Commentary Magazine


Topic: Walter Cronkite

CNN’s “Newsroom” Problem

The new Aaron Sorkin series “Newsroom” is getting a pasting from most critics and deservedly so, but it was a media column rather than a television review in today’s New York Times that went right to the heart of the problem about much of today’s media. David Carr’s piece in the paper’s business section today discussed how Sorkin’s “valentine” to the TV news business seems to be an appeal for the embattled real-life CNN to rise above the battle for ratings and stick to the exalted task of presenting real news rather than low-brow fare and amped-up partisan opinions. But the problem with that premise is much the same as the problem with Sorkin’s show.

As Carr points out, Sorkin cheats on his premise, because his idea of a righteous diet of straight news rather than the partisanship of right-wing Fox News or left-wing MSNBC is a catechism of left-wing advocacy. But CNN’s slide in the ratings that Carr aptly compares to a toboggan ride on a snowy hill is not due to the public’s lack of an appetite for quality news programming. It stems from the same hypocrisy that allows Sorkin and HBO to pretend their liberal show is an expression of centrism. Just as viewers will quickly realize the pretense that the desire of Sorkin’s fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) to return network news to the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite is a crock, so too do most Americans understand that most of the hosts on CNN tilt to the left and are disgusted by their pretense of objectivity.

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The new Aaron Sorkin series “Newsroom” is getting a pasting from most critics and deservedly so, but it was a media column rather than a television review in today’s New York Times that went right to the heart of the problem about much of today’s media. David Carr’s piece in the paper’s business section today discussed how Sorkin’s “valentine” to the TV news business seems to be an appeal for the embattled real-life CNN to rise above the battle for ratings and stick to the exalted task of presenting real news rather than low-brow fare and amped-up partisan opinions. But the problem with that premise is much the same as the problem with Sorkin’s show.

As Carr points out, Sorkin cheats on his premise, because his idea of a righteous diet of straight news rather than the partisanship of right-wing Fox News or left-wing MSNBC is a catechism of left-wing advocacy. But CNN’s slide in the ratings that Carr aptly compares to a toboggan ride on a snowy hill is not due to the public’s lack of an appetite for quality news programming. It stems from the same hypocrisy that allows Sorkin and HBO to pretend their liberal show is an expression of centrism. Just as viewers will quickly realize the pretense that the desire of Sorkin’s fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) to return network news to the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite is a crock, so too do most Americans understand that most of the hosts on CNN tilt to the left and are disgusted by their pretense of objectivity.

Much of the mainstream media flatters itself that their shrinking audiences are due to the low-brow tastes and stupidity of the hoi polloi whose attention they must fight for. But the reason why audiences prefer Fox and MSNBC to CNN is that they have shed the false façade of objectivity that is at the core of liberal journalism. They are sick of liberal coverage being passed off as objective journalism and prefer the open bias they find elsewhere.

Nor is this faux objectivity of recent vintage. A recent biography exposed the lie at the heart of the myth of Walter Cronkite’s legend when it spoke of his partisanship, bias and even the dirty tricks he used against politicians he didn’t like. But don’t hold your breath waiting for liberals like Sorkin to fess up to the fact that what they really want is a return to the era when their side had a virtual media monopoly, with the three major networks and the top daily newspapers on their side.

Carr understands that Sorkin is fooling himself, but as a staffer for a liberal media giant like the Times that similarly masquerades as a source of purely objective news, he thinks CNN should stick to its quality reporting and not worry about losing its audience to its tawdry competitors. The reality of CNN and the Times is just as skewed as HBO’s fiction.

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Cronkite and the Roots of Media Bias

An essential element of the mainstream media’s myth about its own impartiality is the notion that before Fox News came along we were living in a golden age of broadcast news reporting. The days when national news was the dominion of three networks and a few major newspapers is portrayed as Eden before the fall, an era when partisanship of the kind that is now both familiar and expected was unknown. A key element to this fairy tale is the idea that the journalistic icons of the time, like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, were Olympian figures who would never stoop to play favorites or inject ideology into the news.

