The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl wrote in 1949, in a book on Napoleon, that "history is an argument without end." Proving the point, Greensboro blogger Joe Guarino suggests that the recently departed Walter Cronkite and CBS News led biased media coverage of the war in Vietnam, unjustifiably "turn(ing) the American people against...the American effort in Vietnam." He goes on to assert that national media should not be free to "undermine the war effort." Other posters on Joe's blog chime in on the failures of Cronkite and his team to be cheerleaders for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and for "paving the way" for liberal opinion to dominate the media today.
It's not just local bloggers who are making these far-fetched points. In a bout of revisionist fantasy after Robert McNamara's death, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Vietnam was "the liberals' war" but was salvaged to "a draw" by conservatives after liberals "lost their resolve." The WSJ's James Taranto followed up with a blog post on "The Cronkite Tragedy: How a Great Newsman Helped Undermine His Profession's Ethos." Matt Paterson, a National Review Washington Fellow, writes that Cronkite "has blood on his hands" because Vietnam doves like him were responsible for the bloodbath that occurred in the region after the U.S. withdrew. And Cliff Kincaid of AIM.org ("Accuracy in Media," from a conservative perspective) has published "The Terrible Truth About Walter Cronkite," resurrecting old charges that the "most trusted man in America" misreported Vietnam so badly that he "create(d) the conditions for a premature U.S. military withdrawal, leading to the loss of the lives of 58,000 Americans in vain, not to mention the millions of additional deaths caused in Vietnam and Cambodia by the Communists."
I could not disagree more strongly. With the benefit of hindsight and perspective, we can see that these arguments simply lack merit. The notion that the long war in Vietnam would have turned into an American success story were it not for the "loss of resolve" of American liberals, the liberal media, and consequently, the American people, is preposterous, as I documented in my responses on Joe's blog and in an earlier post here on "The Fog of War." And it's a bit shocking that Joe opposes the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press, apparently supporting government control of media coverage of war. (When I challenged him on this, he stated that all media should "voluntarily" support government war policies. If media isn't cooperative, he suggests independent journalistic reports from war zones should be jettisoned or eliminated.)
Joe approvingly quotes an article from 1978 by Air Force Captain Don Bishop claiming that "the politicians, press, and peace advocates stabbed us in the back in Vietnam." Ed Cone points out the phrase "stabbed in the back" was used by Hitler and other German reactionaries after World War I in an effort to stir up a popular backlash against the German establishment who "betrayed" the German people by losing World War I. The right-wingers have forgotten that Cronkite was given a prestigious award by West Point for his war coverage. His speech is here.
Like their German counterparts, American reactionaries today hope they can stir up a backlash and a sense of "betrayal" and a feeling of being "stabbed in the back" by the American media and political establishment, which they say portrayed the Iraq war effort as a failure from early on, and turned the American people against it. According to this paranoid, conspiratorial analysis, the media establishment promoted an inexperienced, unqualified African American socialist to the White House (who would not have won without their support), told the American people that the government had no choice but to intervene in the free market, bail out banks, Wall Street financiers and auto companies, impose national health care on the people, create a huge deficit, raise taxes and bankrupt the nation.
People who make these reactionary arguments never learned the lessons of Vietnam, apparently never read seminal books like David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest or Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake, and apparently do not accept the rights of the American press as enunciated in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1971 Pentagon Papers case.
They subscribe to a conspiratorial view of the media and the "eastern liberal establishment," ignoring the fact that the media establishment was an early cheerleader for both the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq.
On economic policy, they are essentially free market fundamentalists who don't realize or accept that their retrograde philosophy lost for good in the 1932 election and has been repudiated by many Republican presidents -- Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- and Republican presidential candidates, most recently John McCain.
I cannot imagine that these reactionary ideas are going to bring the American conservative movement back into political dominance. It's sad to see their vilification of Cronkite -- evidence of just how out of touch they are.
Yet they have more clout today than they did in Cronkite's time. One of the ironies of history is that instead of being hailed as a journalistic hero at his retirement in 1981 and then again at his death, if Cronkite had somehow managed to hang on to the anchorman's slot for another couple of decades, he no doubt would have been demonized by the right, and attacked by bloggers. Faced with declining ratings and lowered credibility, he probably would have been booted out of CBS News like his successor Dan Rather was. The power of the "mainstream media" ain't what it used to be.