Walter Cronkite Eulogies: That’s Not Quite the Way It Was

–Richard E. Vatz

When an iconic journalist is better than all of his peers but is still flawed, should he be eulogized as flawless? The eulogies to CBS’s anchor of anchor’s, Walter Cronkite, are nostalgically worshipping, over-the-top, and in many cases partly inaccurate.

One of the best, most responsible lines in any tribute to a deceased national hero was Teddy Kennedy’s regarding his assassinated brother, Bobby. He said memorably and compellingly, “”My brother need not be idolized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. [He should] be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Some puffery and some oversimplification there, but the eulogizing is not unreasonable and is not unrecognizable as Robert F. Kennedy.

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The eulogizing of Walter Cronkite has been undiluted by criticism. I have not come to blaspheme Mr. Cronkite, but can we all be realistic?

Since there have been so many tributes to Cronkite, let us focus on one prototypical one, the praising by NBC’s former “Nightly News” anchor, Tom Brokaw, in today’s lead op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

Mr. Brokaw, a generally responsible newsman himself, plays fast and loose many points in his paean to Cronkite, titled “A Nation’s Anchor.” Let’s look at just a couple of his arguments:

 Cronkite “grew up to become the most trusted man in America by a vote of his countrymen.” There are no quotes around “most trusted man in America” in the article, and there was no reference to the Roper Poll which provided the category. Many more people in polarized America trusted Cronkite because unlike almost all of the nation’s principals involved in public persuasion, even when wrong, he tried to let the evidence dictate his conclusion. His misreading of the outcome of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, an offensive which yielded a defeat militarily for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, was honest but simply incorrect. It came across as reluctant testimony, since he had reversed his opinion, and this fact enhanced his nationwide credibility tremendously.

 Brokaw repeats a variation on what I have researched and found to be in 99.5068% of the articles eulogizing Cronkite: “…President Johnson knew that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost Middle America.” As I recall, if LBJ used Cronkite’s dissent to imply that therefore public support was irretrievably lost, it was post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. The war’s unpopularity had been building inexorably, and only a self-deluding president would have thought that Cronkite’s position was the definitive sign of his (the president’s) losing the public’s support.

To his credit, Brokaw does at least reference the wealth of liberal causes to which Cronkite dedicated himself in his last 15 years or so which caused many conservatives to see him as just another journalist who, when scratched, was yet another liberal.

For this conservative, Walter Cronkite should be remembered as a “a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it…saw war and tried to stop it.” He also was a news anchor who admitted he was liberal, but naïvely thought that he could report on news without that political disposition having any effect, as he explained in recent years to CNN’s Howard Kurtz.

Finally, Walter Cronkite was, over many years, a damned hard-working journalist with impressive integrity and a wonderful temperament, but, like us all, he was flawed.

Professor Vatz teaches an advanced course in Media Criticism at Towson University

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