Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's Not the Way It Is, Actually

Walter Cronkite, the doyen of broadcast news anchormen, has died at the age of 92. The response has been predictable, from eulogy among liberals to vituperation on the farther right, conveniently summarized by Roy Edroso. You can also find denunciations of "Che" Cronkite the far-left "surrendercrat" in comments at the liberal sites. (I take it that the "-crat" in "surrendercrat" is meant to imply that Cronkite was a card-carrying Democrat, though in fact he wasn't -- according to the New York Times obit, he was so friendly with Dwight Eisenhower that John Kennedy, no liberal himself, took for granted that Cronkite must be a Republican.)

Me, I'm somewhere between these extremes. I was eleven years old in 1962, when Cronkite became the face of CBS Evening News. I think I remember when the program was expanded from fifteen minutes to half an hour each night. I barely remember the man himself, though; he was so bland, so white-bread, that he was virtually invisible, which I suppose was his intention: to be "balanced," "objective," as a newsman should. His closing line for each broadcast, "That's the way it is," summed up that ethos neatly. Eric Sevareid, the program's resident pundit from 1964 to 1977, was more memorable, just because he was so annoying.

It was only later that I began to have any opinion on Cronkite's news coverage. Roy Edroso is vexed with a rightblogger who prefers "to have a big, giant, sloppy mish-mash of information available for the public to pick through than a carefully managed stream of news being spoon-fed to us by talking heads on television who became so trusted nobody dared question them." I'm inclined to agree with the rightblogger there, though the right generally prefers a managed stream of news, passing along the Republican line, that (trusted or not) nobody dares question; it's only when a Democrat is in the White House that the right wants a thousand flowers to bloom, news- and opinion-wise. But Edroso feels differently:
While I enjoy the big scrum as much as the next guy, as my coverage ceaselessly shows, it is also full of bullshit, and there are disadvantages as well as advantages to the caveat lector approach, particularly considering the dangerously elevated public relations and permanent campaign components of the blogosphere.
I can agree with Edroso too. I would only submit that the corporate media also exhibit "dangerously elevated public relations and permanent campaign components" (not to mention plenty of bullshit) and Cronkite was no exception. There's a tendency among liberals to lament the decadent state of the corporate media nowadays, and to cite Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow as exemplars of how serious news coverage should be done. But the news in the 60s was really just as corrupt and subservient to government and corporate agendas as it is now, and the range of information available from corporate outlets was as limited. I had to go to alternative sources, mostly in print because it's less capital-intensive than TV broadcasting, for other views.

The main focus of both the adulation and the condemnation appears to be Cronkite's editorial comment on the war in Vietnam on February 27, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, a nationwide campaign by Vietnamese insurgents that began on the Vietnamese lunar new year. Cronkite had just returned from a visit to South Vietnam, where he witnessed the collapse of the consensus that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the commies were on the run. Wikipedia sums up the result nicely: "Although the offensive was a military disaster for the communists, it had a profound effect on the American administration and shocked the American public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the communists were, due to previous defeats, incapable of launching such a massive effort." Cronkite remarked:
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. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But 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.
This is hardly a radical assessment; it's well within the mainstream of official American opinion about the war, beginning with the limiting of viewpoints to "optimists" who believed the US could win to the "pessimists" who believed it couldn't, at least not at an acceptable cost to us. It's why President Johnson reacted to the broadcast by saying that he'd lost Middle America -- because Cronkite said what other middle Americans believed, not because he told them what to think. There's also the characterization of the US as "honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy" -- in fact, the war in Vietnam was anti-democratic at its root, a refusal to allow the Vietnamese to determine their own government. It also ran roughshod over American public opinion, which had rejected the re-imposition of French colonial rule over Indochina after World War II, in 1945. 
Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for using American ships to transport an invasion army "to subjugate the native population" of Vietnam.
After the French finally gave up in 1954, the US took on the white man's burden, imposing a dictator on the South in violation of the international agreements -- a dictator we finally removed in 1963, when he showed insufficient dedication to our aims. The coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem, a few weeks before the assassination of John Kennedy, disproves the standard claim that the US was in Vietnam only because our "allies" there asked for our help against Communist aggression. In reality, when our ally could no longer carry out his expected duties, we tossed him aside.

