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Are The Top Journalists Insiders Or Outsiders?

A Commentary By Larry Sabato

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Something truly astonishing appeared in a Washington Post column on July 25, 2009 (click here to view). It was written by Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) and the man who is perhaps most widely remembered for announcing RFK's death in June 1968. Mankiewicz was also the political director of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern's losing 1972 campaign. The column contained a two-fold revelation about the just-deceased Walter Cronkite, the longtime CBS News anchorman. Here are the disclosures, in Mankiewicz' own words:

  1. "Armed with a poll showing Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted man in America, I proposed that [McGovern] put forward Walter Cronkite for vice president. My idea met with instant, and unanimous, disapproval. He'd never accept, and we'd look bad, colleagues said...Decades later...McGovern [told] Cronkite that his name had been proposed...but was rejected because we were certain he'd turn us down. "On the contrary, George,"...Cronkite replied, "I'd have accepted in a minute; anything to help end that dreadful [Vietnam] war."
  2. "In the late 1960s [presumably 1967], just after he returned from a long visit to Vietnam, Cronkite had sought a meeting with Sen. Robert Kennedy. The meeting was understood to be off the record, and no one else was present. Cronkite began with an acknowledgment of Kennedy's desire not to run for president but pleaded with RFK to change his mind and to announce his intention to seek the White House right away, even though the election was more than a year off...[R]un against [Lyndon] Johnson, Cronkite urged, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war."

Following Cronkite's famous 1968 Tet Offensive broadcast, viewers came to understand that Cronkite was opposed to the Vietnam War, though this opposition was presented as the result of the anchorman's immediate reporting during and after the Tet fighting. Assuming Mankiewicz' memory is accurate--and there is no apparent reason to question it--Cronkite had obviously made up his mind about Vietnam far earlier.

Decades later, everyone knows that Cronkite was a Democrat. After his retirement, he gradually made no secret of his party affiliation and philosophy. But at the time, CBS went to great pains to present him as nonpartisan, and most Americans accepted that this was true. (The other networks played the same game with their anchors, whatever their underlying political philosophy--and not all were Democrats, by the way.) Now we learn that Cronkite was prepared to run for vice president on the 1972 Democratic ticket, had he been asked.

But it is the 1967 Cronkite meeting with Robert Kennedy that stuns. Cronkite willingly became an active player in national politics, choosing a personal favorite for president and directly attempting to induce a prominent politician to run for the White House. Are we to believe that Cronkite's private importuning had no effect on his reporting? Can anyone defend this as even vaguely ethical for a man in his position? Cronkite was a citizen, of course, and if his views on Vietnam and his preferences for president were strong, he had the option to step down as anchorman and enter the political arena in some fashion. Or he could have transitioned into a newspaper columnist or TV commentator, openly pushing the agenda of his choice. Instead, Cronkite had his political cake and ate it journalistically, too.

All of this suggests what most people have always supposed: there is a partisan predisposition among some of those at the top of the journalism profession, despite their denials. Furthermore, some elite journalists do not step back from their bias but privately seek to re-make the world as they prefer it to be.

The remarkable case of Walter Cronkite leads to certain questions. Did he do similar things in additional cases? How about other prominent anchorman and reporters of that time? Were they behind-the-scenes players while pretending to be passive observers?

And what of today's line-up? Everyone knows the ideological predispositions of many prominent personalities at liberal MSNBC and conservative FOX. Much of the programming at these networks is more in the category of commentary than nonpartisan news--though even at these networks there are plenty of correspondents who try to fulfill the old ideal of the disinterested reporter.

How about the anchors and hosts at ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN? What about the White House reporters who have frequent, one-on-one, off-the-record chats with the presidential press secretary and the chief of staff? Are they ever asked to offer strategic and tactical advice--or do they volunteer it?--when the cameras are not on, and there are no witnesses? Is this happening now in the Obama administration and did it happen in prior Democratic and Republican administrations?

Usually these could be seen as impertinent questions, but not after the Cronkite revelations.

The reporter or anchor has classically been portrayed as the outsider, battling the establishment to deliver the truth in the public interest. In the modern day, many of these reporters and anchors have become millionaire celebrities, part of the semi-permanent floating establishment they are supposed to check. How often do they succumb to the temptation to use their fame and position to influence elected and appointed officials, or gain access as the social equals of those elected officials for self-aggrandizement?

What we've just learned about "the most trusted man in America" gives us the right to ask.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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