Monday, December 18, 2006

Tet, Cronkite, opinion journalism, and a changing press: Part I ("to tell a conflicted people a higher truth")

While Bush formulates a new plan for Iraq, and others say all is lost there no matter what, I'm reminded of a famous "all is lost" moment from that ever-festering sore of history, the Vietnam War: Walter Cronkite's editorial on Tet.

Cronkite's famous post-Tet broadcast of February 27, 1968, delivered on the CBS Evening News, is widely regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War, as well as broadcast journalism. It caused President Johnson to famously say, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country," and was apparently instrumental in Johnson's decision to drop out of the 1968 Presidential race.

Those too young to remember may find such a set of circumstances almost impossible to believe. But Walter Cronkite,"the most trusted man in America" during his 18-year tenure as the anchor for the CBS evening news, is widely regarded to have had great influence on public opinion.

Take a moment to mull that one over and contemplate how the times they have a'changed: it would not seem possible for a major network anchor to be the "most trusted man in America" today (and, by the way, that "most trusted" designation wasn't just hyperbole; Cronkite was actually judged that in a Gallup Poll of the time. And, of course, today it would be "the most trusted person in America." But I digress.)

The avuncular Cronkite (and it seems no piece on Cronkite can avoid that perfect description of the man: "avuncular") held America's trust for most of his time at the job. Was it simply a more naive era? The fact that so many Americans got their news from that TV half hour (which Cronkite was instrumental in making a full half hour rather than the 15 minutes he originally inherited) through either CBS, or NBC's rival Huntley-Brinkley, made it seem as though the truth were being told there--after all, there were few competing stories to hear.

And do not underestimate Cronkite's voice and demeanor, perfect for television. Never slick, not handsome, he seemed profoundly sincere, with a deep and resonant voice and a slight (at least to me) resemblance to another familiar and fatherly icon of the times with the same first name, Walt Disney. Cronkite had distinguished himself during his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, displaying controlled but moving emotion as he took off his glasses to announce the President's death. It was a deep bonding with the US public through a traumatic time.

Cronkite earned his trust the hard way: by reporting the unvarnished news. In this 2002 radio interview (well worth listening to for insight into his thought process at the time) Cronkite describes his orientation towards his job prior to that watershed moment of the Tet offensive broadcast.

Previously the top brass at CBS, as well as the reporters there, had understood their function to be reporting "the facts, just the facts." Editorializing was kept strictly separate; at CBS, it was a function of Eric Sevareid, and clearly labeled as such.

The president of CBS news, Dick Salant, was a man of almost fanatical devotion to the principles of non-editorializing journalism, according to Cronkite's interview. Cronkite said that, till Tet, he "almost wouldn't let us put an adjective in a sentence" when reporting, he'd been such a stickler for "just the facts."

But, according to Cronkite, as the Vietnamese War had worn on, and because of the confusion of the American people about the war, reflected in letters to the station, Salant sent Cronkite on a trip to Vietnam with the idea of doing a piece of opinion journalism when he came back, in order to help the American people "understand" what was going on by explicitly editorializing and advising them.

One can speculate long and hard about why Salant decided it was time to make such a drastic change. From Cronkite's interview, it appears that the brass at CBS was part of the turmoil of the 60s with its "question authority" ethos. If you listen to Cronkite (and he expresses not a moment's ambivalence about his actions), you may hear, as I did, an anger at a military that seemed heedless of the difficulties of the Vietnam endeavor, and too sanguine--similar to the "cakewalk" accusation towards the present Iraq War.

Another fact that becomes apparent in the Cronkite interview is that he felt personally betrayed by the military men he'd talked to as Vietnam churned on. He'd been a war correspondent in the Second World War, and that conflict, in which the press had been heavily censored, had featured public pronouncements of public optimism but private "off the record" discussions with the press that were more realistic and often more gloomy. Cronkite had been privy to these. But during Vietnam, when there was no official censorship, the military self-censored when talking to the press--they were profoundly optimistic, because they knew everything they said would be reported. Cronkite seemed miffed that he wasn't given the inside info, as he had been in WWII.

Cronkite is up-front about these differences in his interview. I think it's ironic that, if there had been more censorship during the Vietnam War, war correspondents such as Cronkite might have understood better where the military was coming from and might have cut them some slack. However, that's mere speculation. What actually happened is that Cronkite felt betrayed, and he and Salant thought the American people had been betrayed, and they felt it was important enough that they needed to break their own long-standing rule and spill the beans to the American people.

It never seems to have occurred to them, of course, that in reacting to Tet as they did they were participating in a different falsehood, the propagation of North Vietnamese propaganda about the situation.

Whatever Cronkite's motivations may have been, it's hard to overestimate the effect it had when he suddenly stated on air that the meaning of Tet was that the situation in Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated and the war could not be won. We're used to this sort of thing now, and many of us have learned to brush it off. But then, to much of America, Cronkite's was the voice of trusted authority that could not be denied--despite the fact that he had no special expertise to make such a proclamation.

Of course, we are reaping the fruit of that moment today. Journalism has changed, and not for the better, mixing opinion and facts in messy attempts to influence public opinion rather than inform. In connection with that radio interview, for example, see this statement, rather typical of the genre:

It was a bold move for Cronkite, and it was an seminal moment for journalism, to go beyond the reporting of events, to tell a conflicted people a higher truth, something beyond the cataloguing of casualties or shifting front lines.

To tell a conflicted people a higher truth. That seems to say it all, does it not?

[ADDENDUM: Here is the text of Cronkite's Tet statement:

"Report from Vietnam," Walter Cronkite Broadcast, February 27, 1968.

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

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. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that-negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

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. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then 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.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

Powered by Blogger