Cronkite Gets Candid

Walter Cronkite (search) was a CBS News (search) anchorman for almost two decades.  He has been a syndicated newspaper columnist for fewer than two weeks.  Already, though, he has addressed one of journalism’s most serious issues, and in a much more candid manner than was ever possible for him behind the anchor desk.

I quote from Cronkite’s first column, for the King Features Syndicate (search), on the subject of political bias in journalism:

“I believe that most of us reporters are liberal, but not because we consciously have chosen that particular color in the political spectrum.  More likely it is because most of us served our journalistic apprenticeships as reporters covering the seamier sides of our cities---the crimes, the tenement fires, the homeless and the hungry, the underclothed and undereducated.

“We reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all.”

That is what Cronkite believes.  What I believe is that he is not only being candid here, but accurate.  However, I would put it a little differently.

The majority of young men and women who enter journalism do so not because they want to report the news but because they want to make a difference in society.  In other words, they want to report certain kinds of news.  They do not want to convey facts or explain processes; they want to shine spotlights on abuse.  In some cases they are motivated by idealism; in others, by the hope that some of the light will reflect back on them.

It has always been this way.  Think back a century ago to the muckrakers.  Ray Stannard Baker (search) shone a spotlight on the abuses of coal mine operators.  Ida Tarbell (search) shone one on the abuses of Standard Oil (search).  Lincoln Steffens (search) and Jacob Riis (search) shone their spotlights on the squalid living conditions of immigrants.  And Upton Sinclair (search), the novelist-muckraker, focused his wattage on the dangerously unsanitary meat-packing industry.

Whether today’s journalists know the preceding names or not, they know the tradition that these people created, and they want to follow in it.  They are activists.  They want society to change because of the stories they tell.  People like this tend for the most part to be liberals.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are by definition people who want to conserve what is best in the culture; they are promoters of virtue more than exposers of vice.  They, too, are troubled by society’s abuses, but more often than not believe in less theatrical solutions than do liberals, in solutions brought about by self-reliant individuals working quietly, behind the scenes---not by agencies of government working creakily in the headlines.

The problem with conservatives, at least with those conservatives who rail at the liberalism in today’s journalism, is that they see it as a personal attack on their values, a vast arraying of forces against them.  It is not.  There is nothing conspiratorial about the liberalism in the Fourth Estate; it is, rather, in the nature of the business, in the nature of those who are drawn to it.  As Cronkite so famously said for so many years, closing his newscasts:  “And that’s the way it is.”

But it isn’t.  At least, not to the extent that it used to be.  For what has happened over the years is that the liberal influence in journalism has become so pervasive that alternatives have developed, and there are more alternatives to liberal bias today, it seems to me, than there have ever been before---more newspapers, more magazines, more talk radio programs, and even an all-news cable network that strenuously avoids a left-leaning emphasis on issues of public concern.

Journalism, in other words, is now attracting, and in greater numbers than ever, those who want to shine a spotlight on a different kind of abuse---the one-sided presentation of news.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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