- The most trusted name in news is worried about what is
happening to the news media in America.
- "I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy
to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to
be moving away from that," said Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News
anchorman, whose name remains synonymous with American journalism.
- "The way that works is to have multiple owners,
with the hope that the owners will have different viewpoints, and with
the hope that the debate will help to air all sides, or at least most sides
of the issues. But right now I think we're moving away from that approach."
- Speaking to The Capital Times before this weekend's National
Conference on Media Reform, Cronkite said he is particularly concerned
by the decision of the Federal Communications Commission to relax media
ownership rules. By a 3-2 vote in June, the commission approved proposals
that would permit a single media company to own television stations that
reach up to 45 percent of American households, and that would permit a
single media company to own the daily newspaper, several television stations
and up to eight radio stations in the same community.
- "I think they made a mistake, I do indeed,"
Cronkite said of the FCC. "It seems to me that the rule change was
negotiated and promulgated with the goal of creating even larger monopolies
in the news-gathering business."
- With or without the FCC's ownership rule changes, the
veteran television journalist says he sees monopolies developing at the
- "We are coming closer to that (monopoly situations)
today, even without the relaxation of the rules," Cronkite said. "In
many communities, we have seen a lot of mergers already and that is disturbing.
We have more and more one-newspaper towns, and that troubles me. I think
that the failure of newspaper competition in a community is a very serious
handicap to the dissemination of the knowledge that the citizens need to
participate in a democracy."
- Cronkite stepped down as the CBS anchor in 1981. But
he remains active as a journalist, writing a nationally syndicated column
that appears weekly in The Capital Times and other newspapers.
- Much has changed since his days at the anchor desk, Cronkite
said. And while he shies away from suggesting that everything was better
in the good old days, he will say that he is troubled by the timidity of
broadcast media when it comes to questioning those in power.
- In 1968, Cronkite stunned the nation when, after reporting
from Vietnam on the Tet offensive and events that followed it, he went
on air and openly questioned whether the U.S. military would ever prevail
in that conflict.
- "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody
experience of Vietnam is a stalemate," Cronkite told his national
audience. The anchorman went on to call for the government to open negotiations
with the North Vietnamese.
- Bill Moyers, who was President Lyndon Johnson's press
secretary, has speculated that Cronkite's blunt assessment of the war contributed
significantly to Johnson's decision to propose negotiations and to drop
out of the 1968 presidential race. Moyers, who shares Cronkite's concerns
about media consolidation and monopoly, will be the keynote speaker at
tonight's plenary session of the National Conference on Media Reform in
the Orpheum Theatre.
- Would a network anchorman dare speak out in the same
- "I think it could happen, yes. I don't think it's
likely to happen," Cronkite said. "I think the three networks
are still hewing pretty much to that theory. They don't even do analysis
anymore, which I think is a shame. They don't even do background. They
just seem to do headlines, and the less important it seems the more likely
they are to get on the air."
- In an era of increasing globalization and speed of communications,
Cronkite said he thinks the networks should be airing hourlong evening
news programs. "For a country this big and this powerful and this
diverse, a full hour is necessary," he said. "To try to cover
that in 19 minutes is simply impossible."
- Cronkite also thinks the networks should get more comfortable
with criticism. He believes that, after years of battering by conservative
media critics, the networks are increasingly averse to taking risks. During
the discussion about whether a network anchor might question the wisdom
of the Iraq war, he said, "If they (the networks) didn't do it, I
think it would be because they are afraid to get in an ideological fight
- or that doing so might lose them some viewers. ... I think that is a
bad thing, a bad way to decide how to approach a story."
- But what about Cronkite? Does he think that, if he were
an anchorman today, he would try to speak out on the Iraq war?
- "Yes, yes I do. I think that right now it would
be critical to do so," he said. "I think that right now we are
in one of the most dangerous periods in our existence. Not since the Civil
War has the state of our democracy been so doubtful. Our foreign policy
has taken a very strange turn. And I do think I would try to say something
- What exactly would he say?
- Cronkite said he would suggest that the Bush administration
has "confused" other nations about the approach of the United
States to foreign policy.
- "The policy we're following has involved us in a
very expensive set of projects trying to export democracy at the end of
a bayonet," he said. "That has caused a great deal of concern
around the world and I think Americans need to understand this."
- In particular, Cronkite said, he would bluntly discuss
his concerns about Bush's view of when it is appropriate to make war.
- "Preventive war is a theory, a policy, that was
put forth by the president in his policy address," Cronkite observed.
"It upsets all of our previous concepts about the use of power. It
is particularly worrying when our power is almost unchallenged around the
world. It seems to me that this preventive action is a terrible policy
to put forth to other nations. If we are viewed as a pacesetter by other
nations, this is a policy that could lead to eternal war around the world.
If every small nation with a border dispute believes they can go ahead
and launch a pre-emptive war and that it will be approved by the greatest
power, that is a very dangerous thing."
- To Cronkite's view, Bush is a distinctly aggressive president.
"I actually knew Herbert Hoover, believe it or not. And my time as
a journalist goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. In my time, I don't think
we have had any president as aggressive, except possibly Roosevelt. With
Roosevelt, there was in his time a call for leadership, which he gave us.
With this White House, they are aggressive on all fronts, whether there
is a call for leadership or not."
- At the same time, Cronkite said, the Congress is pliant.
Asked about the congressional debate on the Iraq war, he asked rhetorically,
- Cronkite still holds out hope, however, that Congress
might wake up to an issue that concerns him.
- After the FCC voted to loosen the media ownership rules,
the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the commission's
decision. Now more than 200 members of the House have signed a letter urging
that chamber to do the same. So far, the House leadership is blocking a
- "I don't know if I am in a position to encourage
Congress one way or another," Cronkite said. "However, if I were
going to offer my opinion on the thing, I would certainly express my feeling
that it would be better to have multiple ownership."
- - John Nichols, the editorial page editor of TheCapital
Times, is one of the principal organizers of this weekend's National Conference
on Media Reform. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Copyright 2003 The Capital Times