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Posted at 10:48 AM ET, 05/18/2012

Cronkite and Vietnam

[Because it’s Microbe Friday: If you haven’t seen it, check out my story on ancient, boring, enervated, malingering and very ancient bacteria buried in clay deep beneath the abyss of the Pacific Ocean. These organisms make your average slug look like a Kardashian. They’re barely alive. The story has links in it to some of our past perusings here on the blog about ET and microbes and shadow biospheres and all that jazz.]

[Geopolitics fix: I really liked this Ezra Klein column on America’s future, which I found on page 2 of the newspaper this morning (he really ought to have a blog or something — he’s that smart). The piece basically says to people bemoaning American decline: chill. Not a problem. He mentions some stuff we’ve discussed here in the past — demographic challenges in China, Japan, Europe, for example — but makes a key point that you don’t hear very often: We want these other countries to get rich. It’s win-win — provided we’re good with diplomacy and spreading American values. Ezra writes:”... the sun may now set on the British Empire, but the average British citizen lives much better because of the medical and computer technologies developed in Britain’s former colonies. If those colonies hadn’t grown rich and strong enough to throw off the mother country’s yoke, the result would be a worse world for everyone — including the British.”]

Now, the main item: The latest issue of American Heritage magazine has a piece by Douglas Brinkley on Walter Cronkite’s famous February 1968 report for CBS News about the Vietnam War.[I can’t seem to track down a link to the story, but will keep trying.] Brinkley reminds us of the immense power of the news anchors in that day. They had outsized influence with their half-hour broadcasts each evening at the dinner hour in a country that had fully embraced television but could pick from only three networks. Cronkite was given the anchor chair at CBS in 1962 when it was still a 15-minute broadcast. He took it to 30 minutes the next year, changing the formula for the industry. By early 1968 he had surpassed his competition at NBC (the Huntley-Brinkley Report) to become the most-watched anchor.

Brinkley’s story is a dramatic narrative of Cronkite’s decision to go to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and find out first-hand whether the rosy scenarios of the administration and the generals were legitimate. As Brinkley tells it, Cronkite knew that he would do something different with his special report: He would render an opinion. It went against CBS News tradition and policy, but he got the green light from his boss, and, with two producers, flew to Saigon and hit the pavement — and the jungle.

He slept on the floor of a doctor’s house just like the other war correspondents. He talked to everyone, took copious notes. In the end he anchored a 30-minute prime time special. He judgment was carefully worded, and thus all the more powerful: We couldn’t win the war.

“[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate....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.”

And thus LBJ famously lost Cronkite.

I found this fascinating reading, in part because Cronkite was such a vivid figure in my living room as a kid. He radiated authority. I remember how, every week, he’d tell us how many Americans, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese had died in the war.

What’s striking now is how much thought, preparation, energy, time and money went into what amount to a single, moderated, but firm verdict. We live today in the era of the instant opinion and the ill-conceived rant. Cronkite was a reporter through and through.

Cronkite’s report was a turning point in public opinion on Vietnam and may have influenced LBJ’s decision not to run for re-election. Brinkley adds another thought: It opened up mainstream journalism to opinion, breaking down the tradition of the neutral, objective voice.

See what you did, Walter?

By  |  10:48 AM ET, 05/18/2012

 
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