevelt. With Roosevelt, there was in his time a call for leadership, which he gave us. With this White House, they are aggressive on all fronts, whether there is a call for leadership or not."
At the same time, Cronkite said, the Congress is pliant. Asked about the congressional debate on the Iraq war, he asked rhetorically, "What debate?"
Cronkite still holds out hope, however, that Congress might wake up to an issue that concerns him.
After the FCC voted to loosen the media ownership rules, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the commission's decision. Now more than 200 members of the House have signed a letter urging that chamber to do the same. So far, the House leadership is blocking a vote.
"I don't know if I am in a position to encourage Congress one way or another," Cronkite said. "However, if I were going to offer my opinion on the thing, I would certainly express my feeling that it would be better to have multiple ownership."
John Nichols, the editorial page editor of TheCapital Times, is one of the principal organizers of this weekend's National Conference on Media Reform.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times