All the President's Men, Blogging, Blogs and Ethos, David Simon, Democracy, Derek Thompson, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?, Education, Essay, free speech, Free Working Press, Freedom, Full Frontal, Halcyon, John Oliver, journalism, Last Week Tonight, News, Newspapers, NPR, patriotism, Politics, Reporters, Republic, Satire, television, The Atlantic, The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, The Wire, Walter Cronkite, Watergate, We Are Mired in Stalemate, Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, Writing
I believe in newspapers and the power of a free working press.
That sentence sounds like it should be immediately followed by “Journalists of the World UNITE” which itself is then followed by a fanfair of trumpets and people dancing in revelry while waving the banners of revolution, but in fact the only response I should, and would hope for, is for the reader to nod their head and agree. Such is the dream, yet not always the reality, and in fact, it seems the last real refuge for real reporting seems to be in cinema or “parody” news programs like The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight. On one side note The Nightly Show is no longer running which is unfortunate because it seems every time Comedy Central puts up a show that tries to present news and information from a black perspective it only ever lasts a few episodes before it gets canceled. That’s an entire article or online lecture by itself, but I’ll have to get to that later.
A few weeks back Last Week Tonight did a piece about the state of Journalism, specifically the Newspaper industry in the United States and the sentiment expressed by John Oliver mirrored Gerald Ford’s now classic statement during his first State of the Union Address. The State of Newspapers in the United States is “not good.” That’s a simple way of saying print news in America is either dying or plagued by bias. The complex way is saying that newspapers in America are on the decline due to the rise of digital news, low sales of printed newspapers, lack of trust by the readers, and the general apathy of readers due to the fact that most people get their “news” via Facebook or Google. There isn’t much, if any money, going into newspapers and this a conflict because a free media is responsible for monitoring for corruption and ensuring that the public of a democracy are informed to what is actually going on in their government.
I recognize immediately that my position can immediately become one of obnoxious preaching or else a nauseating mourning of an industry that possesses an “inherent nobility” and so I’m going to try and maintain a professional distance from emotion. My point in bringing this topic up is not to wail and bemoan the tragedies that are taking place in the journalism industry, but instead to allow these tragedies to illuminate the importance of the media and two articles which shed an revealing light on this subject.
In September of this year, The Atlantic put out an article by Derek Thompson titled Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, and while it’s a short essay it manages to point out several of the reasons why Journalism in general is becoming so suspect to citizens of the United States. Early on in the essay Thompson explains what is happening to that trust:
With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.
This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.
It should be made clear that the article is not Anti-Trump, it simply relies regularly on Trump and Trump supporters denying the legitimacy of newspapers when scandals appear which tends to happen a lot. Still the facts remain that more and more citizens are beginning to recognize or perceive flaws in reporting, and when you take into account that perception tends to create reality far more often than facts it begins to become clearer why so many Americans distrust news. Thompson’s article goes on to list out five reasons why this distrust exists, and the fourth reason, that it’s easier to find news that confirms bias rather than challenging it, he manages to make an important point about how this distrust forms:
Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.
Several weeks back I wrote about the speech Walter Cronkite gave on CBS news entitled We Are Mired in Stalemate. Part of the ongoing appeal and interest of this speech is that it was one of the first times a newsman like Cronkite allowed his personal opinions or assessments to come through in his reporting. This is not so uncommon today, in fact it’s so common it borders on obnoxious. Watching programs like Hannity, The O’Reily Factor, Legal View with B & B, or even anything involving Keith Olberman that isn’t about sports, one becomes buried beneath the weight of personal opinions of newscasters that it becomes so nauseating one has to change the channel or turn off the T.V. and meditate to Stomp to reclaim one’s sense of composure. Watching these shows in bulk is about the equivalent of a years’ worth of self-inflicted papercuts to the webs between the fingers, yet despite this I still find myself watching the news and reading the newspaper.
At the core of this is always my romantic patriotism.
I worry sometimes that I wrap myself up in the American flag, and that despite my supposed dedication to pure, unfettered reason I am actually an emotional gerrymanderer. In my own defense I tend to read a lot of Walt Whitman a man who also had a rather large hard-on for liberty and the inherent nobility of the American populace, identity, and territory. But if I can strip everything down though, and find the purest kernel of honesty to explain the reason why I believe so much in the importance and dedication to a free press is because I really do believe democracy is the best we, as a human species, have got philosophically.
