With his measured calm and seriousness of purpose, Walter Cronkite set a high standard for television journalism that has rarely been met since his retirement in 1981. But the legendary CBS anchorman who died Friday also may have unintentionally contributed to the American Left's dangerous complacency about media.
The feeling of many Americans (especially liberals) about the Cronkite era was that journalists could be trusted to give the news reasonably straight.
Though far from perfect, the Cronkite generation stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy's red-baiting, showed the nation the injustices of racial segregation, revealed the brutality of the Vietnam War (even while being largely sympathetic to its goals), exacted some measure of accountability for President Richard Nixon's political crimes and took a generally serious approach to informing the citizenry.
Cronkite personified the notion that TV news was a public service, not just a revenue stream or an opportunity to place ads around feel-good features. Yet, in that way, Cronkite contributed to complacency among many mainstream and liberal Americans who believed that the U.S. news media, though flawed, would continue to serve as an early-warning system for the Republic - and that they could focus on other concerns.
The American Right, however, had a different perspective. Right-wingers saw the Cronkite-era news media as the enemy - undermining McCarthy's anti-communist crusade, laying the groundwork for an integrated America, eroding public support for the Vietnam War, hounding Nixon from office, and concentrating public attention on various social problems.
Cronkite was singled out for contempt because of his perceived role in turning Americans against the Vietnam War, especially after the surprise communist Tet Offensive in 1968. After returning from a trip to Vietnam, Cronkite closed his Feb. 27, 1968, newscast with a personal analysis of the situation.
"To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion," Cronkite said. "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
After the broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country." Johnson began serious negotiations aimed at ending the war before he left office, an endeavor that the Nixon campaign surreptitiously sabotaged.
In 1972, Cronkite also gave traction to the investigation of Nixon's Watergate spying by devoting 14 minutes of one newscast to explain the complex political-corruption story.
Plotting on the Right
By the mid-1970s, with the Vietnam War lost and Nixon ousted, key strategists on the Right pondered how to make sure another Watergate scandal wouldn't unseat a future Republican President and how to guarantee that another anti-war movement wouldn't sink a future Vietnam War.
The Right settled on a two-pronged media strategy: build an ideologically committed right-wing media and organize anti-press attack groups that would put mainstream journalists on the defensive.
Led by Nixon's former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon, conservatives at key foundations coordinated their grants to support right-wing magazines and to fund attack groups. Later, other right-wing financiers, such as Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, joined the mix.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, a vertically integrated right-wing media machine took shape, reaching from print forms like books, newspapers and magazines to electronic forms like cable TV, talk radio and the Internet. Wealthy right-wingers poured tens of billions of dollars into this process.
The investment made sure that Americans across the country got a steady diet of right-wing propaganda from radios, TV and print products, while mainstream journalists who dug up information that challenged the Right's propaganda came under coordinated attack. Many independent-minded journalists were pushed to the margins or forced out of the profession altogether.
The mainstream news personalities who survived knew that their livelihoods could be stripped away at a moment's notice if they were deemed by the Right to possess a "liberal bias." Many journalists twisted themselves into contortions so as not to anger the Right.
Meanwhile, the American Left made the opposite choice. Apparently believing that professionals like Cronkite would stay in charge of mainstream news, well-heeled liberals put their money into almost everything but media.
The Left largely ignored media in favor of "grassroots organizing" and embraced the slogan: "think globally, act locally." Progressives increasingly put their resources into well-intentioned projects, such as buying endangered wetlands or feeding the poor.
So, while the Right engaged in "information warfare" - seeking to control the flow of information to the American public - the Left trusted that Walter Cronkite and future Walter Cronkites would keep the nation honestly informed.
However, in 1981, just as right-wing Republican Ronald Reagan took control in Washington, Cronkite retired as the CBS Evening News anchor at the age of 64. He soon found himself excluded from any significant role at the network he helped build.
Then, backed by the Reagan administration's tough-minded "public diplomacy" teams, the Right ramped up the pressure on Washington news bureaus to rein in or get rid of troublesome journalists - achieving that goal with a stunning measure of success. [For details on this strategy, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Failure on the Left
As those right-wing pressures began to take a toll on reporters at the national level, the progressives focused on more immediate priorities, such as filling gaps in the social safety net opened by Reagan's policies.
With the numbers of homeless swelling and the AIDS epidemic spreading, the idea of diverting money to an information infrastructure seemed coldhearted. After all, the social problems were visible and immediate; the significance of the information battle was more theoretical.
In the early 1990s, I first began approaching major liberal foundations about the need to counter right-wing pressure on journalism (which I had seen first-hand at the Associated Press and Newsweek), but I received dismissive or bemused responses.
One foundation executive smiled and said, "we don't do media." Another foundation simply barred media proposals outright.
On occasion, when a few center-left foundations did approve media-related grants, they generally went for non-controversial projects, such as polling public attitudes or tracking money in politics, which condemned Democrats and Republicans about equally.
Meanwhile, through the 1990s, the Right poured billions of dollars into their media apparatus.
