Ask anyone over the age of 40, and he or she will likely say that the last great American broadcast journalist was Walter Cronkite.
From 1937 until 1981, Cronkite reported on many important events in American history; his most famous moments include his report of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and his editorial on the War in Vietnam. Often called “the most trusted man in America” by opinion polls in the ’60s and ’70s, Cronkite is remembered as “a voice of certainty in an uncertain world.”
Many believe that Cronkite was so well-regarded because he was considered non-partisan and unbiased by the majority of Americans who viewed his broadcasts, something that most news anchors today cannot claim. In retrospect, however, many are willing to criticize this notion of Cronkite’s non-partisanship. It was well known that Cronkite was liberal, and looking back, it becomes clear that his agenda-driven journalism often promoted liberal causes such as the civil rights movement, as well as liberal politicians like Bobby Kennedy.
What I argue, however, is that being biased or agenda-driven is not a bad thing. Cronkite was so well-liked not necessarily because he was non-partisan but because he went above and beyond in his reporting. Driven by partisanship and a personal agenda, Cronkite worked to unearth information and stories that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
In early 1968, Cronkite went to Vietnam to report on the status of the war in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. After interviewing Americans in Vietnam and witnessing action on the ground, Cronkite ultimately came to a novel conclusion that would change the public’s perception of the War in Vietnam and of President Lyndon Johnson.
On Feb. 27, 1968, Cronkite concluded his “Report from Vietnam” with an eye-opening editorial: “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 pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
By coming to such conclusions, Cronkite swayed public opinion of the Vietnam War from one of ambivalence or support to one of protest. After viewing this broadcast, President Johnson was correct in saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
In “The Reasoning Voter,” political scientist Samuel Popkin argues that the voting public uses rules of thumb or heuristics in interpreting political information. One of the most important and influential of these is the media.
Through reporting on certain issues and not others, the media guide the public’s attention and make certain issues more salient. They educate the populace on these issues using information from experts or regular citizens that would otherwise be unavailable to the public. Furthermore, the media’s reporting of issues encourages the discussion and diffusion of these issues throughout public discourse by initiating conversations about issues that would otherwise remain unknown.
With this, I posit that in order to have a more educated populace, we need media that go beyond simply relaying information. By deeply investigating and reporting his true findings, Cronkite forever changed the role of journalism from one of simply transmitting information to one of attempting to understand and think critically about information.
In an era where sensationalism has taken over the media, such as the media’s overplayed reaction to the missing Malaysian Airlines flight and the Ebola crisis, it is easy for us to wish for a media that simply reports the facts on all of the issues. However, this wish is misguided.
Today, we rely on, and should continue to rely on, the media to give us their take on each story. Experienced and skilled journalists and reporters work to find experts and citizens with information and opinions on issues giving the public access to knowledge they would otherwise not have, in part because they are driven to find such sources through holding an agenda or taking a side politically. The best reporting, I argue, starts with a biased agenda and, like Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, ends with a conclusion that considers information from all sides.
When this does not happen and when the information given is extremely biased, it still can end well. Hearing an overly biased account actually encourages the public to search for an account from the other side. With biased accounts, the media provokes the public to continually challenge and check their findings.
In the end, although Walter Cronkite was not the non-partisan that many fondly remember, he was a broadcast journalist who forever changed the role of the media for the better. So, in his memory, I will sign off by offering the famous words that ended every Cronkite broadcast: “And that’s the way it is.”