Monday, July 20, 2009

Glenn Greenwald on Cronkite's Legacy: Character and Integrity

As a follow-up to my tribute to Walter Cronkite yesterday, I’d like to note Glenn Greenwald’s very fine article “Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did.” Greenwald contrasts the craven fawning of contemporary journalists, faced with the lies and unethical behavior of the rich and mighty, with the willing of Walter Cronkite to speak the truth even when it was inconvenient for him to do so—and to search for that truth beneath the mountain of rhetorical garbage that power often heaps atop inconvenient truths in order to make those truths in accessible.

Greenwald notes,

In fact, within Cronkite's most important moments one finds the essence of journalism that today's modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.

As he points out, asked in 1996 if he had any regrets following his retirement, he answered,

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation.

Cronkite was referring here to the journalistic standards that journalists of integrity like himself developed, as they learned to spot and to name the lies hidden in much official government discourse about the Vietnam War—an integrity that vanished from American journalism in the final decades of the 20th century.

And then Greenwald adds,

It's impossible even to imagine the likes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and friends interrupting their pompously baritone, melodramatic, self-glorifying exploitation of Cronkite's death to spend a second pondering what he meant by that.

Amen. And our country (and world) are much the poorer for the legacy those pompous baritone talking heads are leaving us, when they could have followed in the footsteps of Cronkite instead. Mr. Bush and his criminal cronies could not have come to power and remained in power without the active complicity—and immoral abdication of journalistic integrity—of mainstream American journalists in the final decades of the 20th century, who have traded in the heritage of Walter Cronkite and Molly Ivins for, well, the mess we have now, all glitter and no substance, all spin and little grit.

The true heirs of Walter Cronkite are few and far between in the American media today: Paul Krugman, Leonard Pitts, Bill Moyers, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Bob Herbert, etc. The rest are dross, whose willingness to toe the party line, lazy refusal to delve beneath the surface, cozy self-serving connections to the rich and famous, and blowsy pontifications constitute the antithesis of real journalism.