Cronkite

July 19th, 2009
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 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 fall 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. They tend toward their general response toward almost everything: projection. They assume that everyone else acts the way they do. 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. 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.

Categories: "Liberal" Media, Journalism Tags: by
  1. Paul
    July 20th, 2009 at 10:25 | #1

    To be fair, there’s been some research done that shows that on TV, anchors display their bias- and that bias affects how people watching the broadcast think about the subject of the broadcast.

    And Aaron Brown was a pretty dang good anchor, but in my opinion he wasn’t much of a journalist in the sense of reporting. He was here in Seattle for several years before he went to CNN, and he was good but he was primarily an anchor, not a reporter.

  2. Mark
    July 23rd, 2009 at 12:49 | #2

    Some comments from a conservative. First, O’Reilly, Olbermann, Hannity, and Maddow are not newscasters and they don’t pretend to be…they offer opinions and state so up front (I’ll fess up to being much more familiar with O’Reilly and Hannity than the others). They don’t pretend to be Cronkite. They’re not pretending to deliver the news; everyone knows they’re delivering opinions. Unlike Time magazine, who’s subscription I finally canceled (I’ll stimulate the economy elsewhere with my $78…perhaps on a book by a conservative) after 32 years because I could no longer take their editorials posing as news articles, these conservatives are at least honest about what they’re doing. Second, I agree fully that most TV news is junk. (I watch very little because I have better things to do than watch junk.) A cute American blond disappears on a trip to a beach and it’s news for months if not years. It’s a tragedy for her family and the incident needs to be investigated, but it’s not national news…and should be quickly and quietly relegated to a local item of interest. The Weather Channel is also more about entertainment than weather news. Third, if there were a market in this country for a good hour long news show, there would be one. But, tragically, there isn’t. The Discovery channel used to be competition for PBS…now it takes the 40th anniversary of the moon landing for it to run a “real” science show. Otherwise the Discovery channel is just another banal network with trite programming for the largely illiterate masses. The History channel during prime time is largely UFO and Ice Truckers, not real history. They’ve also lost their course, I believe because they tried, and people are more interested in junk, and that’s where the money is. The public wants to see bios of Cream, not Madame Curie. (OK, I’m dating myself). Fourth, and why I really chose to comment… “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” and “most people in the field of making money–looking at the world through a lens of greed–tend to be conservative”… really struck me as offensive. These statements strongly imply liberals are “smart” and conservatives are greedy “bastards”. Let’s look at some facts. Businessmen “look hard at the world in an intelligent way”, otherwise they fail. Ford did; GM didn’t and Ford didn’t need government bailout money. Soldiers and generals look hard at the world. That’s how they’ve adjusted to incredibly challenging conditions in the Middle East. Farmers look hard at the world (weather, soil, etc), otherwise they starve. Your statement implies that George Soros, a rich liberal, wasn’t interested in money…I guess it just fell into his lap when he wasn’t looking. I guess all the rich liberals who supported supported Obama’s or Clinton’s runs for the presidency were also given all their money, because as liberals they weren’t greedy. They couldn’t have gotten it from “greed”–an inordinate desire for money. You say only scientists (who apparently believe unanimously that humans are destroying the earth with CO2 emissions despite growing evidence (cold vacationers in the northern US this year) C02 emissions are not a culprit)), serious journalists (who are losing their livelihood because no one cares any more what they have to say (all the newspapers in the country are thriving…right?)), educators who can’t teach kids any longer because they keep trying things that don’t work, (how is the US doing in education?), and artists (who have to feed at the public trough or deify gratuitous sex, violence and nonsense to be published or even liked) are the people who have it right? They’re the smart ones who have it all together? How can you be at all serious? Yet the “evil” capitalists who designed and built the home you live in, built your mode of transportation (bike or car), send you electricity, clean water and the internet every day, and built the infrastructure that supports you and keeps you from living like the GEICO caveman would have 20K- 50K years ago, are the confused who are out of touch with reality? Give me a break…Liberals are the ones who are confused. The conservatives are the ones who see the world as it is, make the best of reality, make something useful out of it, and distribute it to the public, for profit. (Cause DiCaprio and all the others live in 1500 sq foot bungalows, because they do their “art” for their love of humanity) The liberals are the ones who see the world as they want it to be, and believe, as our president seems to, that by making delusional pronouncements on how they would like it to be (equal results vice equal opportunity), despite continued evidence to the contrary, think they’re not only right but are having a positive influence. Quick quiz…who left the country in a better place economically–Carter or Reagan? When did the economy falter, before or after the Democrats took over the Congress in 2006? Did the New Deal shorten or lengthen the Depression? Just because many think something is so, doesn’t make it so.

  3. Luis
    July 23rd, 2009 at 23:07 | #3

    Some comments from a conservative. First, O’Reilly, Olbermann, Hannity, and Maddow are not newscasters and they don’t pretend to be…

    My statement was less than clear on that; it was my intention to note that all of these people had their own hour-long shows on news networks–whereas Cronkite had to be upgraded to half an hour. That’s what I found to be somewhat galling. I should have been more clear.

    Second, I agree fully that most TV news is junk.

    Agree with you on all of this. A true “news” cast would focus on stories that have relevance and importance; health care would be at the top of the news, the Michael Jackson story a footnote. Unfamiliar or complex topics could be explained, far greater depth and educational materials could be provided on web sites viewers would be encouraged to visit. And so on. I am sure we could both spend a lot of time imagining what would be better if newscasts were treated as journalism and not as entertainment.