The ages of man have been a constant effort and experiment to co-exist as peacefully as humanly possible and in our time we have constructed governmental-philosophies which have ranged in form from totalitarianism to a level of republic bordering on hippie communes. At the end of this democracy is the one system that, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, leaves at least a modicum of equilibrium. Before I start to sound like fucking NPR, which I appreciate as a news media source, my point is that by studying history it becomes clear that if human beings want a society in which people are equally protected by the law and from the government which is supposed to execute the law, the republic and democracy have been the most successful in accommodating that environment.
But in order for that to exists there has to be a system which monitors government because, to use an old platitude, power corrupts absolutely, or to put it another way, politicians are butt-fucking cowards and thieves and they need to be monitored and transparent because corruption is easily acquired and can quickly become a comfortable vice.
While I was considering this idea, and watching the Journalism episode of Last Week Tonight, I remembered a consistent impression, one moment in the video which kept gnawing at me because it seemed as best as I could describe as “right.” In the video John Oliver introduces a clip from CSPAN which appeared to be some panel or news coverage over the state and future of newspapers and in the clip a man by the name of David Simon explained that the next decade will be a “Halcyon Error” for local and state political corruption due to the pronounced lack of journalism covering simple governmental activities likes zoning board meetings. It wasn’t the diction that sold me on Simon as an important figure in this particular argument however, it was his level of confidence. Interested in the man I did a little digging, starting on Wikipedia. I know I’m supposed to hate that website because it’s the scourge of academic integrity but in reality it has helped me discover sources I never would have. Including the article David Simon wrote for The Washington Post entitled Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?
I read the article in one sitting, it’s not that difficult to finish in one session due largely to the fact that Simon is a fantastic writer for his ability to weave gorgeous prose without going up his own ass. Simon begins his article with a personal and effective opening:
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
It’s an honest question and after reading Thompson’s article I’m tempted to answer it quickly. The simple answer is the American public became disenfranchised with newspapers and news organizations. While on some level this is largely attributed to people simply believing the news is boring or else just really depressing (for the record I’m almost quoting verbatim a friend of mine here) perhaps the largest reason is because journalism has become subject to the pitfalls of capitalism, or really hyper-capitalism. John Oliver expresses and analyzes this far better than I ever could, and so I would recommend my reader actually take the time to find the video on YouTube, but the simplest explanation is that because newspapers are looked on more and more as, and Simon even calls them such in his articles, an anachronism people are looking more to digital content for information and that’s a problem because anyone can contribute to digital media. And I mean Anyone.
I’m an example of this. The reason I began White Tower Musings was because nobody would publish my creative work and so I began writing “essays,” really a charitable word for my early diatribes about power and freedom and Orwell, and publishing them here on WordPress for free. I pay nothing to host my site apart from internet provider, and my wife pays that bill so in fact I really do pay nothing. I can write whatever I want, when I want, and publish it, and while I personally try to make sure each article is well thought out and well researched and written to the best of my ability the real unbiased truth is I’m just some jackass with a blog. And with that knowledge in hand I remember that there are dozens of jackasses with blogs who can write and say whatever they want about current events without having to worry about any kind of oversight or editorial board to make sure their writings are supported by solid sources and facts.
This isn’t meant to be morbid self-loathing, which is my usual same old song and dance, but instead just an honest reflection upon the institution of the news as a force in this country and how a writer like Simon makes it seem not just important but necessary even as it’s dying. Simon offers a glimpse at the contemporary position:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simon wrote Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? in 2008, and I can already sense the reader’s objection. This seems like a moaning diatribe of whining about American Newspapers that doesn’t reflect reality. Plenty of newspapers are writing material old-school journalists would be proud of. And this is a fair objection which Simon actually acknowledges in his article before pointing out the flaw:
Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn’t take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics — a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.
Newspapers are not just about heroism and I recognize how I sound writing that out after preaching about their inherent necessity and nobility. Newspapers are first and foremost about community. Simon points out that often newspapers are in the market for young, hungry, and most importantly cheap employees to produce media content and the conflict with this position is the divorce from their reality. If you don’t have any history with a town, it’s going to be difficult to understand the dynamic and history of the city when you have to report on it. There is a local paper in my own home city but I never read preferring instead to read articles on NPR or else the Washington Post and this in itself reveals the larger bad habit of certain readers. I should not say that I represent a microcosm, but I do believe it’s fair to admit that a portion of news readers in this country take a rather abstract view of news because the news that we do receive tends to concern the larger national or international events, and while these most certainly possess real relevance the problem is that the real impact of such occurrences is always felt at the local level and manifests in different ways.
A question emerges and Simon writes it out plainly and perfectly:
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have — as one, industry-wide — declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?
