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Why Cronkite Fretted About Media's Future

Walter Cronkite, managing editor and anchor, prepares for a broadcast of the "CBS Evening News."
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John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.

Walter Cronkite never stopped being a journalist.

The former CBS anchorman cared not just about the next story but about the future of reporting in a country where was known for the better part of a half century as "the most trusted name in news."

So it should come as little surprise that what worried Cronkite in the last years of his life was the collapse of journalistic quality and responsibility that came with the increasing dominance of newsgathering by a handful of media corporations.

"I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to be moving away from that," Cronkite told me the last time we spoke about media issues.

The definitional American anchorman, who has died at age 92, recognized that Americans would always need diverse and competing media outlets, with the resources and the skills to examine issues from a variety of perspectives -- and to challenge entrenched power.

Cronkite was, almost by definition, an "old-media" man. He covered World War II, the Nuremberg trials, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the space race and the first moon landing and Watergate in a career that his successor in the CBS anchor chair, Dan Rather, said was characterized by "a passion for reporting and journalism."

Yet, as his 20th century gave way to our 21st, Cronkite made common cause with media reformers who objected to corporate monopolies and the dumbed-down discourse fostered by big media outlets that were more concerned with commerce and entertainment than with civics and democracy.

Speaking of the relationship between media and democracy, Cronkite told me several years ago: "The way that works is to have multiple owners, with the hope that the owners will have different viewpoints, and with the hope that the debate will help to air all sides, or at least most sides of the issues. But right now I think we're moving away from that approach."

The reporter, editor and anchorman from 1962 to 1981, whose name remained synonymous with American journalism to the day he died, fretted in particular about a 2003 move by the Federal Communications Commission to relax media ownership rules. After the commission approved proposals that would permit a single media company to own television stations that reach up to 45 percent of American households, and that would permit a single media company to own the daily newspaper, several television stations and up to eight radio stations in the same community, Cronkite said, "I think they made a mistake, I do indeed. It seems to me that the rule change was negotiated and promulgated with the goal of creating even larger monopolies in the news-gathering business."

The veteran television journalist was especially concerned about monopolies developing at the local level.

"We are coming closer to that (monopoly situations) today, even without the relaxation of the rules," Cronkite said. "In many communities, we have seen a lot of mergers already and that is disturbing. We have more and more one-newspaper towns, and that troubles me. I think that the failure of newspaper competition in a community is a very serious handicap to the dissemination of the knowledge that the citizens need to participate in a democracy."

Cronkite stepped down as the CBS anchor in 1981. But he remained active as a journalist well into the 21st century, writing a nationally syndicated column that appeared weekly newspapers across the country until just a few years ago.

It was as he was preparing that column that Cronkite and I got to know one another and began an ongoing conversation about the state of the media.

Much had changed since his days at the anchor desk, Cronkite said. And while he shied away from suggesting that everything was better in the good old days, he admitted that he was deeply troubled by the timidity of broadcast media when it came to questioning those in power.

In 1968, Cronkite stunned the nation when, after reporting from Vietnam on the Tet offensive and events that followed it, he went on air and openly questioned whether the U.S. military would ever prevail in that conflict.

"It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate,"Cronkite told his national audience. The anchorman went on to call for the government to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese.

Bill Moyers, who was President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, has speculated that Cronkite's blunt assessment of the war contributed significantly to Johnson's decision to propose negotiations and to drop out of the 1968 presidential race. (Moyers and Cronkite tangled in the 1960s, when the younger man was President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary. But they eventually became so close that, when Moyers was honored for his lifetime of achievement as a broadcaster at the 2006 Emmy Awards, it was Cronkite who led the cheers.)

As the war in Iraq went horribly awry, I asked Cronkite whether a network anchorman would dare speak out in the same way that he had?

"I think it could happen, yes. I don't think it's likely to happen," he said with an audible sigh. "I think the three networks are still hewing pretty much to that theory. They don't even do analysis anymore, which I think is a shame. They don't even do background. They just seem to do headlines, and the less important it seems the more likely they are to get on the air."

In an era of increasing globalization and speed of communications, Cronkite frequently suggested in our conversations that the networks should be airing hour-long evening news programs. "For a country this big and this powerful and this diverse, a full hour is necessary," he explained. "To try to cover that in 19 minutes is simply impossible."

Cronkite also argued that the networks needed to get more comfortable with criticism. He believed that, after years of battering by conservative media critics, the networks were too averse to taking risks. During the discussion about whether a network anchor might question the wisdom of the Iraq war, he said, "If they (the networks) didn't do it, I think it would be because they are afraid to get in an ideological fight - or that doing so might lose them some viewers. ... I think that is a bad thing, a bad way to decide how to approach a story."

But what about Cronkite? Did he think that, if he were an anchorman today, he would have spoken out against the Iraq war?

"Yes, yes I do. I think that right now it would be critical to do so," he told me a few months after the invasion in 2003. "I think that right now we are in one of the most dangerous periods in our existence. Not since the Civil War has the state of our democracy been so doubtful. Our foreign policy has taken a very strange turn. And I do think I would try to say something about that."

What exactly would Cronkite have told America from the CBS anchor desk?

He said he would have suggested that the Bush administration had "confused" aggressive with defense and force with democracy.

"The policy we're following has involved us in a very expensive set of projects trying to export democracy at the end of a bayonet," he said. "That has caused a great deal of concern around the world and I think Americans need to understand this."

In particular, Cronkite said, he would have bluntly discussed his concerns about Bush's view of when it is appropriate to make war.

"Preventive war is a theory, a policy, that was put forth by the president in his policy address," Cronkite observed. "It upsets all of our previous concepts about the use of power. It is particularly worrying when our power is almost unchallenged around the world. It seems to me that this preventive action is a terrible policy to put forth to other nations. If we are viewed as a pacesetter by other nations, this is a policy that could lead to eternal war around the world. If every small nation with a border dispute believes they can go ahead and launch a pre-emptive war and that it will be approved by the greatest power, that is a very dangerous thing."

To Cronkite's view, Bush was a distinctly aggressive president. "I actually knew Herbert Hoover, believe it or not. And my time as a journalist goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. In my time, I don't think we have had any president as aggressive, except possibly Roosevelt. With Roosevelt, there was in his time a call for leadership, which he gave us. With this White House, they are aggressive on all fronts, whether there is a call for leadership or not."

At the same time, Cronkite said, the U.S. Congress had grown too pliant. Asked about the congressional debate on the Iraq war, he asked rhetorically, "What debate?"

Cronkite was heartened as the years passed and more members of Congress challenged the executive branch. He delighted when younger journalists, many of them working in new media, began to ask tougher questions and make blunter statements. He appreciated bloggers and independent media producers who used documentaries and YouTubes to hold the powerful to account.

Still, he recognized the lingering power of television in our society. And Cronkite continued to worry that broadcast news -- his medium -- had grown too deferrent to power, too stenographic, too consolidated.

"I don't know if I am in a position to encourage Congress one way or another," the old anchorman said. "However, if I were going to offer my opinion on the thing, I would certainly express my feeling that it would be better to have multiple ownership."

Walter Cronkite said he would, as well, remind the powerful that the role of journalism is not to tell Americans what they want to hear but what they need to know as citizens -- because, he said, "journalism is what we need to make democracy work."

By John Nichols:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation