Walter Cronkite and the US news media–let the hagiographic dance go on

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BONUS FEATURE: Exit NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a nonentity in the service of wealth and power (see bottom of our main feature). cronkiteEditor’s Note: This article is far more interested in exposing the bankruptcy of modern commercial media than to deny Walter Cronkite’s personal qualities as a media figure and influential celebrity. He was, after all (unfortunately mostly during his retirement) an outspoken critic of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and his creds as a solid left-liberal are in good order. The current tsunami of disgusting adulation lavished on his memory by the mind managers is entirely a reflection of their own prostituted values and goals and does not detract one iota from this legendary anchor’s own example as a relatively sober-minded television journalism professional. For all the hagiographic outpouring, Cronkite belonged to another, somewhat less cynical age, and despite his flaws, he still had too much integrity for today’s media culture. It’s doubtful that he’d be hired today by those who pull the strings at the top. By David Walsh, Senior editor for cultural issues, World Socialist Web Site
20 July 2009

Walter Cronkite, a fixture in a great many American homes as host of the CBS evening news from 1962 to 1981, died in New York City July 17 at the age of 92.

Inevitably, a good deal of what is being said about Cronkite in the American media is self-congratulatory and self-serving. In part, the various commentators overpraise the former CBS newsman, painting him as the soul of objectivity and insight, in hopes that a little of the television networks’ former “glory,” by extension, will render the present deplorable and discredited state of broadcast journalism more attractive.

There is also no doubt a nostalgic longing within elements of the media, without the intelligence or moral capacities that would be needed to make it something more than a vague wish, for a return to a time when television reporters were looked upon, with a certain amount of justice, as individuals of substance.

The decline in the quality and seriousness of the television news programs over the past several decades has been accompanied by an astonishing drop in viewership. In 1980, the year before Cronkite gave up his evening news slot at CBS, total viewership of the evening news programs on CBS, NBC and ABC was 52.1 million, and 42.3 percent of US households tuned in to the programs.

Over the past quarter-century the number of viewers for the networks’ evening news has fallen approximately one million per year. In 2008, some 22.8 million viewers watched the programs, a decline of 53 percent since 1980. Only 15.6 percent of American households tuned in to the programs, down 61 percent in the same period. Moreover, the median age of nightly news viewers was 61.3 years for all three network newscasts in 2008.

CronkitejfkdeathA Gallup poll at the end of December 2008 found that for 31 percent of Americans, the Internet is now a daily news source, a 50 percent increase since 2006.

The network news programs, concoctions of superficial “sound bites,” half-truths and outright pro-government and pro-military propaganda, fully deserve their ratings crisis. The cable channels, which have gathered their own following, are no alternative, having concentrated their recruiting efforts, it would seem, on well-coiffed, but otherwise unprepared men and women quite at a loss when anything interrupts their carefully rehearsed presentations.

Analyzing the extent to which Cronkite represented something different, and better, involves considering how the US political and media establishment as a whole has shifted in the past several decades, under conditions of the decline of American capitalism in global economic terms. Different historical periods produce different public personalities.

The repudiation of New Deal or even Kennedy-like liberalism and the relentless war on the remnants of the welfare state, as well as the spelling out of—and acting upon—the doctrine of the unlimited right of American imperialism to use force wherever and whenever it likes (the so-called Bush Doctrine, pursued as well in all its important aspects by the Barack Obama administration), calls “from the vasty deep” a different sort of human type than that represented by Cronkite. Today’s anchor people, paid vast sums of money, without important knowledge or scruples, conduits for the “official story” in virtually every case, are a sorry lot.

Cronkite emerged as a reporter under different historical conditions. The son of a dentist, born in St. Joseph, Missouri on the eve of US entry into World War I, Cronkite initially pursued journalism in the middle of the Depression in Houston, Texas. After a brief stint in radio back in Missouri, he went to work for United Press (UP), the news service, becoming a World War II correspondent. Cronkite covered a number of critical battles, including the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge.

The narrow postwar political framework, however, within which these individuals would subsequently be obliged to operate was established early on. In 1947, Shirer, perhaps the most talented of the crowd, was forced out at CBS, without Murrow’s coming to his assistance, for criticizing the Truman Doctrine (that the US, as leader of the “free world,” must lead a worldwide crusade against communism) and the network’s kowtowing to corporate sponsors. Shirer was named in Red Channels, the anti-communist tract published in 1950, and blacklisted for all intents and purposes. Cronkite was not of that stature. He apparently found no great difficulty in accepting the limits set by the American establishment during the Cold War. He was known to be critical, as was Murrow, of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist witch-hunting, but he made a career for himself nonetheless.


