Several readers responded to last week’s Monitor on the departure of Dan Rather from CBS News by making reference to Rather’s predecessor, the legendary Walter Cronkite, as some sort of paragon of journalistic objectivity. The Monitor begs to differ.
It was Cronkite’s good fortune that his heyday came and went in the era prior to the arrival of cable news, talk radio and the Internet. In that far-off time, Americans watching television had to settle for the Big Three networks and a smattering of local stations. There was little recourse for viewers who weren’t comfortable with the narrow worldview promulgated by a relatively small group of liberal white men living and working in close proximity to one another within a few square blocks of prime Manhattan real estate – a neighborhood, if one can call it that, as unrepresentative of America as a neighborhood could possibly be.
In a such a homogeneous media universe, it was easy for men like Cronkite to assume that whatever they passed along to Mr. And Mrs. America would be accepted as unvarnished truth, free of any bias or spin. And, by and large, what they dished out night after night was accepted by most viewers, simply because there was no real means to effectively counter what the Big Boys at CBS, NBC and ABC were saying.
Indeed, Cronkite’s famous sign-off line, “And that’s the way it is,” conveyed a smug, satisfied arrogance that in a mere half-hour broadcast – 22 minutes after commercials – he and his colleagues had tied up the world in one nice easy package for the rubes in the hinterland.
The late Richard Salant, president of CBS News for much of Cronkite’s tenure, once admitted that “if I were a tyrannical boss, I would forbid Walter to end the Evening News that way.” Salant’s problem with that sign-off, wrote Gary Paul Gates in Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, was due “not so much to the line’s corniness as to its grossly misleading implication that viewers had just been informed of all the news there was to report.”
In the years since his retirement, Cronkite has revealed himself to be the liberal many of his critics always suspected him of being, which is his right, of course, but it does raise questions about the slant and emphasis he chose to use when putting together newscasts in the tumultuous Vietnam/Watergate years.
Cronkite has also revealed a daffy side, as when he responded a few months ago to a question from Esquire magazine about whether Oprah Winfrey would make a good president. “Well, apparently so,” he responded. “She seems to have an understanding of our problems. A great deal of that probably comes from being African-American and suffering the indignities of that. And se certainly has shown that she has a literate approach to solving problems. So I’d like to think she’d make a good president…”
This is the same Cronkite who, when a new videotape from Osama bin Laden surfaced a few days before the 2004 presidential election, saw it as some nefarious plot hatched in the bowels of the Bush White House. Appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 29, the Friday immediately preceding the election, Uncle Walter formally linked hands with nutjob conspiracy mongers:
“So now,” Cronkite told King, “the question is, basically, right now, how will this affect the election? And I have a feeling that it could tilt the election a bit. In fact, I’m inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manger of the White House, who is a very clever man, that he probably set up bin Laden to this thing…”
So it was all a Karl Rove production, according to the Sage of Black Rock. Can you just picture the scenario? Karl Rove, anxiously pondering the latest tracking polls that show a race too close to call with just days remaining, puts in a call to bin Laden, who’s been hiding in a cave somewhere, and asks him to give Bush a boost by releasing a video. That’s the way it is, apparently, inside the mind of Walter Cronkite.