Walter Cronkite died today. He was one of the greats, and perhaps one of the last greats. The “most trusted man in America,” known for his signature sign-out, “And that’s the way it is.” But he also was an excellent example of what was right about avoiding bias in reporting, and a contrast to what has become so wrong with reporting today.
It was no secret that Cronkite was a liberal, proud and unreserved. He famously chided Kerry for shying away from his liberalism, and castigated Bush for Iraq. The staunchly conservative “Media Research Center” has a page documenting Cronkite’s liberal bias, but that page attacking Cronkite and holding him up as a prime example of the “Liberal Media” is notable in that (a) Cronkite (unsurprisingly) comes across as rationally and thoughtfully biased—this is the worst they can find?—and (b) it’s all stuff from after he retired—not one shred of evidence for any liberal bias in his actual reporting. In fact, they quote him in explaining why liberal journalists don’t allow it to taint their reporting:
I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum. More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier side of our cities – the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated.
We reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful. If that is what makes us liberals, so be it, just as long as in reporting the news we adhere to the first ideals of good journalism – that news reports must be fair, accurate and unbiased.
At least, that’s the way it was—I doubt that most “journalists” today do the same kind of early-career reporting by and large.
What Cronkite notes can be said of many similar professions, and is quite significant: educators, scientists, artists, serious journalists—in other words, people who make their livings looking hard at the world in an intelligent way—tend to be liberal. That’s no coincidence, as it is no coincidence that most people in the field of making money—looking at the world through a lens of competition and greed—tend to be conservative.
But what is most important in his statement is that the personal politics of journalists do not bleed through into the reporting. This is key—the key—to the whole “liberal media” canard: it matters not one bit what the personal politics of journalists is, it matters only what bias comes through in reporting. That’s where the whole myth falls apart. If 90% of journalists are liberal but none let it color their reporting, and 10% are conservatives but they do let it color their reporting, then you have a conservative bias overall.
Conservatives see it a different way. Their general response toward almost everything is projection. They assume that everyone else will act the same way that they want to, only without the restraint they feel themselves best capable of—but then use that imagined lack of restraint on the part of others as permission for themselves to let go. Conservatives do not rein in their personal politics in journalism, they let it bleed all over what they report—and so they simply assume that this is what the liberals do, and use that as justification for what they themselves do. I could spend all day detailing hundreds of cases of conservative “journalists”—anchors or reporters, not commentators—doing just that. In contrast, ask yourself when you’ve seen the same coming from a liberal journalist, and only one example will come up—Dan Rather and the National Guard story, and mostly because it’s just about the only example out there. And for it to be from a reporter who jumped on Clinton like all the others in the Lewinsky scandal, and who jumped onto the Bush Patriotic War bandwagon like all the others, is a poor example of excessive liberal bias.
Cronkite was the most trusted man in America not because he was a liberal, but because he gave it to the people straight. It used to be that’s what reporters did. But then Fox came along and made tons of money spewing political propaganda, and now it’s the norm.
It’s a damn shame that a principled, honest journalist like Cronkite, the man who along with Murrow defined excellence in broadcasting, had to watch while petty, small-minded political whores claimed the mantle of journalism and vilely desecrated the sacred temple of objective reporting. There should be no O’Reilly, no Olbermann, no Hannity, no Maddow. There should be people like Aaron Brown, a fantastic journalist whose broadcast came closest among the contemporaries in doing the kind of reporting that Cronkite did, the kind of reporter who should have inherited the anchor’s chair—and so naturally, CNN fired him. (Worse, they forced him completely out of the business for two years.)
There should be hourlong news shows that report the news, like Jim Lehrer became well-known for. There should be focus on issues—not celebrities and little blonde white girls who are kidnapped. There should be deep background, in-depth reporting, continuing coverage, measured delivery, tough questions, relevant points. Instead we get soft porn set to rock music, the new standard pioneered by Fox “News.”
To think that it was a big deal when Cronkite led the charge to expanding the evening news to half an hour from the previous fifteen minutes they were allotted, to think of Cronkite’s humanity during the Kennedy assassination and the moon launch, to think of the legacy the man left—and then to realize that today, Glenn Beck gets a whole hour to himself, makes you cry for the death of journalism.