The first time TV regularly shared Walter Cronkite’s history-changing voice, he was a clumsy-looking bystander.
Not his fault. Everything about CBS’s “You Are There” was clunky. In black and white, it took us to relive moments in history on sets every bit as authentic as Flash Gordon’s spaceship.
When Cronkite became America’s preeminent newsman and watched our government argue that victory was around the corner in Vietnam, he may have thought he was back in another bad re-creation of history — French, or British, maybe.
For years the continuing escalation there had barely been challenged by anyone, least of all media seeing it all through the one eye of our government’s cyclops lens.
Then Cronkite went there in 1968 and observed this with two eyes:
“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 . . .
“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.”
Cronkite’s commentary on that day is much-discussed. Some criticized him for crossing the line of reporter into pundit.
My question: Was it commentary, or was it reporting of the highest form?
You know, the reporting that conveys truth.
We are too accepting of reporting that simply conveys what people in power want to convey, even if juxtaposed by a response to those on the outs.
When does it become reporting for someone on the scene to tell what he or she sees without shadings supplied by those whose political future is vested in the perception?
Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon.com, contrasts Cronkite with the pack journalists of today, feeding off unquestioned power with unquestioning authority, relying solely on the military and hired military experts to tell the story of events in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Cronkite’s best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists [he or she] must not ever do — directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed.”
But being manipulated by the government is only part of the problem. Another is being cowed into treating fringe attitudes and hunches as equal to those having the weight of evidence.
Hence we have reporting where the certainty about global warming over the last century is countered by industry-funded seeds of doubt. Giving equitable treatment to both is to present “balanced coverage.” Really? Or is this just truth with time allotted for a corporate dissembling?
In Texas, when it comes to approving science textbooks, there always seems to be a debate about evolution. That’s odd, because when it’s the scientists discussing it, they’re not debating it. They’re simply understanding it.
Somehow an anti-science constituency has positioned itself to be the “other side” for the purpose of scholastic balance. How so? Please define “scholastic.”
We see this on cable television — someone who doesn’t know science saying that science has it wrong, and serving as the “other side” for “balance.” Generally, this is like a slug worm riding on the scales opposite a nuclear submarine. The fallacies of his claims are immaterial. That person knows that gut feelings and self-serving predispositions have market value.
Somehow the practice of reporting the news has ceased being a search for truth. It has become a service industry for vested interests and popular passions.
Cronkite reported what he saw with his own eyes. Talk about crossing the line. Guilty as charged.
John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.