50 years ago, Walter Cronkite told America the bitter truth. We need more Cronkites today | Will Bunch

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CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reports from a bombed out building after the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War in 1968.

In February 1968, CBS’s Walter Cronkite — popular anchorman on one of just three national nightly newscasts that came into America’s living rooms for 30 minutes every night — met a trio of network reporters for dinner on a 10th-floor rooftop restaurant at the Caravelle Hotel in South Vietnam’s embattled capital of Saigon. The veteran newsman, then 51, seemed shell-shocked — ordering a drink but then staring off into the distance in what one writer later called “utter disbelief” over what he’d recently seen. He watched as  helicopter gunships kept firing rounds into the neighborhoods that U.S. generals had been assuring Cronkite were under the safe control of America and its ally.

That afternoon, Cronkite — who’d been touring the war-ravaged country for a special report on the state of the Vietnam War in the face of the bloody Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnam and its allies in the Viet Cong — and his two producers had flown back from Hue, site of the worst fighting, in a military helicopter along with a dozen dead U.S. Marines in rubber body bags. Now at dinner, CBS newsman John Laurence was giving Cronkite what he remembers as “an impassioned earful of personal observations” of just how badly the war was going for the U.S. and South Vietnam, further swaying Cronkite toward what would become an iconic moment in the history of U.S. journalism.

The generals and even President Lyndon Johnson had been lying to Cronkite and to the American people about what was really happening in Vietnam. This coming Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the night — Feb. 27, 1968 — when Cronkite went on national TV to speak the truth, that the fighting was, at best, a “stalemate” and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation. The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.

“Walter was too good a reporter not to take into account all the people he talked to on that trip,” Laurence, now 78 and living in England, told me by email — meaning both the spin from the generals and the reality of the bitter fighting he’d glimpsed in Hue. “In the end, when he decided to call for negotiations, I suspect it was his reporter’s intellect that figured out what was going on, despite what he was told by some he saw on the trip.”

The reporter’s intellect and instincts of Cronkite — who died in 2009 — still echo a half-century later, at a time when a U.S. government is telling lies and threatening basic democratic norms on a scale that once would have seemed unthinkable, even back in the tumultuous 1960s when the Pentagon and the White House kept falsely assuring the public there was “a light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam. In 2018, can journalists look past the blinders of contrived objectivity, stare straight into the camera, and speak the plain truth? And when they do, will America listen the way it listened to Walter Cronkite in 1968?

Cronkite, who’d risen to journalistic prominence as a World War II newsman for United Press International covering bombing raids over Germany and 1944’s Battle of the Bulge, was very much a creature of postwar America as it morphed into the Cold War against communism — the rationale for sending more than 500,000 U.S. troops to defend South Vietnam and prop up its shaky government. His early coverage of the war was clearly shaped by the rosy reports he received from top brass like Gen. Creighton Abrams, an old World War II buddy and source, and even from LBJ, who would call Cronkite directly to unload. But as 1967 flipped toward 1968, CBS reporters in the field were starting to tell a different story.

“The American public was getting a televised version of the truth on CBS News, though it may not have been as true as what was really going on in the countryside where the war was being fought,” said Laurence, who applauds Cronkite and his producers for airing his often-critical reports. But the even grimmer reality of the war was laid bare by the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks launched jointly by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces on January 30, 1968, that jolted the situation on the ground in Vietnam and public opinion back at home. The most alarming moments came when Viet Cong forces blew a hole in the fortress-like U.S. Embassy in Saigon and staged a fierce six-hour battle in which five Americans died before the invaders were beaten back.

Back at CBS headquarters in New York, the initial reports from the Tet Offensive were greeted with shock. “What the hell is going on,” said an exasperated Cronkite as he ripped a particularly dire report from the news wire. This was nothing like Johnson and the generals had been telling him about the state of the war. Right away, the former war correspondent started urging his bosses to send him to Vietnam — with a twist. The avuncular Cronkite — whose just-the-facts objective reporting style had created his reputation as “the most trusted man in America” — wanted to give Americans his own personal impression of who was winning the war, and what should happen next.

Cronkite expected pushback from the network — but it never came. His boss, CBS president Dick Salant, had been thinking along the same lines. Salant argued, as reported by historian Douglas Brinkley in his definitive biography Cronkite, that the anchorman could use that trust he’d built with the viewer to cut through the layers of government propaganda. Salant reportedly told Cronkite that “we at CBS have established a reputation for honesty and factual reporting and being in the middle of the road….Tell them what it looks like — from your being on the ground, what is your opinion.”

It took Cronkite and his team five grueling days to reach Saigon on Feb. 11, 1968 — landing at the airport with the sounds of bombs and artillery fire in the not-far distance. As the CBS crew rode into the capitol, Brinkley wrote, they saw scared children along the road. “Cronkite had encountered the same hollowed look in the eyes of displaced persons in Belgium and the Netherlands, a fright that spoke of hunger, panic and confusion.”

That put the anchorman in no mood to hear the fantastical spin from the American military commander. Gen. William Westmoreland. The troop commander known — not always affectionately — as “Westy” insisted to Cronkite that America was still winning the war despite the initial chaos, and that the crucial city of Hue was back under U.S. control even as he pressed a demand for yet another 200,000 troops.

