Walter Cronkite believed his "proudest" moment as a journalist occurred when he told the nation that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, despite rosy rhetoric from the Johnson White House and Defense Department. Following his death last week, various network news tributes replayed footage of Cronkite's influential '68 on-air editorial. Yet scrubbed from the memorializing were similar instances of Cronkite's journalistic candor regarding Iraq, such as his 2006 call for withdrawal from a war he went on to describe as "illegal from the start," initiated on "false pretenses" and a "terrible disaster" serving "no purpose" that has "probably made us less safe."
But the most revealing omission from these tributes -- especially in context to the pageant of eulogies extolling Cronkite's journalistic integrity -- may be his response to a reporter's question during a 2006 news conference.
As reported in The Independent UK at the time:
When a reporter asked [Cronkite] whether, given the chance, he would offer similar advice on Iraq [as he had on Vietnam], he did not even wait until the end of the question. "Yes," he said flatly. "It's my belief that we should get out now."
For Cronkite, the question was simple, his answer emphatic. No need to chew it over, to seek a mealy-mouthed moderate reaction to address the Bush administration's unprecedented extremism, brutality and lawlessness. Doing so would mean that he was operating within their narrative, not his.
It was at this same conference that Cronkite said, "The editorializing that I did on the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and I think helped speed the end of that war, that was-that I'm proudest of."
Six weeks later, when asked if his words about the Iraq War would have the same effect as his statement to the nation on Vietnam, he demurred, "Well, I think it's a little late for that now." But then he added, "I would like to think it would be helpful in getting us out of there. Anybody who can put another match to that fire, to get us out would be, I think, welcome."
But he certainly wasn't holding his breath for any of his network news heirs to strike another match.
As The Nation journalist John Nichols reported last Friday:
As the war in Iraq went horribly awry, I asked Cronkite whether a network anchorman would dare speak out in the same way that he had?
"I think it could happen, yes. I don't think it's likely to happen," he said with an audible sigh. "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."
Nichols also asked Cronkite if he thought he would have spoken out against the Iraq War if he were still an anchorman. Cronkite's reply is not only, once again, unequivocal but a desperately needed correction to the warped view of journalistic principles that permeate today's network newsrooms, a sane and responsible recalibration of the meaning of "fair and balanced."
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"Yes, yes I do. I think that right now it would be critical to do so," he told me a few months after the invasion in 2003. "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."
Nichols reported as well that Cronkite was concerned "that broadcast news -- his medium -- had grown too deferrent [sic] to power, too stenographic, too consolidated."
In his post "Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did," Salon's Glenn Greenwald rightly criticizes the procession of network news stars who praised Cronkite's career but have failed to adhere to Cronkite's journalistic standards and to reflect on the consequential glaring shortcomings of their own performance or that of their colleagues.
Underscoring the widespread abdication of traditional, democratic journalistic principles from network news coverage, Greenwald juxtaposes Cronkite's on-air Vietnam moment with a quote by Meet the Press moderator and former Bush 43 White House correspondent David Gregory's 2008 statement deflecting criticism:
"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.
If reporting facts, providing substantive context and telling us when our elected officials are lying is not Gregory and his colleagues' role, then I respectfully suggest another title: public relations officer (PRO). The acronym seems fitting as well.
Incidentally, Cronkite also cautioned America about invading Iraq from the beginning. Another Iraq War-related casualty in the recreation of Uncle Walter's journey.
Just as the war was under way, Cronkite spoke at a Drew University forum, where, as reported in the Daily Record, he said "he feared the war would not go smoothly, ripped the 'arrogance' of Bush and his administration and wondered whether the new U.S. doctrine of 'pre-emptive war' might lead to unintended, dire consequences."
And that's the way it was.