Maybe it's all Walter Cronkite's fault.
Cronkite is, of course, the living icon of journalistic integrity, the once-upon-a-time "most trusted man in America," and there is much in his career, going all the way back to the 1930s, to admire. Yet what is by now his most famous gesture as a journalist had little or nothing to do with reporting controversial facts, but rather with choosing sides - when, following the Tet Offensive in early 1968, he turned openly against US policy in Vietnam in a just-back from the front commentary - the "We Are Mired In Stalemate" broadcast:
For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster... To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But 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.
Today, it is perhaps depressing enough to consider that this doubly, triply historical broadcast - a moment of cultural history that also affected political and military history - falls under a clumsy mixed metaphor, but at the time, for those fighting the war or struggling to reach judgments about it, the effect of having Mr. Trusted speaking out so unambiguously - and in terms of "cosmic disaster" and "the only rational way out" - must truly have been bracing. President Johnson himself is said to have been shaken: "We've lost Cronkite," he complained privately. Some historians go so far as to suggest that the broadcast was crucial to Johnson's strategic decision to press for negotiations with the North Vietnamese and not to seek re-election.
To be fair, the Johnson Administration and the Pentagon had done much to soften themselves up prior to the breakthrough on their media front, but no one was positioned better than Cronkite to lead the charge. Like so many present-day journalistic field marshalls, but after a Biblical generation before the public's eyes and ears whenever all eyes were focused and all ears attuned, Cronkite spoke as though qualified to render sweeping military, political, and historical judgments. He was in a unique position to vouch for himself, and his language implied - indeed, insisted - that these judgements were much wiser than those of "military and political analysts" whose opinions he gave only an "off chance" of being "right." But it is now a widely held, virtually consensual view among historians that those military and political analysts were much closer to the ground truth than Cronkite, and that the US and its South Vietnamese allies had achieved a major victory on the field, effectively neutralizing the Viet Cong as a military force. The setback to the US effort was political, not military, and would likely not have been exploitable without the active cooperation and intervention of homefront opinion leaders such as Cronkite.
As a matter of fact, even Cronkite's other most famous tele-journalistic act - though not one that anybody would criticize - was breaking journalistic objectivity to shed a tear for JFK. That other founding father of modern television journalism, Edward R. Murrow, is best remembered for humiliating Joseph McCarthy. And, of course, the great paragons of reporting, Woodward & Bernstein, were famous for bringing down a Republican. Now, I'm not about to suggest that these men were wrong or anything but scrupulously honest in their efforts. Nor do I believe that Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Aaron Brown spend their days searching for a way to advance their political agendas. Still, they and their peers from the top to the bottom of the news business have been taught and, more important, have been shown, that bias, though it should be suppressed and combatted, is unavoidable - and that, at a certain point and in a certain way, when the journalist moves from reporting facts to constructing them, it can become the highest expression of their craft. Furthermore, whether or not you're convinced of Cronkite's, Murrow's, or Woodstein's correctness, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the model for American journalism, the frame of frames, has been built on a left-tilting template, with Cronkite in particular having established the pattern of earning the people's trust, then pushing his own policy position.
As I've argued elsewhere, the war in Iraq gives America a chance to re-fight Tet symbolically - and this time to accept and exploit our victory, and at a much lower cost to all concerned. As far as the media are concerned, such an outcome - the final and conclusive contradiction of every self-assured mini-Cronkite's proclamation of "quagmire" or "disaster" - would be a new confirmation of Marx's first time as tragedy, second as farce rule. Increasingly, exposing all the "most trusted" media venues as not trustworthy at all - from the Howell Raines/Jayson Blair New York Times, to the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation and the Saddam-coddling CNN, and on and on, wherever the words "quagmire" and "American military" have appeared together - appears to be essential to the restoration of America's credibility, not just to its enemies but to its friends and even to itself.
If it's an ugly job, blame it on Cronkite, or on the caveman reflex that attributes oracular powers to the demon in the box, but we must destroy the global village in order to save it.