Cronkite better before he was anchorman

The recent passing of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was the occasion for considerable media navel gazing, most of which either waxed nostalgic or sought to channel his luster. The best commentary was by Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal. Rabinowitz agrees that Cronkite was a major force in broadcast journalism, but her more nuanced analysis recalls the days before Cronkite became famous and signed off every night with the portentous judgment that "that’s the way it is, [fill in day and date]." Millions of people hung on every word "Uncle Walter" uttered with such authority, which he ultimately abused. (More below.)

As much as Rabinowitz is willing give Cronkite kudos for his dedication to getting facts straight, she admires more, as do I, the journalist who, in World War II, not only rode in a B-17 Flying Fortress above Germany but was also in uniform "wielding a machine gun at the enemy." Less hazardous, but surely patriotic, was Cronkite’s willingness, along with other TV network commentators such as NBC’s Chet Huntley, to narrate documentaries showing the evil of communist regimes.

My favorite was "Revolt in Hungary," in which Cronkite chronicled the desperate attempt of Hungarian patriots to drive the Russians out of their country in 1956, along the way indicting the United Nations and the United States for inaction.

By the time Cronkite assumed his lofty network perch, journalism had succumbed to the conceit of "neutrality," which forbade its practitioners from taking sides between the country which secured their freedom (and everyone else’s) and regimes which crushed it.

Hence, it was only a mild surprise when, after three years of America fighting the Vietnam War with a combination of World War II tactics and presidential micro management, the enemy in 1968 launched its Tet Offensive, Cronkite concluded that the war was unwinnable.

President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said that "If we’ve lost Walter," then we’ve lost the American people. But Cronkite was wrong. Tet temporarily overran our positions but culminated in a massive defeat–and the virtual extinction–of the Viet Cong.

Naturally, liberals applauded Cronkite for his negative judgment, for it was theirs too. Conservatives, of course, were critical not only because he was wrong but because he had departed from the canons of "objectivity."

But I don't credit the "objectivity" that Cronkite himself said he was stepping away from in 1968. There is no obligation to avoid drawing conclusions from facts available, although one may be in error. Cronkite was in error, but he had not, merely by stating his opinion, stepped away from objectivity. There is no point in gathering facts just for their own sake.

The "obligation" is self imposed by journalism, not out of any lofty regard for the truth but in order to obtain advantages by appearing to be above the fray. First, the objective pose gets more readers, listeners and viewers than any partisan truth. Second, it provides some protection against political or legal challenges. Third, neutral objectivity is an imitation of the natural and social sciences, which also claim to be unbiased.

The journalistic version, which also involves a method known as who, what, where, when, etc., is always questionable. Concealing partisanship by careful selection of facts is a tried and true tactic.

Cronkite and many others jumped to conclusions about the Tet offensive because it fit in with their anti-war sentiment. Had he paused until the effects of the offensive were clear, he might not have been so mistaken. His rush to judgment was never recanted, of course. Once liberals gave up on the war, they turned with a vengeance on President Nixon for having the audacity of trying to clean up the mess they left behind.

As to Cronkite's alleged professionalism, I think it's more appearance than reality. Support for the freest nation in the world and commitment to freedom for all peoples is real objectivity, not that pious, phony, above-it-all neutralism that disgraces modern journalism. Facts are the basis for drawing reasonable conclusions, but they do not exhaust objectivity. Good citizenship requires repairing to the true principles of republican government, the "laws of nature and of nature's God."

We won't care to win wars or preserve our nation unless we ground ourselves in the objectivity of the principle that all men are created equal and free. There is no neutrality between good and evil, or right and wrong, however much people may disagree about them.