    Third, if there were a market in this country for a good hour long news show, there would be one. But, tragically, there isn’t.

    Again, agreed–and that’s the real shame of it. The thing is, the market should not be the driver here. When Cronkite started, there was not a “market” for news–it was instead considered a “prestige” thing, a money loss for the network but something that brought gravitas to it. The newscasts were not made for money, they were made because it was considered important, or at least respectable. That’s no longer true; for some time, it has been about money, first and last.

    There should not be concern over a “market” for such a news show; the news show should be so great that the market comes to it, like it did for Cronkite.

    Fourth, and why I really chose to comment… “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” and “most people in the field of making money–looking at the world through a lens of greed–tend to be conservative”… really struck me as offensive.

    I kinda figured that would not be well-received in all quarters…

    These statements strongly imply liberals are “smart” and conservatives are greedy “bastards”.

    No, you got it backwards–not that all liberals are smart (or that only liberals are smart, or that all smart people are liberals), but that smart people who look at the world without a selfish motive tend to be liberals. Huge difference.

    Businessmen “look hard at the world in an intelligent way”, otherwise they fail.

    Yes, but what do they look at? How to sell. How they can make people want something, even–or perhaps especially–against their interest. They try to figure out the world only in a limited context, that context being “how can I get money from this?” The world of business depends most on understanding the elements of greed and fear, the prime motivators.

    Compare this with scientists, whose very method requires them to be open to all possibilities and discard outdated ideas, even when they work against their own interests; businessmen, on the other hand, are driven primarily toward their own interests to the detriment of all else. There are educators, who study all aspects of the human condition without a profit motive coloring their conclusions–sure they work for money and want their work to be rewarded, but they know that if they lie or distort, there are ranks of peers who will tear them apart for it. In business, truth is generated, not respected; fictions are established, even encouraged to further interests of the business. A business is regarded as successful if it can control what the world is, not because it observes what the world is. There’s a significant difference. Scientists and educators follow strict peer review from within, and have pretty damn high standards; businesses have to be regulated from without, and is considered a dog-eat-dog environment.

    This difference is magnified at the organizational level: educational institutions and scientific organizations have far more advanced levels of ethics and accountability than do business corporations. If a for-profit corporation is analyzed as the human being it is legally regarded to be, it comes across as a sociopath. Business may be good for many things, but it does not naturally engender honesty, compassion, or the betterment of mankind. It engenders understanding people–but only in the context of knowing how to manipulate them and how to get money from them.

    Consider the fact that the business world scorned Costco for treating its workers with respect and generosity; those businessmen were attacked for not squeezing every penny from the payrolls to further the profits for the shareholders, for not being more like Wal-Mart. Does that represent intelligent understanding of the world as it exists, or a culture of greed and disrespect for people in general?

    Soldiers and generals look hard at the world. That’s how they’ve adjusted to incredibly challenging conditions in the Middle East.

    You seem to be making the assumption that soldiers and generals are predominantly conservative. Better check that assumption, it’s a lot less true than you may think. There is absolutely a culture of conservatism in the military in terms of control, saturating military media with right-wing views–very much like the media we are discussing–but that does not mean that as many soldiers or generals are conservative as scientists and educators are liberal. As a very small but interesting sample, look at members of Congress–I could be wrong, but I believe that you’ll find more veterans among the left than you will among the right these days.

    Farmers look hard at the world (weather, soil, etc), otherwise they starve.

    Yes, but they do not look at people or the world in general–they look only at conditions important to farmers. Not relevant to this discussion.

    Also note that I said that such people “tend to be liberal,” and I did not claim that they have the monopoly on understanding, empathy, or intelligence.

    Keep in mind also that the tenets of liberalism tend toward compassion and understanding of others–the idealism of helping others, sharing burdens, being fair; whereas the tenets of conservatism tend toward the opposite–toughness, independence, by-your-own-bootsraps tough love, let them fail or they’ll never stand on their own, let me keep what is mine and the rest of the world can fend for itself. Not absolutes, but certainly these are general tendencies. Liberals are more about spreading the wealth and giving opportunities to all, conservatives tend to be more about favoring corporations and those who make it rich, and favor a social darwinism that gives opportunities to those who fight and win them.

    Your statement implies that George Soros, a rich liberal, wasn’t interested in money

    Nope, sorry–you’re dead wrong on this one. I said that people in such professions tend to be liberal, not that all liberals are selfless philanthropists and destitute idealists. The more we go on here, the more clear it is that you are reading a lot more into that one short paragraph than was written or implied.

    You say only scientists…serious journalists…educators…and artists…are the people who have it right?

    Go to the dictionary and look up the word “tend.” You are putting quite a bit into my mouth which never came from there. “Only”? I said that people in positions that require keen and intelligent observations of the world tend to be liberal; you took that, apparently, to mean, “only liberals are intelligent and right and selfless, while all conservatives are stupid, greedy bastards.” Please adjust your interpretation here; it goes explicitly against what was written.

    I could say a lot about a good number of side issues brought up here, but they are off-topic and we can discuss them another day. Suffice it to say that you over-reacted somewhat to my generalization. I stand by my statement as it was written–not as you have mischaracterized it.

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