It's been a long time coming, but finally someone in the U.S. punditocracy - the esteemed Michael Kinsley, no less - let slip the truth about the beloved Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite was, like all news anchors, the frontman for a team of reporters and writers. He was a news reader, they were journalists. Same applies today, as we saw as recently as the events triggering Dan Rather's forced retirement, after he fronted a journalistically faulty mini-doc on George W. Bush's military record. As Rather has since said - in a wrongful dismissal suit, among other places - he had no idea of the veracity of the script he was reading. Well, of course not. He didn't report the story.
Anchorpeople from Brian Williams to Katie Couric are the "face" of American TV journalism. The face of American journalism, period, in fact, since TV is so much more powerfully intrusive a force in our living rooms than picking up a newspaper or magazine or reading a website. But while they often carry titles like "managing editor" - insist upon it, to maintain the journalism cred earned on lower rungs of their career ladders - anchors mostly do just read what's put in front of them. Some participate in story meetings and tinker with scripts - Peter Gzowski, a marvelous magazine writer in a previous life, wrote most of what he said on "Morningside." But even he wasn't out in the field reporting. Like almost all anchors and hosts, he was reliant on the unsung heroes who felt the winds of reality in their face. The anchors are driven by limo from their comfortable digs to the studio and back.
In Cronkite's case, I never could, growing up with him, understand the appeal. A comforting, avuncular presence he was, to be sure, but he never once said anything that shocked or outraged me. If anything, that calm assuring voice smothered whatever shock value the the most horrific acts of god and man held when one learned of them elsewhere. That Cronkite was an early "embed" who drank the Kool-Aid of faked body counts in Vietnam for so long made him a gullible figure, more than anything. In all the obits, and the fawning that came before, always there was reference to LBJ saying he'd lost Middle America the day Cronkite finally suggested on air that things were amiss in the Southeast Asia mission. What LBJ actually said might well be urban legend; and as for Cronkite, he was hardly repudiating the war in those comments. One of the pennies had dropped, finally, is all.
So here's Kinsley in his Washington Post column, ostensibly on the topic of how newspapers imagine themselves to be accountable by assiduously admitting their most inconsequential errors - getting names and dates wrong - while oblivious to their larger failings in not warning us that Iraq would be a quagmire and that a global financial tsunami was on the horizon:
Last month, in an already legendary correction, the [New York] Times apologized for seven factual errors in a single article. It was a eulogy of Walter Cronkite, and it had errors such as misspelling Telstar as Telestar and misstating the date of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Times's "Public Editor" wrote a column piling on, in which he noted the irony that Cronkite was "famed for his meticulous reporting." He was? I don't think Cronkite did any reporting at all during the period of his fame. What he was famous for was reading a teleprompter. But that is one correction you'll never see.