This final point is reiterated by John Oliver in the Last Week Tonight Special, and echoes in my own summation of the “service” I provide my readers for this site (the difference being that what journalist provide possesses a more immediate utilitarian purpose than my intellectual musings). Freedom of the press is not just a given by the first amendment because the individuals who provide the information citizens need to be informed do not work for free. Reporters are working people who need food, living space, and entertainment commodities the same as every and any citizen of the United States and the problem is their line of work is increasingly being dwindled by the hyper-capitalist system in which media too often given away for free.
The reason people enjoy free internet pornography is because people have grown accustomed to having it at their fingertips, but beneath that is a deeper understanding that the media they’re consuming isn’t worth their money. The conflict with the internet is that too often the content being generated is rarely designed to be a valuable physical commodity from which the consumer can acquire some kind of emotional or personal investment. It’s something to be consumed and then abandoned. My reader may argue that newspapers, even when they weren’t purely digital, existed in the same way for after all a newspaper is produced for one day and then would often be thrown away and in fairness that is a fair criticism.
However even before newspapers moved to a digital market, consumers and readers were willing to pay for the paper. Some of them, and I include myself in this crowd, simply read the paper for the comics or the sports pages, but there are consistent readers who are genuinely concerned and should be genuinely concerned about what is taking place in their local government: whether public money is being used for nefarious purposes, whether or not public projects have actually benefitted their community, and simply to figure out whether their elected officials are crooks.
Simon, Oliver, and Thompson have all offered me a chance to decide whether or not my local newspaper matters or not. In all honesty my local paper probably doesn’t because anyone willing to actually write anything negative about local politics or history would either be silenced or exiled, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It may be my clinging to the romanticism of the Watergate-era, but I do believe the news, whether it’s digital or paper-bound, does matter, and should be trusted, and does play a crucial role in our democracy.
I am just some asshole with a blog, but like Simon I know a great newspaper from a good one. And those few gems are worth reading, and more importantly worth paying for.
Below the reader can find links to the sources for this article. The first is Thompson’s article published in the Atlantic:
The second is the Last Week Tonight special over journalism:
And finally here is the article Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? Published originally in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy:
38th Parallel, Apocalypse Now, bias, biography, CBS News, Cronkite, David Foster Wallace, Douglas Brinkley, E Unibus Pluram, Editorial, ethos, Fareed Zakaria, Forrest Gump, Fox News, Full Metal Jacket, history, Informed Democracy, John Oliver, journalism, Journalistic Credibility, Journalistic Integrity, Korean War, Last Week Tonight, Lyndon Johnson, News Media, Op-Ed, PBS Newshour, Political Discourse, Politics, President Bartlet, Richard Nixon, Speech, television, television series, The Seventies, The Sixties, The West Wing, Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite, We Are Mired in Stalemate
President Bartlet taught me much during his Presidency, and it’s a great tragedy that his administration was so distrusted. Granted he was a fictional man on the television show West Wing that assumed the office sometime after Jimmy Carter (though they never really mentioned him or anybody after him due mostly to timeline issues) but his actual existence aside he taught me several important lessons. One was that James Bond orders a weak martini in virtually every film he’s starred in, and the second is that most of the twenty-first century’s history was nothing but people watching television. I’ve tried finding the exact quote but can’t due either to lazy meme makers who are far more interested in bashing real Presidents than affording fake ones the credit they deserve, or because I was far too lazy to go back and actually sift through the entire series to find one quote. The gist of it is Charlie, played by then young Dule Hill, is taking a history course on 20th century history and Bartlett, who’s a true Classicist, scoffs at him and reminds him that 20th century history is nothing but people watching television and that real history begins with the barbarian hordes attacking Rome.
As so often happened while I was watching West Wing, I laughed at the man’s quirky academic sense of humor, and then thought about having a real epiphany as I realized he was right. I’ve written several essays in the past that dealt with television as a medium. The most recent was my review of David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram, but before that was the review of Brian and Stewie, and even before that was the review of Buckley Vs Vidal, and sometime between all of these essays I began to realize how much television has shaped me culturally and creatively.
While President Bartlett was trying to make a snide point about television, not recognizing the cognitive dissonance of smearing the very medium that brought him to every household in America during the late 90s, really looking at the period starting from the 50s and up television has played a central role in the lives of millions of Americans and perhaps the best example of this is We Are Mired in Stalemate.
