“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” said President Lyndon Johnson on Feb. 27, 1968.
Just 33 days later, the 36th president of the United States announced he would not seek re-election.
What Walter Cronkite, also known at the time as the most trusted man in America, had said in concluding his nightly CBS news broadcast and drawing the president’s attention was this:
“But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out [of the Vietnam War] 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.”
Remarkably, that was just about how U.S. involvement in that war came to a conclusion. How much influence Cronkite’s declaration had on it has and will remain the stuff of speculation and debate.
A great deal of change has taken place since then in the way news is delivered, but one thing remains a constant: People believe what they see and hear in the traditional media.
So when the leading anchor of today, for whatever reason, reports something other than the truth, it matters.
Perhaps that is why the Brian Williams saga has so dominated public discussion since he acknowledged overstating the truth about his involvement in covering a war story from an Army helicopter.
Now that far more than that one episode has been exposed, the result is fallout impacting not only the anchor but a major television news network, journalism across the board and the whole business of preserving our democracy via freedom of the press.
But I have a different take on Williams’ violation of the public trust, perhaps an opportunity for something to be learned about our own accountability.
Hopefully, the whole debacle will serve as a reminder of our obligation as citizens under a system of government where we are supposed to be in control.
Concerns of our founders about our ability to assume such a responsibility came from the necessity that the people of the United States would be educated, informed and capable of making decisions that ensure our survival as a nation.
It could be that the greatest barrier to that outcome is our compliancy in accepting what we are told by newsreaders on television. Doing so actually puts those folks in charge, and not us.
We live in extraordinary times when most of us carry around a small device in our pockets with which we can access pretty close to the entirety of the world’s knowledge. Whether breaking news or historical events, we have access to it all.
We have little excuse for not knowing what we should know.
For example, if various reports declared that scientists have concluded human activities were warming our planet into extinction, maybe we should do a little checking and discover other equally esteemed scientists concluding no such thing was happening.
Why stop at the point of just watching a reporter doing his or her thing that may include shameful self-promotion, as in the Brian Williams case?
Instead, without even moving off the couch, pick up the smartphone or the tablet or the laptop, hit the search box with a question or two and watch as a veritable avalanche of data spreads out before you.
Then, empowered with understanding acquired on our own, we would be in a better position to exercise our role as citizens, thus diminishing the opportunity to be misinformed by anyone.
Cronkite signed off every night by saying, “And that’s the way it is…”
Now we have the power to discover truth and decide for ourselves. We should use it.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. firstname.lastname@example.org