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The Cronkite Tragedy

By James Taranto
July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite will be remembered for two things: a career that spanned six decades, during which he personified the 20th-century journalistic ideal of the newsman as an objective and authoritative purveyor of facts; and an incident in which he departed from that ideal, with far-reaching consequences for the country and the news business.

As The Wall Street Journal recounts in its obituary, Cronkite got his start in journalism in the mid-1930s, writing freelance stories while a student at the University of Texas. He dropped out of college to join the staff of the Houston Press and was later hired by the United Press wire service. He covered World War II on the front lines, filing dispatches from Germany, Normandy and North Africa. After the war he worked as the UP’s Moscow bureau chief, returning to America in 1950 to join CBS. He became anchorman of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962, and by the time he retired in 1981, Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America,” a superlative that had been confirmed the previous year in a Ladies Home Journal Poll.

But in his own mind--and in the minds of many of his critics and admirers alike--the most important moment in his career came when he departed from the newsman’s role to play editorialist. The occasion was a just-completed reporting trip to Vietnam, where he had reported on the Tet Offensive:

On his return, Mr. Cronkite presented a withering assessment of the prospects for a U.S. victory, one of the few moments during 19 years in the anchor’s chair when he swerved from his just-the-facts approach. It was said that President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”
At a 2006 news conference, Mr. 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.”

But Cronkite’s editorializing made him into part of the story. And Vietnam was not just any story; it was the central political and cultural conflict in America for several years beginning in the late 1960s. By taking sides, Cronkite compromised his role as a newsman. In the early ’70s, on his own network’s top-rated show, he was called “commie Cronkite.“ To be sure, viewers were meant to take Archie Bunker for a fool, but the makers of “All in the Family” understood that their colleague in the news division had become a combatant in the culture wars.

Judged on his whole career, Cronkite’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness was well-deserved. He was a great newsman. But his greatness, paradoxically, made the effect of his lapse much more damaging. It sowed confusion among younger reporters about the difference between reporting and commentary. Take this remembrance from Jim Poniewozik of Time magazine:

Despite his comments on the war--or because of them--Cronkite cemented a reputation as a straight shooter. His successors, at CBS and elsewhere, would later be denounced as biased hacks for far less opinionated statements. Maybe Cronkite benefited from working in a time when Americans simply had more trust in authority. But it may also be that he earned that trust--that by calling a quagmire what it was, he showed that a false even-handedness that flies in the face of reality is not the same as honesty.

Being a “straight shooter” means something quite different to a news reporter than an editorialist. The distinction is analogous to that between a judge deciding a case and a lawyer arguing one, or between an umpire and a coach. No one doubts that Cronkite was sincere in his opinion about Vietnam, and the argument over its merits is beyond the scope of today’s column. As a reporter, however, he had a duty to stick to the facts and leave opinions to others.

He almost always lived up to that duty, but the one time he manifestly fell short, it ended up having great and baneful consequences. Do you remember a few years ago when one of the networks declared the conflict in Iraq to be a “civil war”? Neither does anyone else. It was a transparent attempt to do to Iraq what Cronkite had done to Vietnam. It failed because viewers no longer trust newsmen the way they did in 1968. And it is a vicious circle: Without the authority that derives from that trust, reporters get careless about objectivity, weakening the audience’s trust even further.

The glory of Walter Cronkite’s career is that he did more than anyone to earn his viewers’ trust and establish his profession’s authority. The tragedy is that he also did more than anyone else to undermine them.

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