19 July 2009
Cronkite and the "Liberal Media"
Walter Cronkite's death on Friday closed an era in American broadcast history and reminded me of a piece in the historical puzzle I tried to put together earlier in the week in my post on the "Conservative Media." It was my argument then that the seeming omnipresence of reactionary Republican opinion today merely restores the conditions that prevailed in New Deal days, when most newspapers reflected the reactionary opinions of their owners. Television, I should have recalled, prominently cracked a conservative near-monopoly on news, and CBS News was quickly identified as "liberal" due to Edward R. Murrow's attack on Joe McCarthy and other exposes. As newspapers devoured one another and aspired to greater objectivity for commercial reasons after the deaths of the original moguls, television came to define the news, and Cronkite came to define TV news. Reactionaries have probably never forgiven him for editorializing on the Tet Offensive, taking at face value LBJ's reported assessment that the anchorman's pessimism cost him "middle America's" support for the war. To some conservatives, Cronkite was probably a traitor for allegedly demoralizing the population. CBS News's identification with "liberal bias" continued through Dan Rather's tenure as anchorman, and is still taken for granted today. But the "main stream media" mourns Cronkite as a great truth-teller and the last link to their founding tradition, and that's appropriate. They probably also mourn the fact that no news reader will ever again enjoy Cronkite's standing with the public. Having only two rivals (and when I was a kid our house watched Chancellor and Brinkley on NBC), and being the most popular of the three network anchors, Cronkite could well claim to define for millions of people what news was, though I don't know if he was immodest enough to claim that power for himself. But the proliferation of choices available on cable and the Internet makes it impossible for any one person to have as much influence as Cronkite is credited with. Without passing judgment on Cronkite himself, that's probably a good thing, because no one person should have that much potential power, especially if there's any suspicion (warranted or not) about the person's objectivity. My hunch is that Cronkite was more objective (being mostly a reader rather than a talker, after all) than some may suspect, and what may be lost with his generation was the sense of responsibility that should come with knowing that you are a primary source of information to the public. That sense may still exist among the current network anchors, but it seems like more people -- or more opinionated people -- prefer these days to get information from people who share their biases on "left" or "right." History will judge whose audience was more informed.