Jul 18, 2009
"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.
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.
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."
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 . . .
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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):
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.
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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