After the war, significantly, he was the chief UP correspondent at the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders; Cronkite also served a stint as the wire service’s Moscow bureau chief.

Cronkite’s career in television, where he was truly to make his name, began in 1950, when he was invited to join CBS News by Edward R. Murrow. Prior to and during the war, Murrow gathered around him at CBS a number of talented journalists, including William L. Shirer (future author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich); Eric Sevareid, who had had contact with the left in Minneapolis as a student; Charles Collingwood, who would be an outspoken critic of McCarthyism; Howard K. Smith, a fixture at CBS and later ABC until the late 1970s; Richard Hottelet, another UP correspondent, who remained with CBS News for 41 years; Larry LeSueur, who wrote a book about his experiences on the Russian front, “Twelve Months That Changed the World,” and others.

On top of the desperation and upheaval of the Depression, and the New Deal, a number of these reporters experienced fascism in Europe in a personal and intimate fashion.

In 1940 Smith interviewed Hitler at his retreat in Berchtesgaden, along with Himmler and Goebbels. When he refused to include Nazi propaganda in his reports, the Gestapo seized his notes and threw him out of the country. Hottelet was arrested by the Nazis as a suspected spy at the outset of World War II, and imprisoned for four months.

Shirer was present in Vienna for the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Based in Berlin during the pre-war period, he attended Hitler’s major meetings, including several of the Nuremberg rallies.

These individuals went through and were marked by genuine and significant experiences. Cronkite too came of age intellectually at that time. Having reported on great events, he and the others had a certain conception of being a newsman—as an exposer of truths and big injustices—and even a capacity for moral outrage.

The narrow postwar political framework, however, within which these individuals would subsequently be obliged to operate was established early on. In 1947, Shirer, perhaps the most talented of the crowd, was forced out at CBS, without Murrow’s coming to his assistance, for criticizing the Truman Doctrine (that the US, as leader of the “free world,” must lead a worldwide crusade against communism) and the network’s kowtowing to corporate sponsors. Shirer was named in Red Channels, the anti-communist tract published in 1950, and blacklisted for all intents and purposes.

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<<< Cronkite shakes Reagan’s hand, a dubious distinction conferring legitimacy on the former.

Cronkite was not of that stature. He apparently found no great difficulty in accepting the limits set by the American establishment during the Cold War. He was known to be critical, as was Murrow, of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist witch-hunting, but he made a career for himself nonetheless.

He began doing the news for a CBS station in Washington, D.C, and by 1953 he was appearing on nationally aired public affairs programs. Cronkite narrated the first episode in the semi-documentary series You Are There in February of that year.

The program, which made use of a number of blacklisted actors and writers (including Walter Bernstein and Arnold Manoff in the latter category), as well as several future feature film directors (Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and Bernard Girard), recreated famous historical events, with CBS News reporters, in modern dress, interviewing the various participants. Each program would end with Cronkite intoning, “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… and you were there.” As pompous as this may sound, the program had an undeniable gravitas.

It may be that Cronkite eventually became the anchor on the CBS evening news program precisely because he was something of a lowest common denominator. In late 1961 competition for the job emerged between Collingwood, Sevareid and “the outsider, Walter Cronkite,” journalist David Halberstam notes in his The Powers That Be (2000).

Halberstam argues that Cronkite’s “style was now more compatible with what the show needed. His roots were in the wire service, he was the embodiment of the wire-service man sprung to life, speed, simplicity, scoop, a ten-minute beat … He came through to his friends and to his listeners alike as straight, clear, and simple, more interested in hard news than analysis. … He looked like Middle America, there was nothing slick about his looks (he was the son of a dentist in St. Joe, Missouri, and his accent was midwestern). He was from the heartland, and people from the Midwest are considered trustworthy, they are of the soil rather than of the sidewalks, and in American mythology the soil teaches real values and the sidewalks teach shortcuts.”

Cronkite retained the anchor job at CBS for nearly twenty years, famously announcing the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, along with other traumatic events of those explosive decades. In February 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, in which Vietnamese nationalist forces stunned the US military, Cronkite toured the southeast Asian country and on his return reported his “personal” conclusions to his viewers:

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. …

“[I]t 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.”

President Lyndon Johnson is alleged to have watched the program and commented, more or less, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” In the midst of growing anti-war sentiment and turmoil, Johnson announced his decision not to run for another term as president on March 31.

