TURES COLUMN: The media’s job is not to ‘just read the news … and shut up’

Published 12:00 pm Monday, February 12, 2024

One of the most popular memes today is about Walter Cronkite claiming “he just read the news, matter of factly, and then he would just sign off and shut up.” But as the facts show, that’s not what Cronkite, Edwin R. Murrow, Elijah Lovejoy and countless colonial-era journalists did. And there’s a reason we have a Constitutional First Amendment that covers the freedoms of the press.

“Younger Americans will have trouble believing this, but there was once this guy named Walter Cronkite, who would read the news on television every week night. He didn’t seem to have an agenda, or try to make anybody look bad, or good. He would just read them news, and then, get this…WE WOULD ALL JUST MAKE UP OUR OWN MINDS ABOUT WHAT WE THOUGHT. He didn’t interview smarmy opinionated talking heads, he just read the news, matter of factly, and then he would just sign off and shut up. Share if you Remember Mr. Cronkite” reads the meme from Baby Boomer Fun Events Online. I’ve seen it reposted on so many social media sites.

On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite broadcast his opinion that “‘It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,’ Cronkite told his millions of viewers. ‘…[I]t 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.” See it here. After that broadcast, LBJ reportedly said “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Within a month, the president announced he would not run for reelection, and switched from escalation to peace talks.” Thank God Cronkite didn’t just read the news and shut up.

Cronkite is hardly the only broadcaster or journalist who defied the “just read the news and shut up” model. Edwin R. Murrow put his safe career on the line to stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his program “See It Now.” “See It Now aired a broadcast exposing the misinformation being disseminated by McCarthy,” according to James C. Foster, Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University-Cascades, writing for MTSU’s Free Speech Center. “In March 1954 it broadcast the notable “Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy,” which further criticized McCarthy and his tactics. In December 1954, McCarthy’s Senate colleagues voted to censure him.” Murrow’s report gave the Senate the courage they needed after McCarthy had ended Senator Millard Tydings’ political career years earlier. 

Presbyterian Minister Elijah Lovejoy started the Alton Observer, an abolitionist newspaper, after vigilantes destroyed his printing press and he was pressured to leave Missouri by St. Louis elites. He was killed by a pro-slavery mob over in Illinois in 1837 for writing about the evils of slavery. He didn’t just report the news and shut up.

While the British Colonial Government implemented the King’s and Parliamentary Stamp Acts, taxes, and military occupations and port closings, American journalists and papers refused to “just report the news and shut up.” 

Their anti-monarchical, free market editorials spread like wildfire throughout the Colonies, building support for the American Revolution. That’s why the Founding Fathers called for Freedom of the Press to be in the first constitutional amendment.

The meme ends with “Share if you Remember Mr. Cronkite.” So I thought I would share with you the real Mr. Cronkite, as well as give you several examples out of a countless number of cases where journalists risked their careers, even their lives, to speak up. Back then, critics probably said they had “an agenda” and may have tried to make slavery, a war, corruption, or even tyranny, “look bad.” And yes, America benefited from their words.