The untrustworthiness of Uncle Walter

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Walter Cronkite at his anchor desk

He wasn’t evil, really, but he was immensely influential, often in very counter-productive ways. In fact, when his career was at its height, few people anywhere wielded the kind of power he did to shape the way in which Americans thought about the world around them. No single person today, in a time when the news media are so highly fragmented, comes close to having as much influence as he did.

His name was Walter Cronkite, and for almost twenty years, from 1962 to 1981 – though it feels like longer – he was the anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News.

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Cronkite (far right) during World War II

It was an era when almost every American’s main source of information about the world was one of the three evening network news shows. And of the three, CBS, during the reign of Cronkite, was the undisputed champion. It had the biggest budget and the highest viewership. And it had Cronkite, who, year after year, was voted the most trusted man in America. It was long before the Internet, which helped people around the world to understand just how foolish it was to place their unreflecting trust in any single news source.

©Globe photos / lapresse 18-07-2009 Washington, USA varie È morto Walter Cronkite, leggenda del giornalismo Usa Aveva 92 anni. Racconto' agli americani i piu' importanti eventi del secolo scorso Walter Cronkite, il celebre anchorman della CBS che per il pubblico televisivo americano fece la cronaca di eventi storici quali lo sbarco sulla luna, l'assassinio di John Kennedy e lo scandalo Watergate, e' morto all'eta' di 92 anni Only Italy WALTER CRONKITE ©DM/GLOBE PHOTOS, INC.
Reporting on Vietnam

To careful observers, it was clear that Cronkite (who, born and raised in Texas, had been a war correspondent in Europe and spent several years at CBS before taking over the evening news) admired John F. Kennedy and favored Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. His reporting during the latter campaign was manifestly intended to reinforce LBJ’s message that Goldwater was a dangerous right-wing war hawk who might well plunge the nation into nuclear war.

Later, Cronkite played a pivotal role in shifting public attitudes toward the Vietnam War. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was really a U.S. victory, Cronkite spun it as a U.S. defeat, calling the war itself “unwinnable” and suggesting that American troops be withdrawn. President Lyndon Johnson famously said that by losing Cronkite, he had lost America. There’s no way to know what course the war might have taken had Cronkite stuck to reporting the news instead of commenting on it, but his verdict on the war caused millions of Americans to view it fatalistically and led many government officials to think not in terms of how to win but of how to back out honorably.

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In Vietnam

Similarly, in the early 70s, Cronkite’s relentless attention to the story of the Watergate break-in (he had always hated Nixon) helped to turn it into the political scandal of the century. Indeed, the glorifying of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by the movie All the President’s Men served to downplay the role of Cronkite and CBS in bringing down the Nixon administration. (After all, few Americans outside of the Beltway read the Washington Post.) In this instance, too, Cronkite may have affected the course of history.

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In 1985

Throughout his years at CBS, Cronkite – known affectionately to the nation as “Uncle Walter” – carefully maintained his pose as an impartial, hard-working reporter, digging for the truth and fearlessly following it wherever it led. After his retirement, he dropped the act and made clear his far-left leanings. Among much else, he attacked President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and his plans for a so-called “Star Wars” weapons system (which, in fact, actually ended up helping to bring down the Soviet Union). Cronkite was also an early eco-hysteric, reporting seriously on “expert” predictions that the planet was on the verge of environmental catastrophe. (Even so, as one critic has noted, “he thought nothing about hopping on the gas-guzzling supersonic Concorde.”)

In his later years, when he gradually morphed into a far-left crank, Cronkite said that he had always considered fear of the Soviet Union ridiculous and overblown, and called for a United Nations-run world government that would strike a balance “between capitalism and communism.”

And that’s the way it was. Alas.

