W. Joseph Campbell

Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2012 at 9:25 am

Celebrities and movie stars rarely make thoughtful, searching media critics, as Barbra Streisand demonstrated in a tedious and predictable essay the other day at Huffington Post.

The actress indulged a bit in the golden age fallacy, recalling broadcast journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as exemplary newsmen whose talents these days are sorely missed.

“Americans,” Streisand wrote, “are busy, working hard to support and provide for their families. They don’t have time to parcel out fact from fiction. They depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them and to hold individuals running for office, especially the highest office in our country, accountable.”

The claim that Americans “depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them” is surely overstated, given evidence that many Americans go newsless and ignore media content altogether.

Streisand went on, extolling media icons of the past:

Murrow

“Journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow knew it was their duty to know the facts and disseminate them to the public. That responsibility in today’s media world seems to be diminishing.”

Murrow, who came to fame on CBS radio in the 1940s and on CBS television in 1950s, was no white knight, though. He hardly was above the political fray.

As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow privately donated time and expertise in acquainting Adlai Stevenson, the 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, with television.

I cite A.M. Sperber, one of Murrow’s leading biographers, who wrote that Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats” in offering Stevenson tips on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber, who characterized Murrow’s move “a radical departure from his usual practice,” said Stevenson “barely endured” the tutoring.

What’s more, Murrow is the subject of one of American journalism’s more savory and tenacious myths — that he stood up to the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, when no other journalist would, or dared.

Which is nonsense.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow was quite late in confronting McCarthy, doing so long after a number of journalists – including the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson– had become persistent and searching critics of the senator, his record, and his tactics.

Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman from 1963 to 1981, likewise is the subject of a durable media-driven myth — that his editorializing about the war in Vietnam in February 1968 forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to realize the folly of his policy.

Legend has it that Johnson was watching at the White House when Cronkite pronounced the U.S. military “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Cronkite also suggested the negotiations might offer a way out of the morass.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, Johnson supposedly leaned over and snapped off the television set, telling an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions vary, markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program in which Cronkite made his editorial comment.

Johnson in Austin: Didn't see Cronkite show

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally. About the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was joking about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

It’s illogical to argue that Johnson could have been much moved by a television report he hadn’t seen.

Granted, Cronkite’s editorial comment about Vietnam — tepid though it was — represented something of a departure for the avuncular anchorman. He usually tried to play it straight, because he had to.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s impartiality was partly a function of the federal “Fairness Doctrine,” which sought to encourage balanced reporting on the air.

Shafer wrote that “between 1949 and 1987 — which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career — news broadcasters were governed by the federal ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion.

“One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy,” which he notes, the three U.S. television networks of the time “often did.”

So, no: Murrow and Cronkite weren’t exactly paragons of play-it-straight journalism. Pining for them while deploring today’s freewheeling media landscape is neither very sophisticated nor very useful.

Nor even fair to the historical record.

WJC

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