A thorough new biography of Walter Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley
reveals that he was not the unbiased journalist his supporters have
always claimed him to be. In fact, he was a liberal who used his position
as America's top anchor to promote the left and damage the right. And that's the way it is.
All of this apparently comes as a surprise to Howard Kurtz,
who grew up idolizing Cronkite and can't quite shake off the worship of
his false idol, even when confronted with the facts. Still, there is an
interesting admission early on in Kurtz's piece about how the media
landscape has changed:
Had Cronkite engaged in some of the same questionable conduct today—he
secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 GOP convention—he would
have been bashed by the blogs, pilloried by the pundits, and quite
possibly ousted by his employer. That he endured and prospered,
essentially unscathed, until his death in 2009 reminded me of how
impervious the monopoly media were in those days, largely shielded from
the scrutiny they inflicted on everyone else.
Indeed, he would have been. Kurtz might have spent more time
discussing the new media landscape and how it benefits the country by
allowing alternative points of view to penetrate the public's awareness.
Instead, he mostly cops out.
Cronkite's idea of ethical behavior seems to have been pretty broad.
Kurtz opens his account of the new book with the fact that Cronkite had a
secret deal with Pan Am, which flew his family around the world to
vacation spots like the South Pacific for free. The President of the CBS
News Division knew about the arrangement but did nothing about it.
Cronkite's behavior wasn't just personally unethical; it was also
professionally unethical. It was Cronkite who persuaded Robert
Kennedy--during a private meeting in his office--to run for President in
1968. Cronkite wanted someone to run to the left of LBJ in opposition
to the Vietnam War. Cronkite then interviewed Kennedy about the
possibility of running just three days before he announced his candidacy. No doubt Kennedy believed having the support of America's most trusted anchor would be an asset to his campaign. Indeed, it might have been if Kennedy hadn't been killed in June of 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Cronkite never deserved the
reputation he was given,
Kurtz suggests that perhaps we shouldn't judge a 1960s icon by modern
standards. But the basic ideas of journalistic ethics, i.e. remain
neutral when covering partisan politics, haven't changed in 50 years.
What Cronkite did was just as unethical then as it would be now. The
difference is that now a wider swath of the American public would know
about it. Liberal journalists who attempt to hide their personal bias
behind a claim of professional ethics can't get away with it as easily
as they used to. But that doesn't excuse Cronkite's unethical, biased
behavior simply because he could get away with it.