Later, in 1968, Cronkite grew visibly angry over the brutal treatment of anti-war protesters outside the Democratic national convention in Chicago at the hands of city police and referred to the latter as “thugs.” Around this time, Cronkite was voted “the most trusted man” in America.

The technological transformation of the evening news during Cronkite’s tenure (at the time he became anchorman, the CBS evening news was a 15-minute broadcast produced in primitive conditions) and its sociological transformation into a critical instrument for shaping and manipulating public opinion on a daily basis, are subjects for a separate discussion.

Inevitably, no one in his position escapes becoming an institution, and there is no need to portray Cronkite in unduly glowing colors. He was, in the end, a figure of the liberal establishment. His oft-noted enthusiasm for the US space program (he also reported on the landing of the first man on the moon 40 years ago), while no doubt genuine, seemed motivated as well by the desire to see Americans unified around something “uplifting” in a period of discontent and strife. Still, one can also see in his excitement over space exploration a genuine belief and confidence in science and progress.

Cronkite lived through or witnessed significant and world-changing events, the Depression, fascism in Europe, the war, the McCarthyite purges, as well as the civil rights movement and the upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He clearly maintained, and this is now almost entirely lost in the American media, a democratic sensibility and a feeling for ordinary people.

In Reporting America at War (Michelle Ferrari and James Tobin, 2003), for example, Cronkite is quoted in the following manner: “I think it’s one of the reasons why news people, as a group, are inclined to be more liberal than others. They live with the common people. I’m talking about the beat reporters. This isn’t true of anchor people today or of editors sitting back in the home office. But those who are out there with the people understand a great deal more about what the average man and woman have to live through.

“I think that, in some ways, the high pay of editors and anchor people today is unfortunate, because it has removed them from the actual environment of the working man in America. In my early days as a reporter, our salaries were equivalent to a fireman’s, a policeman’s, a stock clerk’s and those were the people we drank with in the evening. Those were the people whose budget problems we understood.”

In the comments he also criticized the increasing determination of the US military to suppress the truth about its interventions. He noted that “any war situation … is the most intimate commitment that the American government can make of its people. … We need to know every detail about how they [US troops] are performing in our name, both when they perform well and when they perform badly. It’s most important when they perform badly, as a matter of fact. So war should be covered intimately.”

He went on: “Today we have no independent film of the [1991] Persian Gulf War—none—because our correspondents, our film crews, were not permitted to go out on the front with the troops. They should have been. The tape they shot should have been sent back to censorship. If it couldn’t be released immediately, at least it would be held for eventual release and for history. We don’t have that history now. That history is lost to us. It’s a crime against the democracy.”

The processes Cronkite refers to have qualitatively deepened and worsened. There is no news coverage worth speaking about of the neo-colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US media has become little more than an arm of the state and the military.

BONUS FEATURE:

Exit NBC anchor Tom Brokaw: a nonentity in the service of wealth and power

By David Walsh
6 December 2004

tom_brokaw

Brokaw in corporate promo pose: the professional dragon slayer, fearlessly chasing after the malefactors of great wealth. In reality, anything but.

With a great deal of undeserved fanfare, NBC Nightly News anchorman Tom Brokaw delivered his final broadcast December 1. Brokaw was an American celebrity—in Oscar Wilde’s words, he was well known for being well known. His bowing out after 21 years on the job predictably became one of the major news stories of the day.

A self-satisfied nonentity, who has made no contribution to America’s understanding of itself or the world, Brokaw was praised as having the values of the “heartland,” one of the “plain-spoken figures that lean on tradition and instinct.” The news reader was feted as something akin to a modern-day Abraham Lincoln.

Brokaw is a very wealthy spokesman for the American ruling elite, who has never to anyone’s knowledge uttered a genuinely controversial sentence or formulated a thought that would make the powers-that-be lose any sleep. In recent years he has been earning, simply in his anchorman capacity, something in the vicinity of $7 million a year. This is in addition to income gained from authoring the best-seller, The Greatest Generation, his homage to the generation that fought in World War II. Brokaw now plans to spend more time on his 5,000-acre ranch near Yellowstone Park in Montana. He will be missed by few, and remembered by even fewer.

In the two decades during which Brokaw presided over the NBC evening news the American media suffered a dreadful decline. Television news, in particular, has been transformed by economic and political processes into a purely profit-driven operation. More fundamentally, television news programs, packaged (and on occasion criticized) as entertainment, have become organs of state propaganda, transmitting the policies and claims of increasingly right-wing administrations in Washington as “news” and “facts.”