Young right-wing writers - such as David Brock and Ann Coulter - found they could make fortunes working within this structure. Magazine articles by star conservatives earned top dollar. Their books - promoted on right-wing talk radio and favorably reviewed in right-wing publications - jumped to the top of the best-seller lists.
(Brock broke from this right-wing apparatus in the late 1990s and described its inner workings in his book, Blinded by the Right. By then, however, Brock had gotten rich writing hit pieces against people who interfered with the Right's agenda, like law professor Anita Hill whose testimony about sexual harassment endangered Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination.)
As the 1990s wore on, mainstream journalists adapted to this altered media environment by trying desperately not to offend the Right. Working journalists knew that to do so could damage or destroy their careers. There was no comparable danger from offending the Left.
Thus, many Americans journalists - whether consciously or not - protected themselves by being harder on Democrats in the Clinton administration than they were on Republicans during the Reagan-Bush-41 years.
Indeed, through much of the 1990s, there was little to distinguish the Clinton scandal coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times or on the network news from what was in the New York Post and the Washington Times or on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's show.
The animus toward Clinton spilled over into Campaign 2000 when the major media - both mainstream and right-wing - jumped all over Al Gore, freely misquoting him and subjecting him to almost unparalleled political ridicule. By contrast, George W. Bush - while viewed as slightly dimwitted - got the benefit of nearly every doubt. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Al Gore v. the Media" or "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]
Siding with Bush
During the Florida recount battle in November 2000, liberals watched passively as Republican activists from Washington staged a riot outside the Miami-Dade canvassing board, and the Washington Post's center-left columnist Richard Cohen called for the selection of Bush as "a likable guy who will make things better and not worse." [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Conspiracy to Riot or "Mob Rule Wins for W."]
Once five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a state-court-ordered recount and handed Bush the White House, both mainstream and right-wing news outlets acted as if it were their patriotic duty to rally around the legitimacy of the new President. [For more on this phenomenon, see our book Neck Deep.]
The protect-Bush consensus deepened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as the national news media - almost across the board - transformed itself into a conveyor belt for White House propaganda. When the Bush administration put out dubious claims about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, the major newspapers rushed the information into print.
Many of the most egregious WMD stories appeared in the most prestigious establishment newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The New York Times fronted bogus assertions about the nuclear-weapons capabilities of aluminum tubes that were really for conventional weapons. Washington Post editorials reported Bush's allegations about Iraqi WMD as fact, not a point in dispute.
Anti-war protests involving millions of American citizens received largely dismissive coverage. Critics of the administration's WMD claims were ignored or derided. When Al Gore offered a thoughtful critique of Bush's preemptive-war strategy, he got savaged in the national media. [See Consortiumnews.com "Politics of Preemption."]
Over several decades, by investing smartly in media infrastructure, the Right had succeeded in reversing the media dynamic of the Cronkite era. Instead of a serious and skeptical press corps, most national journalists knew better than to risk losing their careers by getting in the way of the Republican juggernaut.
Many on the Left began acknowledging the danger of this media imbalance. But even as the disasters of the Bush presidency deepened, wealthy progressives continued to spurn proposals for building a media counter-infrastructure that could challenge the "group think" of Washington journalism and start pushing the mainstream news media back to its old principles.
The Left's media activities centered mostly on holding conferences to discuss "media reform," not actually doing journalism or building new outlets.
Some Hopeful Signs
However, there have been some hopeful signs for American liberals. The Air America radio network did get off the ground in 2004 (although only barely) and helped catapult two rising stars into prominence (Al Franken who is now a U.S. senator from Minnesota and Rachel Maddow who landed a liberal-oriented show on MSNBC).
But even that limited progress is fragile. General Electric has okayed an experimental lineup of liberal hosts on its evening MSNBC lineup (also including Ed Schultz and Keith Olbermann), a decision that could be easily reversed if ratings lag or corporate priorities change.
Meanwhile, the Right continues to consolidate its media dominance, either through direct ownership of outlets or from the residual impact of three decades of successfully intimidating mainstream journalists.
While Fox News delivers its usual right-wing fare, similar viewpoints are common at outlets like CNBC and CNN. While the Rev. Moon's Washington Times still publishes its right-wing diatribes, the Washington Post, the flagship of the Watergate coverage in the 1970s, has evolved into a neoconservative newspaper, especially its opinion pages.
The media asymmetry is also not without real-life consequences.
Even after the resounding victories of Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats in 2008, there remains a primal fear among many Democrats from states dominated by right-wing media when votes come up on health-care reform or other progressive goals.
Indeed, it's hard to understand why Democrats from Montana, Arkansas and other states remain so timid if one doesn't factor in the continuing U.S. media imbalance, which is especially intimidating in parts of the country where the right-wing media dominance is almost total, where a politician can be demonized by Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and pro-Republican outlets with little opportunity to mount a public defense.
Walter Cronkite was surely not to blame for this ongoing distortion of the American media-political process. It was the failure of CBS and other mainstream news outlets to live up to Cronkite's standards that enabled the Right to take the United States down this destructive path.
The blame also must be shared by the American Left, especially liberals with deep pockets, for not backing honest journalists who told the truth despite threats of career retribution - and for not investing in a media infrastructure that could defend the principles that Cronkite left behind.