Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite's Passing and the Erosion of Journalistic Standards

Given that I am of a younger generation, I never had the experience of watching Walter Cronkite report the news for CBS. Instead, I have relied upon clips that can be found on the Internet and old documentaries as well as written studies and documentation throughout my ever continuing education over the years. His impact and status as an iconic figure of television news cannot be disputed and his role as an important and critical journalist should be championed.

Given that news can be reported and analyzed instantly in the age of the Internet and through blogs such as this one, it turns out that many have already weighed in on Cronkite's importance and legacy. For me, Cronkite reminded me of days that preceded rampant media consolidation and a time when reporting truth did not get slapped down with the phrase "liberal media bias". Cronkite was a journalist who cut through the political spin, wartime propaganda, and used his voice to report the facts.

Today, if we are looking for this type of coverage, we are forced to seek out independent media sources that have not been tainted by consolidation or beltway political ideology. Our so-called "mainstream media" (with the exception of a few individuals) has fallen prey to corporate interests and instead of reporting the truth about war, helped to blindly lead us into one. We have indeed fallen a long way since the days when Walter Cronkite's sober and tempered tone was broadcast into the homes of millions of Americans and I fear that the passing of Cronkite was preceded years ago by a media that was dedicated to truth and accountability.

In his piece today, Robert Parry wrote of what he calls "Cronkite's Unintended Legacy":

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.

Parry goes on to analyze how the political Right in the U.S. viewed Cronkite as responsible for the loss of the Vietnam War (due to his on-air criticism of what the public was being fed from Washington) and also how the Right began to organize their own media while attacking mainstream journalists for their "liberal" views. It was during this time period when the label "liberal media" began to emerge and as time went on, you could see the growth of the right through various mediums such as books, magazines, talk radio, and television. News media began to take on a different shape, one that had eroded the quality of journalism and too often relied on uncritical reporting. I am not sure if this is the "unintended legacy" of Cronkite, or the intended outcome of the political Right and made possible by the Left. Again from Parry:

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.

These final two paragraphs of Parry's piece align perfectly with Cronkite's own biggest regret (h/t GG):

What 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.

In voicing his biggest regret, there is an acknowledgement that the mainstream media's basic journalistic standards have eroded and as a result the way in which we see issues of great importance presented, is misleading. Is it any surprise then that the coverage of Cronkite's own death would been seen through a particular frame? It wasn't a surprise to Glenn Greenwald:

(emphasis mine)

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.

Despite 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.

Greenwald's last sentence is perhaps the most telling and important when discussing just how far backward the so-called "mainstream" media has slipped over the years. Members of the media do not even view it as their responsibility to critically report, they merely provide a voice to the Democrats and to the Republicans, (often filtering out any other views) call it objectivity and then call it a day. This allows for the facts to be subjective and for lies and misrepresentations to hold the same weight as facts. One need look no further than the comments that David Gregory made on MSNBC on May 28, 2008 in defending the job that the media did prior to the Iraq War:

"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"

Compare Gregory's quote with this quote from Cronkite on the CBS Evening News on February 27, 1968:

"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"

Is it any wonder why Cronkite's biggest regret was the failure of passing his generation's standards of journalism down to the next?

This piece is crossposted here.

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