While millions of people around the globe, including in the US, marched in the streets in February 2003 to protest the imminent illegal American invasion of Iraq, Brokaw was reporting from the northern frontier of Kuwait, extolling the virtues of “a new band of brothers preparing for the first war of the 21st century.” As one commentator observed, Brokaw and other US media personalities, like CBS’s Dan Rather, “were already wearing khakis in the desert, driving humvees, profiling soldiers, hitching rides on helicopters and previewing high-tech weaponry.”

Of course, aside from supporting the general interests of American capitalism, Brokaw and his NBC crew at times have an even more specific, although unmentioned agenda. It has been noted that when Brokaw and his colleagues praise the performance of the F/A-18 Hornet jet, for instance, they fail to note that NBC’s parent company, General Electric, produces the engine for the aircraft.

Chilling as the thought may be, on a daily basis in America official public opinion is organized through the narrow and corrupt channels of the “Today” show (NBC) and “Good Morning America” (ABC) in the mornings, the three network evening news programs, the interviews conducted by the incarnation of the lowest common denominator, Larry King on CNN, the monologues of late-night TV hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman, and, finally, offering the latest views of the US State Department, Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline.”

This entire operation, as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun, resumes each morning. On a daily basis, the American public is deliberately lied to, mystified, benumbed and degraded. The propaganda machine is dedicated to the principle that nothing that matters to wide layers of the population should be treated with honesty or objectivity.

The decline in the American television news has resulted from definite socio-political processes and the changes in personnel that inevitably accompany such changes. Different eras and outlooks call for correspondingly different personalities.

There was never a golden age of US television journalism. The medium as a mass phenomenon came into being during the Cold War, firmly under the control of large corporate interests. Nonetheless, those who dominated television news programming in the first decades of its existence were men and women who, for the most part, had lived through and been deeply influenced by the Depression and the Second World War. They shared a more democratic outlook, including a healthy hatred of fascist totalitarianism.

Among the most prominent names is that of Edward R. Murrow who, along with his associates William Shirer (eventually a victim of McCarthyism), Eric Sevareid, Richard C. Hottelet, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood and others, began in radio, broadcasting news from Europe during the war. Murrow’s career spanned the infancy of radio news and public affairs programming and the ascendancy of television news in the 1950s.

A liberal and anti-communist, Murrow criticized Joseph McCarthy in a broadcast in March 1954, declaring: “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility.”

Murrow is also famous for his Harvest of Shame program, an hour-long study of the plight of migratory workers in the US broadcast in November 1960.

Sevareid too, who eventually became the news commentator on CBS’s evening news program with Walter Cronkite, was an outspoken critic of McCarthy. He attended the University of Minnesota during the period of tumultuous labor struggles in the early 1930s. Collingwood was also well known for his hostility to the anti-communist witch-hunts.

These individuals were not geniuses, nor searching social critics, but they possessed some substance, including a modicum of backbone, and they revealed an ability to think. Some, like Cronkite, became open critics of the Vietnam War.

From the early 1980s, coinciding with America’s loss of worldwide economic hegemony, television news became dominated by a different human breed, uncritical cheerleaders for US foreign policy, particularly its increasingly numerous military interventions: Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and the first attack on Iraq, the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

The new personnel comprised different types. There were the political prostitutes like Peter Jennings of ABC’s “World News Tonight” (he also became anchorman in 1983), who began in Canadian television, and knows full well—or, at least, once knew—that much of what he is repeating nightly is false and ridiculous.

Brokaw, born in South Dakota in 1940, is another type, the mediocre nonentity. Chameleon-like, the Brokaws of this world are prepared to adapt themselves to whatever the ruling elite demands. Without strong conviction, but blessed with what passes for good looks and good hair, such individuals think nothing of jumping on reactionary bandwagons, such as the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, to make their mark or gain in the ratings.

In The Greatest Generation, Brokaw resorted to pure hokum, resurrecting and marketing World War II for his own careerist interests and to justify the present-day ambitions of American imperialism. It would never occur to Brokaw that the cause of those millions who died fighting fascism was similar in character to the present-day struggle against US aggression and militarism all over the world.

Brokaw’s integrity and seriousness as a journalist might be measured in the following manner. How many interviews did he conduct from March 2003 until his retirement with opponents of the Iraq war? Despite the widespread opposition in the American population to the invasion, we feel safe in saying that Brokaw did not carry out a single in-depth conversation with a critic of Bush administration policy. Such interviews would not be “news.” On the other hand, he has provided a friendly platform on numerous occasions over the years for that reactionary blowhard Rush Limbaugh.

