"The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as a national immune system, zapping scandal mongers and quashing wild rumors," wrote former "green jobs czar" Van Jones in the Sunday New York Times.
This may be one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines in recent memory. Jones left the White House when his background — as an alleged 9/11 "truther" and as a self-confessed "communist" and "revolutionary" — became grist for the Fox News mill. Mainstream media mostly ignored the story until after he was fired.
Now Jones, with billets at Princeton and the Center for American Progress, casts himself as yet another victim, just like Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture employee fired last week after website publisher Andrew Breitbart released a misleadingly edited video of her (Breitbart, a friend, insists to me that he did not edit the video himself).
You've just got to love Jones — a former member of STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), a Mao-influenced organization with a "commitment to the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism" — giving Cronkite, the dashboard saint of bourgeois America, his props as a linchpin of American democracy. Yes, yes, Jones says he's no longer the Red radical he says he was, say, a decade ago. But still: Come on.
I must say, I find such nonsense exhilarating and exasperating.
For generations, conservatives lamented the decline in "gatekeeping." When Hollywood portrayed glandular instincts as the new moral compass of the secular age, conservatives waxed nostalgic over the lost decency of the "studio system." When the education industry shelved the great books and hugged every self-esteem fad, conservatives lamented the "closing of the American mind" and the demise of the three Rs. When the left became enamored with a "riot ideology" that mistook lawlessness for political protest, conservatives invoked "law and order." Name a front in the political and culture wars, and conservatives defended the authority of authority and the tradition of tradition, while liberals and leftists defended sticking it to the man.
Except all the other times. Teacher unions and tenured professors, now that they control their guilds, are near reactionary in their white-knuckled grip on the status quo. Liberal legal scholars are a cargo cult to stare decisis, because the precedents are all on their side. On these fronts, the conservatives serve as the stick-it-to-the-man brigades, while liberals like gatekeepers.
Nowhere is this more true than in the temples of journalism, where the high priests are barricading the doors with pews and candelabras to fend off the barbarians.
Jones' nostalgia for Cronkite — truly one of the most overrated national icons of the 20th century — is ultimately so much self-serving bunkum. For instance, when the Climategate e-mails — between leading climate scientists — were released in 2009, a veteran New York Times environmental reporter refrained from posting the private e-mails, a standard he probably would not have taken with internal e-mails from, say, BP.
The house Cronkite built did many fine things. It also locked out competing points of view, buried inconvenient bodies, spun the news and racked up a formidable list of Shirley Sherrods all its own. The New York Times whitewashed Stalin's genocide. Cronkite misreported the significance of the Tet offensive to say the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Dan Rather, Cronkite's replacement, began his career falsely reporting that Dallas schoolchildren cheered JFK's murder and ended it falsely reporting on forged National Guard memos. The Rodney King video was misleadingly edited; Janet Cooke made up her stories for the Washington Post.
The media environment today is so dizzying because of two revolutions. On one front we have the upheaval of the Internet, of which the WikiLeaks story — the leaking of 92,000 government documents about the war in Afghanistan — is Exhibit A. (The leaks weren't just private; they were official secrets! But who cares!) On the other front there's the consumer backlash — largely conservative, with Fox News as Exhibit A — against the old ideological media monopoly. This pincer movement can be scary. But it's progress over the Cronkite era.