I Have Failed to Become a Sergio Leone Fan
Duck and Cover

Walter Cronkite, R.I.P.

I suppose it’s inevitable that as one gets older the tendency to think that the world is declining gets stronger. I do try to keep that tendency in check, but sometimes the evidence is really pretty persuasive: for instance in the case of television journalism.

I was never a great admirer of Walter Cronkite. Watching the evening news was never a regular habit for me, and as my own opinions became more fully formed, and often in opposition to the conventional liberalism of most journalism, I didn’t particularly trust what Cronkite and others were telling me. And I found his magisterial “That’s the way it is” irritating—I always wanted to reply, “No, that’s the way it looks to you.” Yet I never thought that he was consciously bending the truth, only that he had a distinct point of view which limited him in ways of which he might not have been entirely aware. I can’t say as much for most television journalists now; they seem both more aware of their biases and less interested in transcending them. Of the partisan quasi-journalists like Hannity and Olbermann (to be fair to both ideological sides), I would rather not even speak.

Whatever Cronkite’s limitations, he seems a giant compared to his successors. It’s partly because he seemed to have more integrity and skill as a journalist. But it’s also because he seemed to be a man of a type that the nation just doesn’t produce anymore. He had—at least in his screen presence—a dignity, intelligence, and maturity which no one much seems to have anymore; no one in the public eye, anyway.

He was an old-school liberal who represents much of what was good about a disappearing sort of genteel WASP establishment liberalism (I’m not sure about the AS part, but he was an Episcopalian), a liberalism which had not yet, or not entirely, ossified into an ideology. He was a political liberal, certainly, and is sometimes denounced by conservatives for having said that a journalist is liberal by definition. But if you look at the entire passage, he doesn’t mean what he’s accused of meaning :

“I think being a liberal, in the true sense, is being nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic, non-committed to a cause—but examining each case on its merits. Being left of center is another thing; it’s a political position. I think most newspapermen by definition have to be liberal; if they’re not liberal, by my definition of it, then they can hardly be good newspapermen. If they’re preordained dogmatists for a cause, then they can’t be very good journalists; that is, if they carry it into their journalism.”

This is a more fundamental sort of liberalism, a matter of character and of intellectual will rather than of political viewpoint. We could use more of it in politics and journalism. Nowadays a self-described liberal is every bit as likely as a conservative to be not only a dogmatist but a bigot, by which I mean one whose intellect is subservient to anger and hatred. (Bigotry and stupidity don’t necessarily go together; plenty of our intellectuals and semi-intellectuals are bigoted.)

Our political discourse will never again be dominated by a few voices in the way that it was in Cronkite’s time, and overall I think that’s a good thing, because those few voices left out too much of the truth, left too many questions unasked. But it seems that the more voices there are, the more shrill, hostile, and unreflective—in a word, the more uncivilized—they have become.

Good night, Mr. Cronkite. You were never anything less than civilized.



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