The legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite died at the age of ninety-two at his home in New York on Friday. For nearly twenty years, Cronkite’s broadcast was a nightly staple in millions of American homes from 1962 until he left CBS Evening News in 1981. Praise for Cronkite’s work and legacy is all over the news, but few in the mainstream media have mentioned what many consider Cronkite’s most important news moment. In February 1968, soon after he returned from a trip to Vietnam, Cronkite cast doubt on the war and helped turn the tide of American public opinion against it. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: The legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite died at the age of ninety-two at his home in New York on Friday. For nearly twenty years Cronkite’s broadcast, which helped define American television journalism, was a nightly staple in millions of American homes from 1962 ’til he left CBS Evening News in 1981. Known as the most trusted name in the news, or quite simply "Uncle Walter," Cronkite guided viewers through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, covering the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, which was forty years ago today, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, and the Watergate scandal, always ending his broadcasts with the words "And that’s the way it is."
President Obama called the iconic Cronkite, quote, "more than just an anchor," "someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day, a voice of certainty in an uncertain world," un-quote. Praise for Cronkite’s work and legacy is all over the news, but few in the mainstream media have mentioned what many consider Cronkite’s most important news moment.
On February 27, 1968, soon after he returned from a trip to Vietnam reporting on the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, Cronkite questioned the goals of the US military in Vietnam. He said, quote, "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."
WALTER CRONKITE: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: Walter Cronkite’s words on the Vietnam War are credited with casting doubts on official explanations and turning the tide of American public opinion against the war. Former President Lyndon Johnson is widely quoted as saying, quote, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America."
After leaving CBS Evening News in 1981, Cronkite continued to work as a journalist, writing a regular syndicated news column. In his later years, he also became a vocal critic of corporate media consolidation and of the war in Iraq.
For more on Walter Cronkite, I’m joined now by two guests.
In Washington, veteran investigative journalist and author Robert Parry. He edits the website consortiumnews.com. His latest article is called "Cronkite’s Unintended Legacy."
And here in the firehouse studio, independent journalist, filmmaker and author Danny Schechter, the News Dissector, founder and executive editor of mediachannel.org, an organization that Walter Cronkite advised.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Robert Parry, let’s begin with you. What do you mean, the “unintended legacy” of Walter Cronkite?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, one of the reactions to Walter Cronkite and people like him in the mainstream news media back in those days was that the right wing in America felt that these people were supporting more liberal causes, that they had questioned things like segregation back in the ’50s and ’60s, that they had turned against the war — as you mentioned, Walter Cronkite raising questions in 1968.
So there was a response, a pushback from the right, which became very important. Essentially, in the days after Watergate and after the Pentagon Papers in the ’70s, the right wing organized to build their own media, basically. And they — people like former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon pulled together right-wing finances from major foundations. Later on, people like Reverend Sun Myung Moon and Rupert Murdoch joined in with vast sums of money to build this very powerful right-wing media, which began to really take shape in the late ’70s and then through the ’80s and ’90s. For those of us in the mainstream press — I was with AP and Newsweek during much of that period — there were also attack groups that were being well funded to go after us. So if we came up with information that questioned in propaganda that was coming from the right, we’d come under heavy attack. So there was this real effort to change the media dynamic that the right wing undertook, in part because they were reacting to people like Walter Cronkite.
AMY GOODMAN: Danny Schechter?
DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, I don’t think you can blame Walter Cronkite for the reaction of the right wing. Let’s not forget that this notion of the liberal media, which the right used as an organizing slogan for so many years, was totally inaccurate. I mean, we’re talking about corporate media here, not liberal media. They covered what was going on to some degree, but they left out as much as they included. And I think the whole independent media movement, Amy, that you are certainly, you know, an emblem of, grew up in response to the limits, the failures of this corporate media that Walter represented.
Now, to his credit, in his later years he turned against it, to some degree, and began to raise questions. Those questions and those concerns were not really reported by his own network. In fact, last night, on Sunday night, CBS’s special on Walter Cronkite included one sound bite of him suggesting that the media had become a threat to democracy. But, of course, that theme was not really explored or examined in any way. And when Walter Cronkite supported our mediachannel.org in 1990 with his strong statement, we were, you know, really pleased that he would lend his gravitas, his reputation, to the challenge that many of us were making to corporate media, corporate media consolidation and their like.
The problem is that many liberals, even so-called progressives, bought into the idea that there was a liberal media and have not supported, you know, the independent media enough, including Bob Parry’s excellent news service, our efforts. Independent media is struggling to survive right now. And the people who poured millions into the Obama campaign have, you know, maybe poured pennies into independent media.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to go to the issue of Vietnam. You know, Walter Cronkite’s influential February 1968 broadcast is now remembered as helping shift public opinion against the war. But that came after years of Cronkite openly supporting the war in Vietnam. In 1965, reporting from Vietnam, Cronkite was enthusiastic about the war effort. This is a clip from Norman Solomon’s film War Made Easy.
WALTER CRONKITE: B-57s — the British call them Canberra jets — we’re using them very effectively here in this war in Vietnam to dive-bomb the Vietcong in these jungles beyond Da Nang here.
Colonel, what’s our mission we’re about to embark on?
AIR FORCE COLONEL: Well, our mission today, sir, is to report down to the site of the ambush seventy miles south of here and attempt to kill the VC.
WALTER CRONKITE: The colonel has just advised me that that is our target area right over there. One, two, three, four, we dropped our bomb, but now a tremendous G-load as we pull out of that dive. Oh, I know something of what those astronauts must go through.
