With his measured calm and seriousness of purpose, Walter Cronkite set a high standard for television journalism that has rarely been met since his retirement in 1981. But the legendary CBS anchorman who died Friday also may have unintentionally contributed to the American Left's dangerous complacency about media.
Though far from perfect, the Cronkite generation stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy's red-baiting, showed the nation the injustices of racial segregation, revealed the brutality of the Vietnam War (even while being largely sympathetic to its goals), exacted some measure of accountability for President Richard Nixon's political crimes and took a generally serious approach to informing the citizenry.
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.
The American Right, however, had a different perspective. Right-wingers saw the Cronkite-era news media as the enemy "" undermining McCarthy's anti-communist crusade, laying the groundwork for an integrated America, eroding public support for the Vietnam War, hounding Nixon from office, and concentrating public attention on various social problems.
"To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion," Cronkite said. "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."
After the broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country." Johnson began serious negotiations aimed at ending the war before he left office, an endeavor that the Nixon campaign surreptitiously sabotaged.
In 1972, Cronkite also gave traction to the investigation of Nixon's Watergate spying by devoting 14 minutes of one newscast to explain the complex political-corruption story.
Plotting on the Right
By the mid-1970s, with the Vietnam War lost and Nixon ousted, key strategists on the Right pondered how to make sure another Watergate scandal wouldn't unseat a future Republican President and how to guarantee that another anti-war movement wouldn't sink a future Vietnam War.
The Right settled on a two-pronged media strategy: build an ideologically committed right-wing media and organize anti-press attack groups that would put mainstream journalists on the defensive.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, a vertically integrated right-wing media machine took shape, reaching from print forms like books, newspapers and magazines to electronic forms like cable TV, talk radio and the Internet. Wealthy right-wingers poured tens of billions of dollars into this process.
The investment made sure that Americans across the country got a steady diet of right-wing propaganda from radios, TV and print products, while mainstream journalists who dug up information that challenged the Right's propaganda came under coordinated attack. Many independent-minded journalists were pushed to the margins or forced out of the profession altogether.