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Walter's choice -- Cronkite's lesson for today's journalists

I have to start with a confession -- I did not grow up in a Walter Cronkite household. I'm not sure why -- I was just a kid and didn't have control of the remot...I mean, knob...back then. One fact that's been buried in many of the obits that marked the news legend's passing on Friday at age 92 is that during the 1960s, NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report -- which is what we watched -- had higher ratings, and it was was with them, and not "Uncle Walter," that I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Then, a few months before I graduated from college and became a full-time journalist myself, Cronkite left the stage for his retirement. That was 28 years ago.

But today, as we mourn Cronkite's death and celebrate his remarkable life, I would have to say that no other newsman has had as great an impact on me, and on what I have come to believe about the role that journalists must play in American life. It was only years after the fact that I learned more about -- and came to grasp the remarkable significance of -- what should be held up this week as the crowning moment of Cronkite's career. It took place on Feb. 27, 1968, when Cronkite -- after days of agonizing about how to balance his roles as a leading journalist and as an American citizen -- aired an editorial calling for a negotiated end to the war in Vietnam, an action that he realized posed enormous risk to his career as a newsman.

It was not a choice he made lightly, but only after traveling to Vietnam in person and balancing what he saw and heard on the front lines with the official government spin. In taking the courageous and difficult stand, he undoubtedly -- as my friend Greg Mitchell noted the other night -- saved many lives. But he also offered a roadmap for saving American journalism -- a lesson that was sadly lost on most of the profession when it most needed to be heard, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the time that the nation so desperately needed another Walter Cronkite, but there was no one of his stature to be found.

Cronkite was very much a product of his generation, the so-called "Greatest Generation" that faced dual challenges in the Great Depression and World War II that still tower over any crisis that followed. It was a special time to become a journalist, as new technology -- culminating in the rise of television -- could reach millions of people at one time, placing a greater premium on accuracy and fairness than ever before.

But at the same time, the unprecedented events of the mid-20th Century, especially the rise of totalitarianism and fascism in Europe and the war and genocide that followed, made Cronkite's generation keenly aware of the thin line between "the way it is" -- his signature nightly sign-off -- and the dystopian way that things could be. In fact, one of Cronkite's most memorable assignments as a newspaperman for United Press was covering the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals, where -- he wrote decades later -- he'd argue over nightly drinks with his journalist colleagues of the importance of holding top officials accountable for their actions.

Twenty years later, Cronkite was the anchorman for CBS News, and the big story was the war in Vietnam; for several years, the veteran newscaster was no different from most of his colleagues, reporting the story from the framework that had been laid out by Lyndon Johnson 's White House and the Pentagon, that the conflict was a winnable war, necessary to prevent a string of vital nations from flipping Communist like a set of dominoes. But as the U.S. death toll rose sharply in early 1968's Tet Offensive, Cronkite's instincts told him it was critical that he see for himself what was really happening halfway around the world, and that he report his findings honestly to the American people.

And what Cronkite found in early 1968 shocked him, as best recounted by another greatly missed journalist of that era, the late David Halberstam, in his book "The Powers That Be." Early in his trip, Cronkite went to the South Vietnamese city of Hue, which U.S. generals assured the newsman had been "pacified," only to find himself in the middle of a deadly firefight, finally airlifted out of the city with the body bags containing 12 young American GIs. Halberstam wrote that Cronkite was "moved by what he had seen, the immediacy and potency of it all, the destruction and the loss and the killing, and the fact that it was begetting so many lies, first by the command here in Saigon and then by the Administration in Washington."

Halberstam told of a conversation that Cronkite held on a hotel rooftop, as artillery fire pounded in the background, with a young CBS correspondent Jack Laurence, that...

...he understood how restless and frustrated a young man could become with the bureaucracy of journalism and what seemed like the insensitivity of editors; he had undergone similar frustrations in World War II, the difficulty of communicating with older man thousands of miles away who were not witnessing what he was witnessing. Laurence was touched. He was left with the strong impression that Cronkite had been moved by the war and by what he had seen.

 So for a man who cherished his objectivity above all, Walter Cronkite did something unique. He shed it, and became a personal journalist. He had already talked it over with his superiors in New York and they all knew the risks involved, that it was likely to be a blow to the reputation for impartiality that he and CBS had worked so hard to build, that it was advocacy journalism and thus a very different and dangerous role...It was not something that he wanted to do, but it was something he felt he had to do.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion. . . . [It] is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite, good night.

President Johnson famously told aides that "if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." A month later. LBJ stunned America with the news that he would not seek another term and peace talks began shortly after that. There was no Hollywood ending -- U.S. combat dragged on for five long years, but the fulcrum had tipped with Cronkite, as the main focus turned to ending the war rather than expanding it. A few years later, Cronkite saw a similar gathering threat to the American body politic in the Watergate scandal, and CBS was alone in devoting two lengthy reports to that abuse of power, well ahead of the competition. Cronkite never lost his journalist's instincts for thorough reporting, but he also understood something very important, much as his CBS predecessor Edward R. Murrow had shown with Joe McCarthy a generation earlier.

Cronkite understood that the ultimate role that journalism can be forced to play in democracy is, quite simply, to fight to preserve democracy itself, and that the greatest threat to our republic was when elected leaders choose to lie to the American people. That didn't mean abandoning the core principles of journalism -- aggressive fact finding, which includes first-hand observation and talking to all sides, as Cronkite did on his trip to Vietnam, or an innate sense of fairness and justice. But he knew that journalism was more than rote stenography --parroting the untruths that LBJ and the Pentagon said about the war and finding a political opponent to quote deep down in the story for "balance." He knew there could be a time when the only way to inform the American people of a higher truth was to step outside the straight jacket of objectivity.

To turn a famous phrase on its head, Cronkite realized there are times when a true journalist does yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater...when there is an actual fire. It is not an easy call to make, but Cronkite did the right thing, displaying real courage years before his colleague Dan Rather turned "courage" into a weird catch phrase. Because of what Cronkite did in 1968, some people who would have perished were able to get out alive.

Walter Cronkite lived on for a long time, long enough to see the consequences when there was no one with his bravery and his journalistic principles in a similar position of influence. And so when a new generation of American leaders lied yet again to the citizens, about non-existent weapons of mass destruction and phony ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq, none of the nation's most powerful journalists left the cocktail-party cozy confines of the Beltway to "pull a Cronkite" to uncover the real facts, let alone try to speak the broader truths to the American public (and the handful of grunts who did try were shunted aside).

This time, lives would be needlessly lost, because no top journalist would speak up with the simple American virtue that Cronkite displayed in 1968. In the two days since we learned of Cronkite's death, so much has been written about the man, about his rare tone of authority, about the avuncularity and comfort offered to couch potatoes by their "Uncle Walter," about the incredible events that he reported from moon walks to the Kennedy assassination. All those things are true, but they also tend to miss how he was willing to risk all of that because he felt his responsibility to his country and to the truth was more important than his career. That he could make such a choice was the true meaning of Walter Cronkite.

The good news here is that, in my opinion, all is not lost. The failure of journalism in the 2002-03 run-up to the Iraq War may have been a bottom. In the years since then, we've paid a little more attention to the people who got it right like Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, we've seen conventional journalists radicalized into truth-to-power speakers like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, we've been blessed with exciting young talent like Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, and we've seen journalists using media that didn't exist in Cronkite's day -- bloggers like Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo -- using the Internet to create a whole new way of story-telling with the goal of a broader reality.

Our world is very different from 1968, and it's not clear if any one newsperson could have the amount of influence that Cronkite could have for one night (or whether that would even be desirable). But on many canvasses, great and small, where journalists are engaged in a quest for real truth and not an artificially manufactured one, the spirit of Walter Cronkite is still very much alive today.