As a child of the 1960s, I already knew that Walter Cronkite was the man who told us about the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, the riots in the streets, the landing at Tranquility Base. Seeing the archival footage was deja vu for me; I watched most of all that as it happened, sprawled out kid-style on the floor of my living room, chin cradled in the palms of my hands, all less than three feet away from the TV screen despite my mom’s warnings about the damage being done to my eyes.
So I was all too aware that Uncle Walter was the man who helped shepherd America’s rapidly increasing newswatching flock through a very tough time in the country’s history. But imagine my shock when I learned only this past week that Cronkite singlehandedly lost the Vietnam war for the U.S., cost thousands of American soldiers their lives, helped create the notorious Khmer Rouge “killing fields” of Cambodia, set the table for the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and even nurtured the rise of Al Qaeda.
Some bloggers whose high-speed modems are working just fine, that’s who. Since Cronkite’s death on July 17, several of them have posted on conservative Web sites that after all these years, they still find Cronkite’s Tet Offensive post-mortem of Feb. 27, 1968, very offensive indeed.
Observe and Report
Cronkite’s Vietnam essay was a rare foray into editorial comment following a trip to South Vietnam to find out how the Viet Cong could have taken U.S. forces by such surprise. Because he was a war correspondent long before becoming a “CBS Evening News” anchorman, he checked out the story firsthand, then came back and declared the war a stalemate during an hour-long, prime-time special.
The right-leaning bloggers were quick to remind their readers that the Viet Cong lost the Tet Offensive, suffering far more casualties than the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies. But historians, TV critics and even some of Cronkite’s colleagues interviewed for obituaries said his report, coming from a man at the height of his national influence, reportedly persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to seriously consider exit strategies, including his own from the White House.
So Kurt Schlichter in Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog wrote that Cronkite was an “overpraised meat puppet, a doctrinaire liberal-left talking head.” One of the proudest moments of the Media Golden Age that the anchorman represented was “Cronkite’s own infamous thrust of the rhetorical dagger into the back of the fighting men in Vietnam (and of the Vietnamese who hoped for freedom) that was his Tet Offensive editorial.
“In the case of Vietnam, where he and the rest of the media elders did their level best to ensure that the Vietnamese had no chance of a free future, the killing fields of Cambodia are a stark reminder of the human cost of Cronkite’s conscience,” Schlichter wrote.
In a Pajamas Media post titled “Walter Cronkite, World’s Most Overrated Reader of the News,” Roger Kimball compares Cronkite to Michael Jackson, saying both were pop celebrities. Cronkite’s success, Kimball wrote, was a matter of tone, not substance.
“He didn’t research or write the news. He read it. He was a partisan news reader whose reputation for impartiality survived only because he espoused the same ideology as those in the media who determine who is awarded points for impartiality. Liberals like Cronkite suppose they are objective because they are secure in the belief that their opinions represent a neutral state of nature. It is (they believe) only those who dissent from those opinions who bring politics into the equation,” he continued.
“His role in the Vietnam defeat is being reported as if it were a highlight of his career,” wrote Accuracy in Media editor Cliff Kincaid on the RightSideNews blog. “Yet, his misreporting helped create the conditions for a premature U.S. military withdrawal, leading to the loss of the lives of 58,000 Americans in vain, not to mention the millions of additional deaths caused in Vietnam and Cambodia by the Communists. Cronkite’s public verdict that the 1968 Tet offensive was a ‘defeat’ for the U.S. is widely seen as a turning point in American support for the war. Cronkite falsely claimed that the Vietcong had held the American embassy for six hours and that the offensive ‘went on for two months.’ The facts show that Tet was actually a major defeat for the communist enemy.”
James J. Benoit, in his Sherman’s March blog post, nearly pulls a hamstring ratcheting up the rhetoric while trying to connect the dots between Cronkite’s editorial and just about every major U.S. conflict since then. “You falsely led the despots of the world to view the U.S. as just a ‘Paper Tiger’ without the political will to stand up and fight for what is right and liberate people from the bondage of oppression without the lie that America is an Imperialist occupier. Thanks Walt, you emboldened a group of raggedy assed ‘students’ to occupy our Embassy in Iran in 1979. You set the stage for incursions by Saddam into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. When repelled by U.S. led coalition forces Saddam resorted to duplicity and terror. Saddam’s threat to Saudi Arabia, our ‘ally’ in the Middle East, led to U.S. airbases in the land of Mecca and Medina igniting Al Queda’s current wave of terror attacks and general Jihad against America and her allies. A strong U.S. victory in Vietnam could have changed history, but you sat at your typewriter and unilaterally decided that we ‘LOST’ the war.”
Who Convinced Whom?
It usually takes a historian or academic to help clear things up a little in cases like these, but when they take to cable news shows, they’re simply not as loud or imbued with the confrontational spirit that is demanded of them in those venues. However, Chester Pach of Ohio University’s history department, and an author of books on both TV news and Vietnam, should be heard when he writes on the History News Network Web site that handing over such power to Cronkite regarding the Vietnam War is inaccurate, no matter where you land on the political spectrum.
“The problem with these assessments is that public opinion had turned against the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies long before Cronkite declared that the war was unwinnable,” Pach writes. “For Cronkite, the most essential element in reporting was getting the story right. We owe it to his memory to get the history right — not to perpetuate myths about the way it wasn’t.”
As early as January 1967, the polls were showing more disapproval with the war in Vietnam than support. Other correspondents that same summer started using the word “stalemate” to describe the conflict. Johnson saw all this and ordered a new public relations offensive, which was starting to show more positive results when the Tet holiday rolled around, Pach wrote.
“Johnson, however, had ample evidence that public confidence in his war leadership had diminished before Cronkite reached his sobering assessment. Polls showed new declines; critics both outside and within the administration called for a reassessment of U.S. policies in Vietnam,” notes Pach. “Only after March 31, when Johnson announced a new initiative to secure negotiations to end the war as well as his startling decision not to seek another term as president, did the polls go up.
“Cronkite, then, did not shift public attitudes on the Vietnam War. The American people had turned against LBJ’s policies more than a year earlier,” Pach maintains. “The Tet Offensive only deepened popular disillusionment.”
For the record: Did Cronkite really say the word “defeat” when talking about the U.S. role in Vietnam after Tet?
“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,” Cronkite says at the beginning of his editorial summation. “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.”
Yes, the enemy lost more men and didn’t take over South Vietnam, but the U.S. lost more than 16,000 soldiers in 1968, making it the bloodiest year of the war to that point. And while General William Westmoreland said the Viet Cong were on the run after Tet, he also asked for 200,000 more soldiers and activation of reserves to finish the job. Many questioned the need for such an escalation.
The Widening Echo Chamber
Also for the record: Cronkite may not have written everything he read on the air, but he checked it and double-checked it and put his writers to the test. He was a reporter’s anchorman, and you’re not going to find a lot of former colleagues or competitors disputing that. He started in print and felt that most TV journalists should have had the same old-school foundations.
The reason I know this is because of my chance to share a stage with Cronkite at the 2002 Texas Press Club Awards in Dallas (of all places), where he was presented the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. I was emceeing and was asked to interview Cronkite in front of the audience.
No arm-twisting required; like a lot of other broadcast journalists in my particular demographic, Cronkite was the reason I considered TV news in the first place. So we talked about Dallas, the moon shots, his views on cable news. I had just started at CNN “Headline News” a year earlier, coming there from CBS “MarketWatch,” which was housed in the same West 57th Street building in New York City as the CBS “Evening News.” I had to know what he thought of “all news, all the time,” and he told me. He wasn’t a big fan.
And that’s the way it is with the death of Walter Cronkite. His passing gives people a chance to compare television news back in Cronkite’s heyday with the roaring echo chamber that is the 21st century, 24/7 media universe. Then, the news was the star, not the newsman (or newswoman). The information choices were fewer. Now, the glut of alternatives is staffed by both professional journalists and citizens, and it provides content for all voices in the political choir, including those who aren’t as taken with Cronkite’s legacy as others.
That the Internet provides Cronkite’s critics with a virtual soapbox is a good thing. If they want to balance what they see as liberal bias in the media, then they should go for it. But there remain those who kind of like the idea of a national newsman of sorts, who fondly recall somebody whose judgment was trusted to filter out noise, separate journalistic wheat from ideological chaff, and who only occasionally felt the need to write an op-ed piece. (That piece, by the way, would only come after seeing for himself what had happened in Hue and Khe Sanh.)
Cronkite probably didn’t like the fact that the new media environment calls for more news curation and judgment — and it’s not happening yet. Hopefully, it will soon, and it will be done in the spirit of the man who had to give America a lot of bad news back in the 1960s.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.