Walter Cronkite, a plain and honest man, has had a long look at the United States credibility gap. He finds it frightening. “Today truth and honesty are surrounded by untruth and dishonesty, by dissembling and distortion, by cynicism and disbelief. In the area of government, this is a matter for which we all bear responsibility in a democracy and which should be a matter of direct concern and immediate action.”
He thinks the problem not just moral or philosophic–his phrasing– but a real, immediate danger “that could directly affect our ability to survive.” Therefore the C.B.S. newsman has tendered a criticism of government policy that is extraordinarily harsh, coming from a mild, earnest man dedicated to cool objectivity and avoidance of editorializing, as he nightly reads the news.
With reference to the war in Vietnam, he said: “This Administration and preceding ones did not level with the American people on the nature or scope of the commitment which, I submit, they themselves must have known was one of the ultimates of our policy.”
Moreover, “misleading of the public has become general armed forces policy.” And Cronkite’s blasts carried beyond Vietnam. He made substantially the same charges in connection with the holding of aluminum prices and the Cuban missile crisis.
However, Cronkite did not broadcast these interesting views–based on his long news experience and deep belief in democracy–on his evening news program. He delivered them on February 9 in the comparative obscurity of a Johns Hopkins University lecture hall. It is as if James Reston were to correct in the Columbia Journalism Review errors he committed in The New York Times. Cronkite has a primary responsibility to his millions of viewers. It is to them he should be addressing his alarm about Administration deception.
What is perhaps even more disturbing than the uneasy feeling one gets that Cronkite’s talk was mere rhetoric is the newsman’s unquestioning acceptance of a governmental basic premise. “Our problem,” he said, “is how the nation can be kept informed and how it can be given all the information that is necessary for the viable function of a democracy while denying to the potential enemy the information which is capital to his cause ”
But that, basically, is the Pentagon view. Since World War II, the government has extended its definition of the state of war to encompass total war, undeclared war, hot and cold war, hence potential war. In such a state of perpetual terror, “the potential enemy” is always with us, free access to information is forever denied, and Cronkite really has no cause for complaint.
If Cronkite did not mean that, he should say on the air exactly what he did mean.