Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did
"The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . 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. . . .
"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past" -- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.
"I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role" -- David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam died, media stars everywhere commemorated his death as though he were one of them -- as though they do what he did -- even though he had nothing but bottomless, intense disdain for everything they do. As he put it in a 2005 speech to students at the Columbia School of Journalism: "the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be . . . . By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are."
In that same speech, Halberstam cited as the "proudest moment" of his career a bitter argument he had in 1963 with U.S. Generals in Vietnam, by which point, as a young reporter, he was already considered an "enemy" of the Kennedy White House for routinely contradicting the White House's claims about the war (the President himself asked his editor to pull Halberstam from reporting on Vietnam). During that conflict, he stood up to a General in a Press Conference in Saigon who was attempting to intimidate him for having actively doubted and aggressively investigated military claims, rather than taking and repeating them at face value:
Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.
General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.
And I stood up, my heart beating wildly -- and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.
I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.
Can anyone imagine any big media stars -- who swoon in reverence both to political power and especially military authority -- defying military instructions that way, let alone being proud of it? Halberstam certainly couldn't imagine any of them doing it, which is why, in 1999, he wrote:
Obviously, it should be a brilliant moment in American journalism, a time of a genuine flowering of a journalistic culture . . .
But the reverse is true. Those to whom the most is given, the executives of our three networks, have steadily moved away from their greatest responsibilities, which is using their news departments to tell the American people complicated truths, not only about their own country, but about the world around us. . . .
Somewhere in there, gradually, but systematically, there has been an abdication of responsibility within the profession, most particularly in the networks. . . . So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.
All of that was ignored when he died, with establishment media figures exploiting his death to suggest that his greatness reflected well on what they do, as though what he did was the same thing as what they do (much the same way that Martin Luther King's vehement criticisms of the United States generally and its imperialism and aggression specifically have been entirely whitewashed from his hagiography).
So, too, with the death of Walter Cronkite. Tellingly, his most celebrated and significant moment -- Greg Mitchell says "this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million" -- was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn't trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false. In other words, Cronkite's best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do -- directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won't even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.
Despite that, media stars will spend ample time flamboyantly commemorating Cronkite's death as though he reflects well on what they do (though probably not nearly as much time as they spent dwelling on the death of Tim Russert, whose sycophantic servitude to Beltway power and "accommodating head waiter"-like, mindless stenography did indeed represent quite accurately what today's media stars actually do). In fact, within Cronkite's most important moments one finds the essence of journalism that today's modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.
UPDATE: A reader reminds me that -- very shortly after Tim Russert's June, 2008 death -- long-time Harper's editor Lewis Lapham attended a party to mark the release of a new book on Hunter Thompson, and Lapham said a few words. According to New York Magazine's Jada Yuan, this is what happened:
Lewis Lapham isn’t happy with political journalism today. “There was a time in America when the press and the government were on opposite sides of the field,” he said at a premiere party for Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson on June 25. “The press was supposed to speak on behalf of the people. The new tradition is that the press speaks on behalf of the government.” An example? “Tim Russert was a spokesman for power, wealth, and privilege,” Lapham said. “That’s why 1,000 people came to his memorial service. Because essentially he was a shill for the government. It didn’t matter whether it was Democratic or Republican. It was for the status quo.” What about Russert’s rep for catching pols in lies? “That was bullshit,” he said. “Thompson and Russert were two opposite poles.”
Writing in Harper's a few weeks later, Lapham -- in the essay about Russert (entitled "An Elegy for a Rubber Stamp") where he said Russert's "on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity" -- echoed Halberstam by writing:
Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession.
That Lapham essay is full of piercing invective ("On Monday I thought I’d heard the end of the sales promotion. Tim presumably had ascended to the great studio camera in the sky to ask Thomas Jefferson if he intended to run for president in 1804"), and -- from a person who spent his entire adult life in journalism -- it contains the essential truth about modern establishment journalism in America:
On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless. Like Russert, who served his apprenticeship as an aide-de-camp to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, most of the prominent figures in the Washington press corps (among them George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Karl Rove) began their careers as bagmen in the employ of a dissembling politician or a corrupt legislature. Regarding themselves as de facto members of government, enabling and codependent, their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock-market touts as “securitizing the junk.” When requesting explanations from secretaries of defense or congressional committee chairmen, they do so with the understanding that any explanation will do. Explain to us, my captain, why the United States must go to war in Iraq, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of one or two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why K-Street lobbyists produce the paper that Congress passes into law, and we will show that the reasons are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be suspicious or scornful. Together with the television camera that sees but doesn’t think, we’re here to watch, to fall in with your whims and approve your injustices. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your vices in the rosebushes of salacious gossip and clothe your crimes in the aura of inspirational anecdote.
That's why they so intensely celebrated Tim Russert: because he was the epitome of what they do, and it's why they'll celebrate Walter Cronkite (like they did with David Halberstam) only by ignoring the fact that his most consequential moments were ones where he did exactly that which they will never do.
UPDATE II: In the hours and hours of preening, ponderous, self-serving media tributes to Walter Cronkite, here is a clip you won't see, in which Cronkite -- when asked what is his biggest regret -- says (h/t sysprog):
What do I regret? 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 impossible even to imagine the likes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokow and friends interrupting their pompously baritone, melodramatic, self-glorifying exploitation of Cronkite's death to spend a second pondering what he meant by that.
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