Cronkite, Murrow, and the false god of objectivity

When Walter Cronkite died last year, he was hailed in many obituaries as an avatar of objectivity, overlooking that his greatest contribution to the country he loved was shedding that cloak when he believed that America was at peril in its involvement in the Vietnam War, doubling down with his courage in going after the powerful in the Watergate scandal. Now, in the wake of a series of journalism ethics kerfluffles, culminating in the Keith Olbermann affair, Olbermann made some of the same points last night in a powerful special commentary on MSNBC, responding to a piece by former ABC newsman Ted Koppel that -- just like the Cronkite obituaries last year -- grossly misinterpreted what happened in a golden age of television.

Said Olbermann:

There was the night Cronkite devoted fourteen minutes of the thirty-minute long CBS Evening News to a report on Watergate which devastated the Nixon Administration, one so strong that the Administration pressured CBS just to shorten the next night's follow-up, to eight minutes.

There was the extraordinary broadcast on Vietnam from four-and-a-half years earlier in which he insisted that nothing better than stalemate was possible and that America should negotiate its way out, "not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

All that newscast did was convince the 36th President of the United States to not seek re-election. The deserved and heartfelt sadness at the loss of a great journalist and a great man had been turned into a metaphor for the loss of a style **of** utterly uninvolved, neutral, quote "objective" reporting. Yet most of the highlights of the man's career had been of those moments when he correctly and fearlessly threw off those shackles and said what was true, and not merely what was factual.

Read the whole thing, or watch the video below. Olbermann's commentary covers a lot of ground, including the fact that Koppel's notion of objective journalism -- which he himself was practicing as host of ABC's "Nightline" at the time -- failed the nation and the American public in the run-up and the early days of the Iraq war. And now in 2010, the risk of journalists who are afraid to report the truth are just as great as they were in 2003, maybe greater. And America needs some Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows as they really were, and not as the Ted Koppels of the today's muddled-up world pretend them to be.