Siding with the powerless: Ideas from 60 years in journalism
By Walter Cronkite
We [journalists] reached our intellectual adulthood with daily close-ups of the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful. If that is what makes us liberals so be it, just as long as . . . we adhere to the first ideals of good journalism.
-- I hope we all get along as we go along. I expect that occasionally we will have some differences of opinion. I expect to be provocative. After more than 60 years as a journalist, I have some ideas about the state of our nation, of our world, of our culture, and I wouldn't be true to the purpose of a column if I didn't vent them here.
My hope is that you will find my commentary interesting, informative, perhaps occasionally amusing (deliberately, that is), and, at all times, fair and as unbiased as it is possible for opinion to be.
You are going to disagree with me from time to time, and I will be disappointed if you don't. That fulfills the provocative requirement of a column like this.
When the nation was deeply divided over the Vietnam War, we at CBS got a lot of mail complaining about our coverage. I was disturbed until we found out that the number of letters condemning us as being government lackeys in support of the war almost precisely balanced those condemning us as being sympathetic to the war protesters. I relaxed with the simple philosophy that if you are being shot at from both sides, you must be in the middle of the road.
Let's face this one down right now: I am neither Republican nor Democrat. I am a registered independent because I find that I cast my votes not on the basis of party loyalty but on the issues of the moment and my assessment of the candidates.
Basically I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, but those who rabidly support those positions will be more often disappointed in my views than otherwise.
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 side 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 the inequality in a nation that was founded on the commitment to equality for all. So we are inclined to side with the powerless rather than the powerful. If that is what makes us liberals so be it, just as long as in reporting the news we adhere to the first ideals of good journalism -- that news reports must be fair, accurate and unbiased. That clearly doesn't apply when one deserts the front page for the editorial page and the columns to which opinion should be isolated.
The perceived liberalism of television reporters, I am convinced, is a product of the limited time given for any particular item. The reporter desperately tries to get all the important facts and essential viewpoints into his or her piece but, against a fast-approaching deadline, he or she must summarize in a sentence the complicated story. That is where the slippage occurs, and the summary too frequently, without intention, seems to emphasize one side or the other.
(The answer to that problem, as with much else in television news, is in more time for the dominant evening newscasts. In our ever more complicated and confusing world, those newscasts need an hour.)
Incidentally, I looked up the definition of "liberal" in a Random House dictionary. It gave the synonyms for "liberal" as "progressive," "broad-minded," "unprejudiced," "beneficent." The antonyms it offered: "reactionary" and "intolerant."
I have always suspected those fine folks at Random House of being liberals. You just can't trust anybody these days.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mailcronkitecolumn.com.