“Brinkley’s book will undoubtedly tarnish the Cronkite legacy. But my admiration for the man is only partly diminished. Perhaps it is too easy to judge him by today’s standards, any more than we should condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves. Perhaps he simply reflected his times, when some journalists and politicians quietly collaborated, when conflicts of interest were routinely tolerated, when a powerful media establishment could sweep its embarrassments under the rug. Cronkite thrived as television came of age, always protecting what we would now call his brand. That’s just the way it was.”
—-CNN good journalism watchdog Howard Kurtz, closing his review of the new Douglas Brinkley biography of Walter Cronkite, which shows that the legendary paragon of broadcast journalism was biased, often dishonest, and frequently conflicted.
No, no, no, no.
The “things were different then” excuse won’t fly as a defense of Cronkite, and shame on Howard Kurtz, who is supposed to stand for ethical journalism, for trying to rationalize the obvious conclusion demanded by Brinkley’s biography. That conclusion is that there was no Golden Age of TV journalism, and that rampant liberal bias infected the nightly broadcasts then as now, but we were too trusting and unsophisticated to realize it. Kurtz spends an entire book review extracting information Brinkley uncovered that proves Walter Cronkite’s image as an objective, incorruptible truth-teller was a lie, and then attempts to make the case that we shouldn’t judge him harshly.
Why? Because he was one of Kurtz’s heroes? Perry Mason made me want to be a lawyer, and it wasn’t until I became one that I realized that the fictional defense attorney was the sleaziest criminal lawyer this side “The Practice.” Tarnished heroes are part of growing up, Howard. Don’t pretend that journalistic ethics were different then…journalism schools were teaching objectivity, transparency, fairness, honesty and avoidance of conflicts of interest when Walter was saying “And that’s the way it is!” in a high soprano. Yet Brinkley shows that he…
- Let the Kennedy Administration, which he supported passionately, exploit his reputation and use him in a Defense Department propaganda film.
- Privately lobbied Bobby Kennedy to run against LBJ in 1968, while supposedly reporting objectively on the Democratic nomination battle that year.
- Deceptively edited interviews to make his subjects look bad and change the context of the their answers.
- Lied about his conduct and motivations.
- Secretly bugged a committee room at the 1952 Republican Convention.
- Went easy on politicians he liked, usually Democrats, and used choices of words and tone to stick it to politicians he didn’t like, such as conservative Barry Goldwater.
- In the early 1970s, “Walter Cronkite cut a deal with Pan Am to fly his family to vacation spots around the world. Together with a handful of friends, they roamed from the South Pacific to Haiti, with Cronkite snorkeling, swimming, and drinking, thanks to a friend at the airline.”
- Used his prominence to inject his own opinion of the Vietnam war into the public debate, when his role was that of a reporter, not a pundit.
These are only what Kurtz mentions in his review, but they are enough. They aren’t the minor slip-ups of a model newsman, but a pattern of arrogant and deceptive conduct by an unethical newsman who was protected by a level of trust he did not deserve, and exploited to his own advantage.
He was also a hypocrite, urging the toughest punishment by CBS against Dan Rather for Cronkite’s successor’s use of a forged document to anchor an attack on President Bush. Rather deserved to be sacked, but it was Cronkite who had helped build the self-righteous and biased culture at CBS News that metastasized in “Memogate.” Far from having the high standard he set sullied by the broadcast journalists of today, Walter Cronkite is exposed by Brinkley’s revelations as the progenitor of the untrustworthy, manipulative journalism that has turned the free press from an ally of democracy to a cynical joke.
That Howard Kurtz is making excuses for “Uncle Walter’s” false rectitude now shows how thorough and pervasive his corrupt influence was.
Source: The Daily Beast
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