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Walter Cronkite and Journalistic Courage

July 30, 2009

By Katie McNish

Since his death on July 17th at age 92, Walter Cronkite has been endlessly memorialized as “the most trusted man in America.” The anchor of CBS Evening News from 1962-1981, Cronkite covered such major events in American history as the Moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. And while archival footage of the former two broadcasts – in which Cronkite echoed the nation’s emotions, steadily reading on while holding back tears – it was his commentary on the latter that set him apart.

Though his comforting on-camera demeanor and reliable nightly presence earned him the moniker “Uncle Walter,” columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times points out that, “what matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront … those in power.”

That courage was apparent during Cronkite’s broadcast one February evening in 1968. His reportage on the Vietnam War to that point had been standard, generally supportive of the U.S. government. But on February 27, having recently returned from a trip to Vietnam covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, he closed his broadcast with an editorial:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” he said. “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” He went on to suggest that “the only rational way out [of the war] 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.”

In 1968, a year long before Fox News, MSNBC, and rest of the plethora of sources of journalistic criticism from all sides of the aisle, Cronkite was one of the first mainstream reporters to speak to truth to power. In a statement revealing the incredible impact of such criticism from a man as universally popular as Cronkite, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Several weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Then, in 1972, Cronkite helped to bring the Watergate scandal to the public. The Washington Post was one of the only news sources investigating the issue, and CBS had no fresh reporting of its own, but Cronkite took 14 of his broadcast’s 22 minutes on October 27th to repackage The Post’s coverage (crediting the paper, of course), pointing out the importance of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting and the gravity of the corruption. Following this bold move, other networks began to follow suit, helping to bring attention Woodward and Bernstein’s historic work and fueling public outcry over Nixon’s actions.

After his retirement, Cronkite continued to fight for governmental openness to the public through media. For example, hee worked with the Alliance for Better Campaigns on an unsuccessful lobbying effort to have an amendment added to the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 that would have required TV broadcast companies to provide free airtime to Presidential candidates.

As Frank Rich writes, “the real test is how a journalist responds when people in high places are doing low deeds out of camera view and getting away with it.” It was this – bringing the truth about Vietnam, Watergate, political campaigns, etc. to the public when it would have been safer and easier not to -that made Cronkite so trustworthy.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.