While they still churn out profits for the networks—reportedly each of the network newscasts has made more than $118 million in revenue in the first nine months of 2004 (advertisements cost some $50,000 for 30 seconds)—the evening newscasts have suffered a serious erosion in their viewing audience. In 1970-71, 75 percent of US viewers watched one of the three evening news programs; by 1994-95, that figure had dropped to 52 percent; this year, with 300 cable channels and the Internet as competition, NBC, ABC and CBS command only 36 percent of the potential audience, some 26 million viewers. The median age of the network newscast viewer is 60. This, in itself, is an expression of growing popular mistrust and alienation from the official media organs.

Characteristically, the growth of interest in the Internet, particularly among young people, alarmed Brokaw, both for its political and economic implications. In an interview several years ago, he revealed his profoundly anti-democratic conceptions, asserting that cyberspace should be managed for younger audiences.

“We can’t let that generation and a whole segment of the population just slide away out to the Internet and retrieve what information it wants without being in on it,” he declared. “I also believe strongly that the Internet works best when there are gatekeepers. When there are people making determinations and judgments about what information is relevant and factual and useful. Otherwise, it’s like going to the rainforest and just seeing a green maze.” Bring on the Thought Police!

In reality, the corporate monopoly of the means by which the American population receives the bulk of its news and information represents a deep threat to democratic rights in the US and around the world. The confusion that made possible the election of a Bush is evidence enough that large numbers of people in the US consume mass quantities of misinformation.

The shameless promotion of the Iraq war by Brokaw, Jennings and Rather during the run-up to the invasion, including their cover-up of obvious lies, epitomizes the foul role played by the “free press” in contemporary American life. On the basis of their role in this murderous war alone, the media conglomerates deserve to be broken up, turned into public utilities and placed under the democratic control of the population.

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6 comments on “Walter Cronkite and the US news media–let the hagiographic dance go on
  1. Cronkite clearly appears as a giant when contrasted to the featherweights who succeeded him. In fact, not withstanding some mild objections, virtually all of the old CBS crowd readily adapted to corporatization of the news. As you noted, Cronkite only found his true voice after he was collecting a fat pension and sailing leisurely at sea. Murrow was perhaps the most outspoken during his tenure, but even he didn’t resign in protest–leaving only to take a shameful job with USIA, nothing more than a propaganda arm of the government. He might as well have continued kissing Paley’s ass.

    [DISCLOSURE: Comment filed by Editor at large Ed Duvin]

  2. Cronkite was not an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. See Chomsky and Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent and look up Cronkite in the index. He did in 1968 (during the Tet Offensive) refer to the war as a “bloody stalemate” and he questioned the strategic wisdom of the war at that time and afterward. But he never questioned the core premises behind, or the morality of the war, really. The right jumped all over his “stalemate” comment and turned that into supposed evidence of some kind of excessive left-liberalism on Cronkite’s part — total nonsene.

    Paul Street

  3. I agree with the above commenters, entirely. Cronkite showed once again that even so-called left liberals are at the end of the day ineffective and wimpish in response to the ills of advanced capitalism.

  4. I don’t doubt that Cronkite was a useful tool of our corporate-militarist state. (Back in the day, I was actually more imprssed by Eric Severeid than by Uncle Walter.) Nevertheless, to really feel the poignancy of Cronkite’s passing, we need focus less on his shortcomings and more on the accelerating decline of our news media since Cronkite’s retirement in 1981. With newsmen like Cronkite, Murrow, Severeid, it was still possible to believe that our Republic might straighten up and fly right; that for once in history the omnipotent power might, in the words of MLK, live out the true meaning of its creed–live up to its principles. With the likes of Brokaw, Cutesy Katie Couric, Hannity, O’Reiley, Limbaugh, et. al., only a glaze-eyed wanderer in NeverNeverLand could think our Empire will transform itself peacefully.

  5. The corporate newsmedia took a proactive part in selling to the public the absurd and utterly ridiculous notion of 4 airliners being hijacked by foreign terrorists, outfoxing the mighty US air defence and hitting 3 high-profile targets on American soil.

    Please watch SEPTEMBER CLUES and make up your own mind on how 9/11 was pulled off – and how TV was an essential part of this covert operation to create a false pretext for endless, hugely lucrative wars.

    http://tinurl.com/septclues

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