They quote President Lyndon Johnson as saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite. I’ve lost Middle America.”
He was referring to the time in 1968 when CBS’s anchorman Walter Cronkite dropped all pretense at objectivity and declared the Vietnam War to be unwinnable. He had spent a couple of weeks surveying the region following the communist Tet Offensive and returned to declare his opposition to the war. At the time, said Tet Offensive was generally described in the media as a victory for Hanoi, a belief later moderated if not reversed once cooler assessments had been made.
Nonetheless, America’s most-trusted public figure had joined the outcry to “get out of Vietnam,” and the path was all but chosen. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese would be “re-educated,” those who couldn’t swim or helicopter to departing ships. And the names of 58,000 American war dead would be inscribed on a wall dug into the ground of the D.C. Mall. To the end, at least at a news conference in 2006, Cronkite was quoted as saying, “The editorializing that I did on the Tet Offensive I’m…proudest of.”
Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s media mensch, says there can never be another Cronkite because Americans will never again trust journalists how they trusted him. “That,” writes Kurtz, “is a healthy thing. Every journalist should be challenged and fact-checked, as now happens roughly every second of every day.” Why? “Cronkite’s liberal views emerged in his latter years as a syndicated columnist, proving that no sentient being can practice journalism without forming opinions that they then strive to keep out of their work.”
Cronkite’s unhappiness with the manner in which he was ousted from the CBS anchor chair seemed to grow along with his liberality. Six months before his retirement age he was replaced by Dan Rather, whose agents, the story goes, told CBS management unless Rather got the job pronto they were moving him to ABC News. Walter was given a million a year, a seat on the directors’ board, and on March 6, 1981, he signed off, saying “I’ll be away on assignment.”
He reported for his final assignment in the early evening of Friday, July 17, 2009, at the age of 92.