AIR FORCE COLONEL: Yes, sir.
WALTER CRONKITE: It’s a great way to go to war.
AIR FORCE COLONEL: Yes, sir.
AMY GOODMAN: And, yes, that was Walter Cronkite in the documentary War Made Easy. Filmmaker Norman Solomon writes today, quote, “Citing Cronkite as an example of courageous reporting on a war is a dangerously low bar — as if reporting that a war can’t be won, after cheerleading it for years, is somehow the ultimate in journalistic quality and courage.” Your response, Danny Schechter?
DANNY SCHECHTER: Well, he did have the guts to stand up and to challenge the war after actually going there.
The same was true with Watergate. He had avoided the story when it first broke in the Washington Post. It was only, though, when CBS and the New York Times piled on, so to speak, that the story rose to becoming a national story, and it was Cronkite that helped propel it.
Also with the civil rights movement, his concern — Spike Lee spoke about this last night — with the bombing in Birmingham and the killing of the four little girls there helped propel this story into the national consciousness.
So, Walter Cronkite was evolving. And this is something that many of his colleagues have yet to do, which is to evolve to become more critical, to become more independent in his outlook.
He was also a strong advocate of global world peace. He spoke at UN conferences. He was an activist, you know, in some ways that really deserve our respect. So, yes, it’s true, he was, you know, in a sense, a graduate of the World War II school of journalism, he was a booster of the military, but he himself began to become more critical and share his views. And I think he deserves our appreciation for that, not that many others have done it, and maybe they should learn something from Walter Cronkite and begin to look at the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in the same way and to realize that these are unwinnable conflicts. Don’t forget, his statement was ’68. The war didn’t end ’til 1975, and it didn’t end in a stalemate.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, it’s all right. I think we have seen this development, which is that even in the — even the mainstream journalists like Walter Cronkite who did evolve, as Danny says, are really the anomaly today. Right now, if you evolve in the mainstream media, you’re basically evolving yourself out of a job. So you have a different group, a more — a group oriented more toward their careers, people who don’t have much of a real commitment to true independent journalism. And that’s become a dynamic and very dangerous factor in the US political process. So you have journalists who know longer really care about getting the story correct as much as they care about protecting their flanks in terms of their careers.
And that’s why independent media is so important. And it’s also why it’s been such a disappointment for many of us who have tried to reach out to people and say, “Listen, there has to be this — we have to build something different.” And Amy, you’ve been a perfect example of how you can do that, but there hasn’t been nearly the kind of support for independent journalism that there should be.
And what you’ve seen instead is a consolidation of these careerists in Washington who look really toward keeping their salaries, keeping their position in — at the table, and the ability of the right wing to make that even more difficult for people, to take those people who have shown independence — say, a Ray Bonner, when he was at the New York Times covering the wars in El Salvador and Central America —- to sort of force people like that out of the mainstream has been an important element in how the right has operated. And all these -—
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to —-
ROBERT PARRY: —- these factors come together.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a more recent clip of Walter Cronkite talking about the importance of independent media in an age of corporate media consolidation. It’s an excerpt from a statement he gave in support of your organization, Danny Schechter, mediachannel.org.
WALTER CRONKITE: As you know, I’ve been increasingly and publicly critical of the directions that journalism has taken of late and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I am deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Walter Cronkite on media consolidation from actually January 2000. Danny Schechter?
DANNY SCHECHTER: When we launched mediachannel.org, and he remained active with us, although sometimes we disagreed on issues like the media coverage of the Iraq war. He felt I was a little too strident in calling for a trial of American journalists and talking about media crimes in the war of complicity in promoting the war in Iraq. He felt I was, you know, really going overboard there, and we’ve had some disagreements.
But, you know, I came to admire his willingness to engage in a conversation. There are many, many people in the media who won’t do that. I worked at ABC News for eight years, and I know the limits of that kind of dialogue. And Cronkite transcended that in some small ways that really deserve our respect.
AMY GOODMAN: And it’s interesting that although he criticized you for saying — criticized the government, not the media, for the Iraq war, he himself admitted that he was wrong in Vietnam for years before he came out strongly opposed.
DANNY SCHECHTER: Yeah, so we need more journalists who are willing to be self-critical and critical. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a deification of Cronkite, you know, editorials, you know, kind of salutes last night on CBS with Robin Williams and George Clooney. You know, they needed to bring stars in somehow to legitimate him, when he in fact was the star of the show. And, you know, so we see this tendency —-
AMY GOODMAN: George Clooney’s father was a newscaster, right?
DANNY SCHECHTER: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think George Clooney had a real good relationship with him. I respect him, as well. But what I’m saying is, there was no prime-time salute to Cronkite on CBS. Other networks suspended all their programming. They suspended an edition of -— a rerun of 60 Minutes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Danny Schechter, for joining us, award-winning investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker, author of a number of books, founder and executive editor of mediachannel.org. His latest book, Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal. And Robert Parry, thanks so much, veteran investigative journalist. His book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. He runs the website consortiumnews.com. His latest piece, "Cronkite’s Unintended Legacy."
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to look at this hundredth anniversary of the NAACP, play excerpts of a speech that didn’t get a lot of attention, though it might have been the fieriest of President Obama’s career. It’s addressed to the NAACP. And we’ll be speaking with the longtime chair of the organization, Julian Bond, who also knew Walter Cronkite. And we’ll be looking at the history of the century of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Paxton, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation.” And Danny Schechter, as he was leaving, just told me that Walter Cronkite was a deadhead, was a fan of the Grateful Dead, and his daughter was at Woodstock.