A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Michael Winship
Last Thursday night, I was a guest at the screening of a new, first-rate, public television documentary, "Walter Cronkite: Witness to History," part of the PBS series, "American Masters." It airs Wednesday night, July 26 (check your local listings).
Hard to believe it's been a quarter century since Cronkite, soon to be 90, signed off for the last time as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. Over the course of a career that ranged from covering the Eighth Air Force's bombing raids on Nazi Germany during World War II through the Kennedy and King assassinations, man on the moon and the first months of the Reagan administration, Cronkite became the avuncular tribal elder to whom the nation turned for truth and reassurance.
When he departed his newscast, one article observed, "Walter Cronkite leaving the air is like George Washington's face leaving the dollar bill."
There was a valedictory air to Thursday's screening and not just because those in attendance included veterans of the CBS glory days: folks like Sandy Socolow, former executive producer of the Cronkite newscast, and friends Joe and Shirley Wershba, who were played so engagingly by Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson in "Good Night and Good Luck," George Clooney's movie on Edward R. Murrow and the fight against McCarthyism.
Nor was what made the night soggy with nostalgia simply a wistful longing for a time when TV news could entertain but still had standards of literacy, taste and a seriousness of purpose it now too often lacks.
No, what the documentary summoned was a sense of reverse déjà vu: events of the past so reminiscent of what's taking place in our world today, but with a major difference -- the greater willingness then of mainstream, broadcast news people like Cronkite to stand up and demand to be heard, to point fingers, tell truth and shame the devil.
Iraq now, Southeast Asia then. There on the screen is a disenchanted Uncle Walter in 1968, after the Tet offensive put the lie to American claims of progress and victory in Vietnam. "With each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster ..." he warns. "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."
Surveying scenes of destruction in the Vietnamese city of Hue, he tells viewers, with just a trace of sardonicism, "If our intention is to restore normalcy, peace, serenity to this country, the destruction of those qualities ... is obviously a setback."
Similarly, this week, the Washington Post published excerpts from a new book, by its senior Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks, called "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."
He writes, "This book's subtitle terms the U.S. effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism -- that is, with the view that the U.S.-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation. Spooked by its own false conclusions about the threat, the Bush administration hurried its diplomacy, short-circuited its war planning, and assembled an agonizingly incompetent occupation."
But those are the words of a newspaper reporter -- you're probably not going to hear that kind of forthrightness from any of our current-day, primetime anchors any time soon. Yet, back in the day, it was commercial network newscasts that widely disseminated the investigative journalism of their print counterparts. "American Masters" points out it wasn't until Cronkite and CBS Evening News broadcast stories summarizing the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that the nation began to comprehend the implications of Watergate's skullduggery.
In the Cronkite film, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee says, "I remember how important that was to the movement of the story ... 'The great white father' had decided that this was going to be a good story. And that gave us a big boost."
Media consolidation, conglomerate ownership and the intimidating tactics of the current administration prevent today's broadcast journalists -- as opposed to the conservative squawking heads dominating cable news -- from speaking their minds. It didn't stop Cronkite. "We're not defending a precious right of our own, a freedom of speech and freedom of press," he told the St. Joseph, Missouri, Chamber of Commerce in 1969. "What we're defending is the people's right to know. And we have to be in the front line of that battle at all times."
Then there's Israel. As Richard Wolffe reports in the current Newsweek, "Bush thinks the new war vindicates his early vision of the region's struggle: of good versus evil, civilization versus terrorism, freedom versus Islamic fascism. He still believes that when it comes to war and terror, leaders need to decide whose side they are on."
Oversimplified, undiplomatic, biased -- a thought process that has smashed America's former reputation as a largely honest broker in the Mideast peace process.
Rewind 18 years and there's Cronkite, shuttle diplomat of the airwaves, bringing Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin together via telephone and television. In the film, he recalls, "It set up the whole series of meetings and finally the Camp David meeting and the rapprochement, the first between an Arab state and Israel." Former President Jimmy Carter adds that it led to "this treaty between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has ever been violated. And which I think still sends a signal or a clear message to the rest of the Mideast that peace is possible."
A sister-in-law of mine, stranded during some of Cronkite's heyday in the sweat and dust of El Paso, Texas, would yell to the TV at the end of every newscast, "Walter, please, don't go! Don't leave us!" He was her contact with the world outside, her reality check, the most trusted man in America.
Ironically, it seems that now the most trusted man is a fake newscaster, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Unlike the real thing, only he has the temerity to say, as he did to Senator John McCain Monday night, "President Bush has been very clear that he believes he has made the world a safer place ... My question is, how much safer can the world afford to have him make us?"
And that's the way it is. Uncle Walter would be proud.
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
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Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. He can be reached at the above e-mail address or in Manhattan at (212) 989-7622. Permission is granted for reproduction. Please credit Winship and Messenger Post.