In the last few weeks I’ve grown to hate myself for studying the war in Vietnam as much as I do simply because my great uncle died recently. My parents and little sister returned from Houston after helping my aunt move into his house and they managed to save much of the man’s personal papers where, it seems, he was attempting to write some kind of book about the Korean War. I know about two facts of the Korean War: the first is that American forces were pushed back to the 38th parallel by Chinese forces, and the second is that the war saw the integration of black and white soldiers. There was also something about General Mcarthur wanting to drop a nuke but that’s immaterial. The point is in his notes there was a line that struck me “The Korean War was the war everyone forgot. They Forgot about us.” I read that line out loud, and while this sounds maudlin I did feel a morose chill reading a dead man’s words, but my father interrupted by saying, “Well it is, most people talk more about the Vietnam war.”
I really do believe that the cause of this is the fact that the Vietnam war has become so much of a cartoon as well as a national scar, whereas because there wasn’t a soul crushing defeat or warm blooded victory the Korean War was simply lost to time or bad PR. The Vietnam war possesses the images of Helicopters over the jungle, napalm explosions, Marlon Brando chanting “The Horror, The Horror,” Robin Williams making fun of Richard Nixon’s Testicles, Richard Nixon himself, that awful movie Forest Gump, and an entire generation of America’s finest reporters one of them being Walter Cronkite.
It’s hard to appreciate or convey how important the news media was to Americans at the time. In our contemporary media landscape of the United States the press is largely seen as entertainers or biased members of the “lame-stream liberal media.” News has become so inundated with sentiment, faulty reporting, bad jokes, and personality that the thought that a reporter’s sentiment could actually sway public opinion seems farcical to say the least. Nevertheless, during his time as the lead anchor of CBS evening News Cronkite earned not only the public’s trust, but also their respect.
On February 27, 1968, Cronkite delivered the following speech at the end of a news broadcast:
Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won’t show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
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. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But 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.
This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.
It’s easy to look back and observe a flaw or a mistake, and often the narrative of Vietnam is recorded with the 20/20 insight of exactly what went wrong and when and how. To be fair to the actual history, the Vietnam war had actually started during the Eisenhower administration, pushed into a real military concern during the Kennedy administration, an escalated conflict during Johnson’s administration (Lyndon Johnson for the record was President during Cronkite’s famous speech), a bloody mess of chaos and agony during the Nixon administration, and finally an imploding quagmire that ended during the Presidency of Gerald Ford. Nixon takes most of the blame despite the fact that he inherited the war from Johnson who hated the conflict just as much as Nixon, but Johnson’s failure was truly illuminated through the glow of the television screen as Cronkite spoke to millions of Americans.
Cronkite’s commentary is important for the fact that he refers to the incident as a “stalemate.” In the lore that surrounds the Cronkite broadcast, it’s often said that Cronkite declared that the Vietnam Conflict was a quagmire and therefore the United States had wasted its time and hundreds and thousands of innocent lives, but only part of that may be true when one actually reads the broadcast. Cronkite never said the war a quagmire, or that it was over. He simply observed, as good reporters do, the facts of the war, the reality of the politics, and came to the conclusion that the military was stuck.
Looking at this, and looking at the man, I consulted a book on my shelf that I only bought within the last year after watching The Sixties and The Seventies on CNN. Cronkite is a book by one of the regular commentators, a man by the name of Douglas Brinkley. I’d recognize him before watching the series because one of my professors always showed a History Channel documentary (back when you could trust the channel to provide real and factual history) of the French Revolution at the start of her Romantic Literature course. Brinkley has a distinct voice, and his insights and commentary really are a pleasure to listen to (I hope that doesn’t sound too kiss-assy) and so when I discovered he’d written a biography of Walter Cronkite I decided to buy it on Amazon in the usual whirlwind that leaves my credit card hot and my wallet empty.
Brinkley briefly discusses We Are Mired in Stalemate during the chapter dealing with The Tet offensive and he notes:
Delivered in strong, reasoned tones, Cronkite’s nutshell editorial wasn’t radical. Calling the Vietnam War a “stalemate” was a middling position. […] But in the Harshly polarizing environment of early 1968, it placed Cronkite in the dove camp. Cronkite had lent his august name to the Anti-war movement and thereby put it into the mainstream. (378-9).
While I was writing this essay I spent a day at my parent’s place doing some manual labor and helping with the Expense/Revenue entries for their business and I mentioned my “What Would You Read?” Posts on Facebook. It’s a little social experiment I do from time to time when I gather up piles of books, snap a photo, and ask people which one they’d prefer to read. My most recent post included Brinkley’s biography Cronkite, and one of my friends suggested that I should just burn it. When I mentioned it to my family my father suggested that it might be because there are some that, to this day, hold Cronkite responsible for the turning of the American public against the Vietnam War. I admit this was a little far-fetched in explaining why one should burn a book, but it does illuminate part of Brinkley’s analysis because We Are Mired in Stalemate has remained a crucial lore element in the narrating history of the Vietnam conflict.