Cronkite was skeptical, and he wanted to see the truth for himself, to spend as much time talking to the grunts as he did with the top brass. The highly paid newsman donned a helmet and heavy flak jacket, drank from a canteen and used the same foul latrines as the troops as he and his producers were unable to travel to Khe Sahn where the fighting was too dangerous — revealing in itself — before finally reaching Hue. The situation there was nothing like “Westy” had told Cronkite. Young American boys were still fighting — and dying — to retake the city.

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Cronkite and his crew reporting from Vietnam in February 1968.

Wrote Brinkley: “The credibility gap between the reality of Hue and Westmoreland’s spin was blatant.” Cronkite never got as close to the front lines as his younger correspondents like Laurence, but he saw enough, filling an old reporter’s notebook with observations that today can be found at a library at the University of Texas in Austin. Years later, Cronkite told Brinkley he was only doing what he’d learned in Journalism 101 back at San Jacinto High School in Houston, Texas — “the more information, the better.”

The helicopter ride out of Hue with the dozen body bags was a turning point. “It was quiet,” Cronkite’s producer Jeff Gralnick would later tell the Wall Street Journal. “Nobody said anything. It was an instant understanding for everybody in that helicopter of the cost of the war.” When Cronkite met his old pal Abrams, now the No. 2 American general in Vietnam, by a roaring fireplace in Phu Bai, he heard another plea for the 200,000 additional troops, which he later said he found “sickening.”

At this point, what remained for Cronkite was to get safely back to New York — easier said than done, as his jet took off from Saigon nearly straight up, like a rocket, to avoid enemy fire — and tell his conclusion to American people, that the war could not be won. The message that was crafted by Cronkite and his main producer Ernest Leiser,  and delivered at the end of a 10 p.m. prime-time CBS News Special Report, may sound measured when viewed today, in a world accustomed to the 24/7 shouting of cable news — but it caused a political earthquake.

“Both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,” Cronkite said. “For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” He concluded that “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Daniel Hallin, a University of California-San Diego communications professor who wrote The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam, said that while Cronkite was part of a larger wave in U.S. public opinion that had already begun turning against the war in 1967, as the depths of a quagmire emerged, he did help “change the conversation” among media elites about Vietnam. “It’s certainly true,” Hallin said, “that Johnson and other elected officials could have taken Cronkite as a sign of changing public opinion.”

Just one month after the Cronkite Vietnam special aired, LBJ stunned the nation by declaring he wouldn’t seek another term as a president. There remains a raging debate to this day whether the then-president had watched the CBS report and — as related in one account — said that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But the longer-term import of calling out government baloney and taking a stand on Vietnam was real.

Cronkite placed himself as the top of a journalistic tsunami as the media transitioned from pro-government Cold War mouthpieces to a tougher stance of questioning authority. LBJ’s Vietnam lies were surely still ringing in Cronkite’s ears in the fall of 1972 as he pushed for two extraordinary lengthy reports into the Watergate lies of a new president, Richard Nixon, that kept the scandal alive when other media was ignoring it. Likewise, the Vietnam “credibility gap” that fueled Cronkite’s 1968 commentary was surely on the minds of the editors at the New York Times and then the Washington Post who published the secret Pentagon Papers in 1971, the story dramatized in the current film The Post.

Some critics insist what came to be known as “the Cronkite moment” in American journalism is overblown; after all, the president who was elected just nine months later, Nixon, had his own agenda in Southeast Asia and despite public opinion kept U.S. troops there until early 1973, at a cost of 20,000 additional American lives. The former CBS newsman Laurence says today that  “Walter’s stand certainly helped — though it took a long time…to work its way through to the end of the war.” But he also calls the anchorman’s 1968 commentary “courageous.”

That courage may be the ultimate lesson from 50 years ago. Government lying didn’t end — it returned in waves, with echoes of Vietnam in 2002 and 2003 when the George W. Bush administration built its case for another overseas war, in Iraq, on a bed of blatant falsehoods. Today, President Trump and his administration lie to the American people on a scale that is unimaginable, on matters as trivial as the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration and as important as the scope of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election or covering up for a wife beater with daily access to the president.

What’s more, Team Trump has declared that a functioning free press is the “enemy of the American people,” and threatened other norms, from an independent justice system to voting rights, that are essential to democracy — and without democracy, journalism is useless. Rising authoritarianism is a time to toss “on one hand, on the other hand” out the window. Journalists today have the same responsibilities that Cronkite had in 1968, to listen to every side, to be fair, and to always remember that “the more information, the better.” But the ultimate responsibility is to the higher truths that — just like Cronkite’s Saigon — come under daily mortar fire in Donald Trump’s warped vision of America.

“What Cronkite did says to journalists today: Watch out, there are limits to neutrality,” Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor and media critic, told me. “When those limits are reached, ‘objective’ journalism is in uncharted waters, and you have to use your judgment.”

Times change. Cronkite’s approval ratings only grew after he spoke truth on Vietnam. Today’s journalists who try to do the same thing will face withering attacks on social media from a reactionary minority that somehow elected a president. But an essential part of truth telling is not worrying about the reaction or even the ultimate outcome — but merely confronting every single lie, even when they come at you as fast as rounds from an M-16. A new kind of journalism that is clear-eyed about the current threat to democracy may or may not save America from autocracy. But it will mark today’s reporters as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.