Cronkite had already shown his willingness to go along with government propaganda on Vietnam when he filed a report in 1965 lauding then-dictator Nguyen Cao Ky. In his biography of the maverick journalist I. F. Stone, D. D. Guttenplan describes Cronkite hailing Ky as "a hero to the Vietnamese people" who "doesn't even go out to lunch but, like an American businessman, eats off the corner of his desk". Stone reported that "the playboy Air Force general" Ky considered Adolf Hitler to be his only hero (American Radical, page 443-444). Cronkite's personal reaction to the Tet Offensive was to shout "What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war!" (op. cit., 420). It's worth comparing Cronkite's 2004 take on the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, used by President Johnson to justify US escalation in Vietnam, with I. F. Stone's take, written in August 1964, showing what a journalist not subservient to the government and armed with healthy skepticism could know. In 2004 Cronkite was still calling the Tonkin Gulf incidents a "misunderstanding that became the tipping point for the entire Vietnam War," even though he showed that Johnson and McNamara understood very well what they were doing. As Stone wondered in 1964, "Who was Johnson trying to impress? Ho Chi Minh? Or Barry Goldwater?" (P.S. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the answer to that question would be that he was trying to impress Walter Cronkite.)

This rightblogger criticizes Cronkite's 1968 broadcast without quite explaining why he was wrong. In this commentary, he writes, Cronkite
overtly and figuratively stepped out from behind the microphone to add his personal commentary to the news. We had not seen this before. By doing so, Cronkite issued an implicit license to his journalistic colleagues to interject personal opinions into their factual reporting of the news. The difference is that Cronkite clearly labeled it as personal opinion, while many MSM news personalities today weave their opinions into reporting. His sentiment registered with many, perhaps most, of his viewers that night. He changed opinions by offering his own. But in hindsight, his analysis was wrong – dead wrong for some.
On the contrary, journalists often put personal opinions, as well as other value judgments, into their factual reporting of the news. When I hear old broadcasts by the likes of Edward O. Murrow, for example, I'm struck by how much commentary is woven into his supposedly factual reporting, such as his broadcasts from England during World War II. And as the writer concedes, Cronkite explicitly distinguished his editorial remarks that night from straight journalism.

The blogger goes on to complain:
Many of those of us who served in Vietnam do not look upon its ending as reflecting “honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy.” A compelling case can be made that we should never have sent troops to Vietnam in the first place. But we did. And then, after nearly 60,000 U.S. deaths and countless Vietnamese casualties, we bugged out. There’s no way to put an honorable face on that unavoidable truth.
It's not clear what this has to do with Cronkite's commentary. If Cronkite ever said that the US war in Vietnam ended honorably, the blogger doesn't offer any quotations. Cronkite called for the US to negotiate in good faith, which it never did; at most this means he was too optimistic about the outcome. As influential as he may have been, he didn't decide how US policy in Vietnam was going to play out during the decade after that broadcast, and that appears to be the blogger's complaint.

Nor does the blogger explain how the US might have achieved an honorable end. He complains that the US abandoned our South Vietnamese allies, "cut off their military aid, and watched while they suffered the consequences when the North Vietnamese blatantly ignored the negotiated resolution (they never intended to honor) that Cronkite advocated." The US had been violating negotiated resolutions in Vietnam at least since we undermined the 1954 Geneva Accords (we never intended to honor), and did so right through 1973, when the Nixon administration began violating the January Paris agreements (we never intended to honor). Under those circumstances the Vietnamese were no longer bound by the agreements anyway, and began fighting back -- not only the Northerners, but Southerners who opposed the Saigon regime. But you wouldn't have learned that from Walter Cronkite either.

True to form, in 2006 Uncle Walt was saying that the war in Iraq was unwinnable and we could and should leave honorably, though a year later he was at least admitting that it had been "illegal from the start." That's progress of a kind, I guess.

"College students nowadays get their information from blogs and Comedy Central, not CBS," writes a pundit at the New York Times. She says that like it's a bad thing. The Times also quotes the current president of CBS News to the effect that "Viewers and Web readers now ... 'are so used to being assaulted by so many streams of media that it’s hard for them to imagine that there were only three or four ways to get news and information on TV.'" But the news I got from CBS, NBC, and ABC in the sixties and seventies was blinkered, biased, and often inaccurate. The crazed, paranoid leftists who criticized those institutions usually turned out to be right.

Even now, the range of news and information in the corporate media is severely limited. More voices are better as far as I'm concerned, but you still have to treat them critically. "Objectivity" is like a rainbow -- it can perhaps be approached but never attained, and in human affairs it may not even be desirable. Better to recognize that people have their interests and biases, instead of trying to find the kindly, calm, avuncular anchorperson who will spoon-feed you the truth each night for half an hour. The encomia to Cronkite kept mentioning the time he wiped away a tear while announcing the death of John F. Kennedy, as though pretending not to feel emotion 99% of the time were some kind of ideal, and the occasional lapse was proof of the robot's inner humanity. The adulation of Cronkite has more to do with nostalgia, and perhaps childish fantasies of a good daddy figure, than with whatever virtues he had as a newsman.