Justice Markandey Katju-
Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.
Walter Cronkite ( 1916-2009 ) was an American journalist who was one of the truly great journalists of the 20th century, about whom it was said, after an opinion poll, that he was ‘the most trusted man in America.’
Cronkite was the anchor for CBS Evening News for many years ( from 1962 to 1981 ).. The highlight of his career was his telecast on 27th February 1968 about the Vietnam war.
Before this telecast, the Lyndon Johnson administration had been propagating for years that America was winning the Vietnam war, that there was ‘ light at the end of the tunnel ‘, etc, and most Americans swallowed this line, including the top T.V. channels, NBC, ABC, and Cronkite’s own CBS News.
But when reports of the Tet offensive by the Vietcong started coming in on 31st January 1968, Cronkite indignantly asked, “What the hell is going on ? I thought we were winning the war “. So having learned an important lesson in his early days as a journalist, of being his own witness, Cronkite decided to personally investigate. He took the flight to South Vietnam and reached Saigon on 11th February 1968.
At that time bombs were bursting, whooshing and screaming around the outskirts of the city and downtown. Long-range artillery fire could be heard in the distance. Cronkite felt he was transported back into the Second World War, which he had covered as a younger man.
Wearing a flak jacket and army helmet, Cronkite traveled all over South Vietnam, writing detailed notes of his observations. He interviewed senior officers, and also ordinary soldiers. The army commander General Westmoreland told him that the Vietcong had been defeated, but on visiting Hue, where the fighting continued for 27 days, Cronkite realized that Westmoreland had lied. The credibility gap between the reality of Hue and Westmoreland’s spin was blatant.
Returning to America Cronkite went on the air on 27th February, and in his ‘ Report from Vietnam ‘ said that America was not winning the war, as asserted by the U.S. Administration, and that instead, the war had become mired in a stalemate, which could only be ended by negotiation, not dictation.
Cronkite had such high credibility in America that President Johnson, on hearing this telecast, reportedly said, “If I have lost Cronkite I have lost Middle America “. Some say that Johnson said, “If I have lost Cronkite I have lost the war.”
The aftershock of Cronkite’s report was seismic. It changed the whole atmosphere in the country, and now everybody realized that the war could not be won. The rest of the media now started following his line. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said ” The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed “. Cronkite’s credibility was so high that a CBS executive later jokingly said: ” When Walter said the Vietnam war was over, it was over.” Halberstam, a renowned journalist himself wrote, ” It was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a journalist. ”
On 31st March 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not be contesting for another term.
Where are the Walter Cronkites of the Indian media today?