To reiterate my earlier point Cronkite was a man who retained a great amount of respect from the American public, and a tremendous amount of ethos. Dan Rather has noted in the CNN mini-series The Seventies that Cronkite rarely brought his personal feelings into his reporting, and so this speech is a landmark for that fact alone.
Brinkley goes on however to explore the impact of the report:
The aftershock of Cronkite’s reports was seismic. His opinion was quoted in the press, and it opened the door for NBC News’ Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later. The gossip in the press rooms of America was that Cronkite had offed the president. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, “The Whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.” A wave of relief hit Cronkite for giving voice to his dissent. As a CBS News executive later joked, “When Walter said the Vietnam war was over, it was over.” A lot of Johnson administration officials, including Walter Rostow and Dean Rusk, weren’t amused. […]
As the CBS special aired that February 27, President Johnson was traveling to speak at the Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas at Austin. He took Air Force One to his home state to take part in a birthday party for Governor John. B. Connally, a close friend. According to former White house press secretary George Christian, when Johnson heard about Cronkite’s flagrant antiwar commentary he blurted out, disheartened, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” (379).
It’s important to recognize that this statement is rooted in lore and Brinkley notes this, however even if these were not the exact words spoken, Johnson did realize the effect that it would have. Johnson hated the war in Vietnam, but like Nixon after him he did not want to be the first president in the history of the United States to lose a war, and a stalemate would be just as bad.
It’s difficult, as I’ve noticed several times in this essay, to really understand the relevance of Cronkite’s report to those of us living in this contemporary period. Why should anybody care about an old television broadcast from the late 60s about a war that’s been long over? This is a fair question given the fact that most of the people who care about it tend either to be historians or journalism majors on blogs preaching about the first amendment. To an average citizen of the United States it may seem absurd to suggest that they should care, but in fact they should because the problem of the legacy of Cronkite’s report is not that it helped people realize the Vietnam conflict was going nowhere, it’s the fact that they listened and believed him.
The contemporary political climate of the United States is a polarizing one, and the media which has become just as much a product of capitalism as Burger King and reality shows. With the push of Fox News towards a conservative agenda, and the other news agencies tending to shift in a more liberal view, the ethos of the reporter has largely dissipated. If a report comes out concerning the problems of fracking the reporters are listed as “liberal trouble makers,” and likewise if reporters try to discuss the positive legacies of Regan they are dubbed “backward conservative pundits.” The reporter has become a figure plagued by the shadow of his or her economic bias, and depending on the political bent of their organization their words will largely fall upon either deaf ears, or else upon people who will simply nod and smile in smug self-congratulatory poses. If a reporter came out today and declared that a war was unjust, as many did during the war in Iraq, and even if they possessed irrefutable proof that the conflict resolved nothing, many citizens would simply shrug confident that they couldn’t trust the reporting.
This essay is not a call to arms, nor is it designed to shame the reader who distrusts the media, because I distrust the media. Watching the news is a dance for me because I flip between CNN, Fox news, and CSNBC, and if the reports all seem to match in terms of detail then I trust the facts being presented to me. The fact that I have to do this morbid exercise is a testament to the condition of contemporary news. Though I will note that Fareed Zakaria and PBS Newshour remain the most consistently reliable sources of information concerning world events.
We Are Mired in Stalemate is not just an important speech about the Vietnam war, for its legacy reverberates revealing the shadow which has fallen upon the public of the United States. The first amendment is often the Amendment made to the Constitution that is shouted so vocally in American society, and while many citizens use it to argue for religious or creative freedom, the true inspiration for the clause was for the liberty of the press. This was because the offense that many young colonists were bothered the most by was the local English government’s control of the press whenever colonists objected to certain taxes. A republic, or any free society, requires a free press in order to ensure the defense against a government’s corruption. It’s through the press, specifically the stories the press informs the public about, that democracy is able to continue because it educates the people about facts in their world and reality and government. When a society distrusts it’s reporters, or cannot trust its own reporters, that is the beginning of the end of informed democracy.
It would be almost impossible for a new reporter today to give a speech similar in vein to We Are Mired in Stalemate and have the same kind of social influence that Cronkite did. That’s not cause for despair, but rather an opportunity for reconsideration or rebirth.
The ethos of the reporter is a fragile good, but it is not impossible to obtain.
