Time: Cronkite, the 'Patron Saint of Objectivity' -- Well, Actually, Thankfully, No

Most Americans who were born before 1970 remember Walter Cronkite as a towering figure of TV news. I remember being riveted to the set during his final newscast in 1981. But one grand claim about Cronkite should not stand: that he was "TV’s patron saint of objectivity," as Time TV writer Jim Poniewozik wrote in a tribute. Even Poniewozik can’t stick with that claim. He went on to honor Cronkite for trusting his audience enough to abandon a "false even-handedness that flies in the face of reality." If writers want to appreciate Cronkite’s biases, that’s much more honest than claiming he wasn’t part of the historic CBS effort to paint the world in liberal hues. Here’s the end of Poniewozik’s appreciation:

Cronkite was TV's patron saint of objectivity, in an era when audiences still believed in it (though he became a liberal columnist after retiring from TV). And yet ironically his most famous act as a news anchor was a rare occasion when he ventured an opinion. After reporting in Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite commented on the air that "it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked that if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost Middle America; soon after he announced that he would not seek re-election.

Despite his comments on the war — or because of them — Cronkite cemented a reputation as a straight shooter. His successors, at CBS and elsewhere, would later be denounced as biased hacks for far less opinionated statements. Maybe Cronkite benefited from working in a time when Americans simply had more trust in authority. But it may also be that he earned that trust — that by calling a quagmire what it was, he showed that a false even-handedness that flies in the face of reality is not the same as honesty.

And more important, he had faith that his viewers, even in a painfully divided period in history, were sophisticated enough to understand this. What finally distinguished Walter Cronkite, perhaps, was not the trust his audience placed in him. It was that he was a good and wise enough newsman to place his trust in his audience.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis