This editorial in the Wall Street Journal is sure to ruffle feathers in the journalism (and journalism education) community.
It throws cold water on the many tributes that have come in about Walter Cronkite since his passing late last week. But the editorial also offers an important point that journalists and educators should consider: Is it appropriate for a journalist to intentionally abandon his or her role as an objective/neutral observer of a situation?
I'm sure the knee-jerk reaction to that will be "no." If you accept that, then I ask the following question: Is the Wall Street Journal's criticism valid? And if the answer to that is "yes," then a more intriguing question must be asked: What damage was in fact done to Cronkite's reputation by openly stating that the U.S. could not win the war in Vietnam? And by extension did he open the door for the abandonment of keeping opinion out of the news?
Let us fast forward to 2003 and remember that U.S. journalists were expected (a strong word, but I challenge you to tell me I'm wrong) to be gung-ho, pro-America when the second Iraq War began. Television journalists wearing lapel pins of the U.S. flag; bright red, white and blue banners; messages from Americans to the troops (and vice versa); and other overt displays of patriotism followed America's commencement of that war and became a daily part of news coverage.
Were those examples of non-objectivity appropriate? Someone is sure to argue that different times require different responses, and that what might have been appropriate in the 1960s and 1970s is not in the 1990s and 2000s.
If that premise is to be accepted, then we are forced to ask the question of whether objectivity matters.
I'm perhaps about to skate onto thin ice, but I'm comfortable defending what Cronkite did because he based his opinion that America needed to find a way out of the Vietnam War on a wealth of information he had acquired. (The reader is urged to see my post from earlier this morning about communication and human rights for some context.) But I found the pro-America coverage in the earlier part of this decade obnoxious and borderline unprofessional. These journalists, in my opinion, were pandering to the government and the public.
You are invited to offer your opinion.