While I originally discovered this broadcast during my high school and then college level history courses, I did originally consult the Library of America Reporting’s on Vietnam Vol. 1 where the entire speech is printed. While researching for this essay however I stumbled upon a website that gives the entire transcription of the broadcast, if you’re at all interested you can follow the link below:
You can also, if you prefer to watch things, see Cronkite deliver the address. Just note however that portions of the speech have been cut:
I’m a fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and one of the most recent episodes made its focus the problems facing contemporary journalism in the United States. I’ve posted a link to the video below, and I’d encourage you to watch it, if only so you can understand the situation much better:
"Innocence of Childhood" Myth, 1973, Adam & Eve, All the President's Men, An Ideal Husband, Archibald Cox, “Saturday Night Massacre”, Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, cicada, cicada shells, CNN, Dan Rather, Documentary, Elliot Richardson, Film, film review, Fun Home, graphic novel, Howard K. Smith, innocence vs ignorance, Literature, Lord of the Flies, National Innocence, Oscar Wilde, Political Corruption, Politics, President of the United States, Presidential legacy, reflection, Richard Nixon, Robert Bork, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Seventies, The United States Vs Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, Walter Cronkite, Watergate, William Ruckelshaus
I know this is cheap bait I do honestly wonder whether cicadas masturbate during those 17 years they’re underground. The news has been buzzing in the last few weeks, that’s a pun you see, because once again the Cicadas, or annual locusts, are emerging from the ground. At least in New England. I’ve never understood news broadcasts taking time to discuss the appearance of these insects since it seems like every year I step out onto my porch to water the plants my wife bought and then decided to not cultivate when I discover a hallowed exoskeleton clinging desperately to the column post at the corner. My mom still makes fun of me to this day for the collection of “cicada shells” I at one time kept for three years. For three years those protein ladened shells rotted in one of my mother’s Tupperware dishes until eventually she confronted me with them and I was forced to take them out back and step on them hoping they would make that marvelous crunching noise.
Alas at that point they were soft, and so my barefoot was left smeared with left-over cicada juice instead. There was an innocence on my part thinking they would remain hard and crunchy and prime for stepping on, though really it was ignorance which leads me into the second lead-in for this essay.
My sister laughs whenever one of us says the statement, “Children are Innocent.” It’s an inside joke that started when my little sister was in eighth grade and she asked me for help editing a paper over Lord of the Flies. It was a great paper, from what I remember of it, but at some point the older literature enthusiast and philosopher took over and we spent the next half hour arguing over whether or not children were “innocent.” My argument was that the word innocence that people use for describing the unique quality that children possess is really false and that children are often referred to as such because people like to idealize children. Ignorance, I argued, is a better word because when we’re kids we’re not innocent of the word, we’re just ignorant of it. As we grow we learn more and more about our reality, our species, our culture, our universe, and intelligence tends to fuck up that ignorant state when we’re able to enjoy life. My sister argued against me as best she could, and eventually left in a huff. We’re cool now, though I occasionally get death threats through the mail written in blood and phone calls where all I hear on the other end is heavy breathing.
This notion of Ignorance is important because recently I’ve begun re-reading Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic for the twelfth or thirteenth time. I’ve lost track really. My borderline obsession with the book is based on more than just my Queerness seeping into another person’s journey of self-discovery (it feels like leeching off it sometimes I swear), but in fact is due more with the intricate complexity of the book. It took Alison Bechdel seven years to actually write and illustrate the graphic novel, and reading her second work Are You My Mother? reveals her emotional and psychological state during this time period, not to mention demonstrating the creative setbacks during the actual composition.
Reading over the graphic novel again I discovered this time around that I focused first on the idea of recognition, for as I wrote in a previous essay I “recognized” Bruce as sharing a similar erotic interest, but I also considered the idea of ignorance, specifically the way Bechdel explores it in the fifth chapter entitled An Ideal Husband. The chapter relates the events of the specific summer in 1973 when Bechdel was thirteen and all at once a series of events coincided that included: the appearance of the annual cicadas, the Watergate Scandal, her first period, her father was arrested for purchasing alcohol for one of his students, and her mother was performing in a local production of The Importance of Being Ernest.
Bechdel herself notes the serendipity of these events and the potential that listing them all in context to one another can be suspect, but in all cases Bechdel indulgence often leads to brilliance:
This page is beautiful not only for the symmetry, for the top of the porch appears almost like a pediment (a triangle structure often adorning Greek monuments) but also for the balance that sets the stage ultimately for the disequilibrium that is going to come in the next weeks. It’s also interesting to note that Bechdel herself follows my little sister’s policy of innocence. She describes America as an Innocent nation, referring to the Watergate affair as the “fall from innocence” that all children, and by extension, nations are supposed to eventually go through. Bechdel would likewise lose her “innocence” during this summer as she discovers not only the joys of masturbation, but also the erotic truth of her father.
It’s fascinating to observe how sex is always the agent of chaos disrupting our lives, particularly our innocent childhood. It may just be because I found one of my father’s Playboys when I was five and thus started on a path of interest in the erotic since, but I’ve never understood why sex has always been portrayed as something corrupting when my own experience with sex and expression of sexuality has done nothing but reaffirm the idea that life is interesting and worth living. Bechdel uses sex in the chapter, referring in the beginning with the cicadas which emerge, like insects do, to breed and then quickly die off. From this she moves to the scandal of Oscar Wilde.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the life of Oscar Wilde he was a Victorian playwright who, on the very night his most successful play The Importance of Being Ernest opened, was accused of sodomy, a charge at that time which could lead to imprisonment and in some instances death. Wilde fought the accusation in court but lost the case. Wilde’s sexuality along with Cicadas along with Bechdel’s own erotic exploration, and finally the glaring act of her father all combine to reaffirm the idea that sex creates a fall from innocence but if the reader pays attention all of these realizations come from learning.
The conflict with referring to lack of knowledge of sexuality as innocence is incoherent. It doesn’t accurately convey the idea that we learn and thus purge ourselves of ignorance. Innocence implies a character trait while ignorance implies simply unknowing. The best rhetorical example of this is the mass narrative of the Garden of Eden. The story that is often peddled in Sunday school classrooms and bad Veggie Tales Cassette tapes, is that when god made Adam and Eve (Not Adam and Steve unfortunately) he made them innocent, but warned them of the tree of knowledge. Eve was tempted by the serpent, who was really Satan, who then convinced Adam to take a bite. Once they bit into the apple they became aware of their nakedness and covered themselves, for this they were banned from the Garden forever. This narrative is one I’m painfully familiar with since I grew up in the Episcopal church and went to a Private Christian school, but something that has always bothered me about the narrative is the word innocence. Adam and Eve learned of nakedness by eating the apple, and by removing the ignorance of their state they were forever altered. I suppose this could just be a tomato/tomato potato/potato semantics argument, but I’ve always felt that Adam and Eve got a bum rap by being labeled innocent rather than ignorant.
Both of these examples is why I’m troubled by the idea of Innocence, particularly when referring to the Watergate scandal.
The reason for this concern is because I’m a Watergate nerd. I own a first edition hardback copy of All the President’s Men, and at least seven thick tomes dedicated either to Nixon, the Press’s reaction to the events, or simply the public reaction to Watergate. It may just be because my parents grew up during the seventies, but there’s something about the time period that has always fascinated me and not just because it Rock’s golden age. Before you cringe remember it gave rise to Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, and Aerosmith along all within a ten year period. Watergate is the political impression left upon that decade, so much so that it permanently added a word to the lexicon. Whenever something is called “X-Gate” it always implies that someone has been caught in a gross action that violates that person’s and by extension organization’s image. It doesn’t help that so many books, films, novels, and essays have been written about the event.
One of the best examples is the film All the President’s Men, which follows Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigate the break-in. The film is dense in its detail but entertaining and has one of the best lines in American cinema:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
While this film captures the moment of the Watergate scandal so well, another excellent program provides a wider cultural perspective. The Seventies is a documentary series I discovered at 1 A.M. while possibly drunk, as so many of my great discoveries tend to go, and one episode in particular entitled The United States Vs Richard Nixon covers the entire scandal from beginning to end.
American politics is an entirely different animal than it was in the 1970s because at the time of the crisis people believed what they heard from the news. Men like Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Howard K. Smith were not just characters on your television set, they were reporters actively engaging and regularly investigating the actions of politicians because otherwise how would people know what was going on in their world. Today’s soft journalism, where character is preferred over quality and bias is the first agenda, could never really tackle an affair like Watergate because the break-in and investigation would be sold as a polarizing media event rather than a legitimate political scandal. My concern here isn’t to criticize contemporary journalism, but rather to observe the larger importance of Watergate as the moment in which America lost its ignorance of its own state as a nation.
History is often misused as a moniker for the past, but in reality history is just the discourse about the facts of the past. It’s important to recognize this distinction as I remind the reader that corruption in politics is as old as human civilization. Nixon was not the first world leader, or even American President, to be caught in a corruption scandal (Look up the illustrious carear of one Ulysses S. Grant) but the news organizations being better able to reach their audience directly thanks to television, the public had no choice but to understand the gravity of the implications. The “Saturday Night Massacre” is probably the best example of this.
On October 20, 1973 Nixon ordered the acting Attorney General to fire Archibald Cox, the lead investigator of the Watergate break-in. Elliot Richardson refuses and reigns immediately. The same night Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus is promoted and ordered to fire Cox. He also refuses and is fired immediately. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork is promoted active Attorney General and fires Cox…in one night. If that sounds like the set-up for a Marx Brothers film I’m sad to disappoint but the reader can actually find news footage from the period and see for themselves that the Saturday Night Massacre was not just the set-up for a wonderful political satire, but in fact was hard truth.
Well so what? says the reader. What does any of this have to do with innocence, ignorance, and Fun Home? More importantly what does the difference between innocence and ignorance have to do with my day to day life?
This is a fair question since the Watergate scandal so rarely appears in the mundane affairs of life. Paying for your gas with a debit or credit card doesn’t make you consider what would have happened if Congress hadn’t subpoenaed the tapes. Nor does having your hair cut make you wonder whether or not the scandal would have reached such a public head had Bernstein and Woodward not been assigned the story at The Washington Post. I would also advise you not to hire Waters Gate, the all drag barber-shop quartet that sings the history of the event set to show tunes.
The larger significance is found within the rhetoric of innocence. America was not an innocent country by the time the Watergate scandal had appeared in the public’s consciousness, for it had its own long blacklist of offenses**, but what kept these corruptions from sinking too deep into the nation’s mentality was most likely the closeness of it. Television brought the scandals of Washington D.C. into their homes and so as Nixon avoided the investigation, and then eventually tried to quash it, Americans began to recognize that they were learning more and more that they’re nation was not perfect. They began to recognize that they could not trust their President, and even America could suffer from corrupt leadership. Most importantly, by losing the ignorance of what Nixon had done, Americans lost something of their idealism. Even Presidents could be crooks.
As for Bechdel’s memoir, Fun Home from the very beginning of the book is about recognizing and learning about her father’s erotic truth and how it helped shape her life. Bruce, near the beginning of the chapter invites one of his students to join him for a beer, and it’s implied that he might have engaged in sex with the young man. Bechdel wouldn’t realize this until some years later, but it’s clear by her using Watergate as a context how she has compartmentalized this reality of her father.
Fathers, like Presidents, are odd creatures that try their best to guide the country and push it into the right directions. The conflict is when we’re young we tend to idealize our fathers, but as we age we learn about their characters and this knowledge tends to kill the perfect image we had of them.
Learning does not always generate happiness because when we learn we alter our original reality. Watergate has forever altered the American landscape by reminding its citizens that every office is open and vulnerable to corruption. Bechdel in The Ideal Husband observes how the summer of 73 left her no longer ignorant of sexuality, both her own as well as her fathers, and while this did leave a lasting negative impression of her father, it did not destroy herself.
Innocence is a character trait that’s unrealistic because as a species we learn and grow from mistakes. America has recovered from the Watergate scandal, just as Bechdel has recovered from her own loss of ignorance. The trick is not to mourn that loss of the former self, but rather to emerge stronger from it.
If I can use an obvious metaphor here, the healthy approach is to leave the exoskeleton behind, and like a cicada, or annual locusts if you prefer, fly off to a new state of being. The problem with clinging to the idea that your former self was innocent is that over time that becomes a corruptive state. If things don’t change it means they’re static, it means they’re dead, and so like my collection of old cicada shells many that try desperately to cling to this state wind up hollowed shells hoping desperately to find that substance which they once held so completely.
They also wind up covered sticky bug-juice which makes it rather difficult to get someone to go out with you to a movie. Just sayin.
I’ve included here a picture I took a year ago. My dog huckleberry had to pee before bed and so I stood out on the back porch while he did his business. I must have been looking around because I turned and spotted a cicada on the wall drying its wings out. Its shell was a few feet below it. It didn’t move as I approached and after taking a few shots I marveled at the brilliant shade of blue-green in its drying wings.
To further the point that America was not an “innocent” nation remember a few events and institutions:
The Salem Witch Trials.
Slavery of African Americans.
The Trail of Tears.
Reconstruction in general.
Henry Kissinger again.
The abuse of Jeannette Pickering Rankin after she was the only person to vote against the declaration of war in 1944.
The systematic abuse of the irish in the 1800s and Hispanic immigrants today.
The CIA making deals with Opium farmers during the Vietnam war
Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment.
The New York Riots.
Henry Kissinger’s face.
Just to name a few.
***Writer’s FINAL Note**
The Seventies is currently aailable for streaming on Netflix. Fun home: A Family Tragicomic is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.