Always a Communist: Pete Seeger

The Weavers

As we saw yesterday, the folk singer Pete Seeger was, in the late 1930s, a slavish servant of the Kremlin line who was capable, at a moment’s notice, of making a 180-degree change in his position on any issue whatever. To continue the story: in the 1950s, he was a member of the Weavers, whose hits included the old tunes “Goodnight, Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; in the 1960s, this time as a solo act, he became a symbol of leftist protest. Identified strongly with the civil-rights and Vietnam War eras, he co-wrote such songs as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which became hits for performers ranging from The Byrds to Marlene Dietrich. Seeger also helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the protest movement. (He claimed that he was the one who changed the auxiliary verb in the title from “will” to “shall.”) Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he refused to answer questions; six years later he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, but his conviction was overturned. In November 1969, he led half a million protesters in singing “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House.

Speaking to the House Un-American Activities Committee

According to some sources, Seeger became disillusioned with Communism, quitting the Party in 1949. Other sources, however, say that he considered himself a Communist all his life. “I still call myself a Communist,” he said in 1995, “because Communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” On the one hand, he went to Russia in 1965 and to North Vietnam in 1972. On the other hand, he sang at a benefit concert for Poland’s anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in 1982. At some point he also publicly apologized for having thought Stalin was anything other than a monster – but he watered down the apology by saying, “I guess anyone who calls himself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks.”

Performing with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie in 1968

And so on, for several more sentences, the point being that everybody alive today has ancestors who did horrible things that need to be apologized for. The difference, of course, is that today’s Christians did not personally work with Torquemada or take part in the Crusades – whereas Seeger himself was a willing tool of Stalin, mindlessly following his orders and tailoring the message of his music to the Kremlin directives of the day. Then again, in 2007, heeding a critical article by historian Ronald Radosh, Seeger wrote “Big Joe Blues,” a song in which he accused Stalin of ruling “with an iron hand” and of having “put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land. / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race. / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place.”

Good try, but it could be argued that this is pretty weak stuff. Did Stalin really set humanity back “in the same nasty place”? Or did he, by injecting sheer terror into the daily lives of an entire country and by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering tens of millions, take it to places far nastier than those anyone else (excepting perhaps Hitler and Mao) had ever conceived of?

Sunsara Taylor’s war on “the war on women”

We’re spending this week in the constantly agitating company of tireless activist Sunsara Taylor, a longtime member of Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party. Over the years, she’s been the public face of a number of different groups purportedly dedicated to fighting different injustices. These days, as we’ve seen, she’s a spokeswoman for Refuse Fascism, which seeks to unseat President Trump (who, she argues, is worse than Hitler) and replace him with (who else?) Bob Avakian. Years ago, as we saw yesterday, she was involved in End Pornography and Patriarchy, a bold campaign to end America’s “war on women,” which, again, only Avakian could put a stop to.

taylorwarAnother group on Taylor’s résumé was “The World Can’t Wait,” which was active around 2007 and which was one of many organizations protesting America’s war in Iraq. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel that the real point of “The World Can’t Wait” was to bring in members who were motivated by antiwar sentiments as a first step toward recruiting them into the RCP. Taylor “spoke at over 50 campuses” in an effort to “Drive Out the Bush Regime” and thus bring an end to the war. In connection with this antiwar effort, she and her colleagues also made a practice of shouting down politicians who were trying to deliver speeches. “The World Can’t Wait” made a good deal of noise during George W. Bush’s presidency but seems to have disappeared into the ether by the time Barack Obama took office.

sunsBut Taylor didn’t go away. After putting in a good few months trying to stop America’s wars in the Middle East, she shifted gears and threw herself, heart and soul, into an effort to rid the planet of religion. This movement was tied in with the publication of Avakian’s 2008 book Away With All Gods: Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. Just as “The World Can’t Wait” seemed to be a transparent attempt to exploit the antiwar movement to gain RCP converts, so Away With All Gods and the attendant activism comes off as a painfully obvious effort to swell RCP ranks by piggybacking onto the then-hot atheism movement spearheaded by Christopher Hitchens, whose bestseller God Is Not Great had come out in 2007, and Richard Dawkins, whose The God Delusion appeared in 2008.

Last year found Taylor involved in yet another crusade. In the months prior to the election that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Taylor was busy helping to run the RCP’s “Get into the Revolution Organizing Tour.” Along with her RCP comrade Carl Dix, she traveled from campus to campus around the U.S., trying to convince students “to become communists and kill off America.” On to that triumph tomorrow.