But this view is totally false. As media news analyst Howard Kurtz writes in the Daily Beast, a new biography of Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley spills the beans on the godlike anchorman’s unethical practices, including blatant partisanship that would make the conservative talkers on Fox and the liberals on MSNBC blush. While Kurtz still admires Cronkite in spite of his flaws, the problem here is not just that god had feet of clay after all. It’s that the truth about Cronkite throws the entire narrative of the liberal mainstream media under the bus. It wasn’t Fox that poisoned the well of journalism, as former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently alleged. Fox and other such outlets were brought into existence in an effort to balance a journalistic establishment that was already tilting heavily to the left. The real sin here is not bias or even partisanship but the pretense of fairness that Cronkite exemplified.

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An essential element of the mainstream media’s myth about its own impartiality is the notion that before Fox News came along we were living in a golden age of broadcast news reporting. The days when national news was the dominion of three networks and a few major newspapers is portrayed as Eden before the fall, an era when partisanship of the kind that is now both familiar and expected was unknown. A key element to this fairy tale is the idea that the journalistic icons of the time, like CBS’s Walter Cronkite, were Olympian figures who would never stoop to play favorites or inject ideology into the news.

But this view is totally false. As media news analyst Howard Kurtz writes in the Daily Beast, a new biography of Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley spills the beans on the godlike anchorman’s unethical practices, including blatant partisanship that would make the conservative talkers on Fox and the liberals on MSNBC blush. While Kurtz still admires Cronkite in spite of his flaws, the problem here is not just that god had feet of clay after all. It’s that the truth about Cronkite throws the entire narrative of the liberal mainstream media under the bus. It wasn’t Fox that poisoned the well of journalism, as former New York Times editor Bill Keller recently alleged. Fox and other such outlets were brought into existence in an effort to balance a journalistic establishment that was already tilting heavily to the left. The real sin here is not bias or even partisanship but the pretense of fairness that Cronkite exemplified.

To confront the unvarnished truth about Cronkite is not to entirely discount his value as a television performer. There was much to admire about his news sense, and his on screen persona was a commanding and trusted presence that everyone who appears on television aspires to emulate. But the beloved Cronkite who generations of Americans grew up watching was only part of the picture. What Americans didn’t know about Cronkite gives the lie to the notion that the pre-Fox era was one in which non-partisan fairness ruled the airwaves.

According to Brinkley, Cronkite’s partisanship against Republicans (especially Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon) and in favor of liberal Democrats was so open that it must now seem shocking that he was rarely called out about it. He practically conspired with Bobby Kennedy during the run up to his presidential candidacy and was not too proud to stoop to dirty tricks at the expense of Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat he didn’t like.

Kurtz pardons Cronkite’s agenda-driven approach to the news because some of it was motivated by support for good causes like civil rights. But any biased journalist can make the same excuse. Cronkite’s vaunted independence was also undermined by his coziness with those in power, as long as he liked them and was given access, as was the case with John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Cronkite’s ethical lapses, including conflict of interest on an Olympian scale that involved taking freebies from companies like Pan Am, would be enough to get even the biggest name fired today.

So great is Cronkite’s hold on the imagination of many Americans, it’s not likely that Brinkley’s book will do much to tarnish his reputation. Like Kurtz, many will say his virtues outweighed his faults. Yet this is not the question we should be pondering. Cronkite’s personal standing with the public doesn’t matter anymore. What does matter is the still living myth that mainstream outlets like CBS or the New York Times are the impartial sources of news most unquestioningly believed them to be. It’s not that journalism was once pure but is now sordid; it’s that even the most trusted figures of the past were as crooked in their bias as the worst TV screamers of our own day. As with Cronkite, the real sin is not that his successors are biased, but that they pretend not to be.

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