The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.
In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.
There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.
This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”
This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.
For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.
The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.
Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.
Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat: the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events– the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.