Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And That's The Way It Wasn't

Walter Cronkite, famous anchor for CBS News, was a fixture on family TV viewing for many years. He covered some of the major stories of the twentieth century. My personal views of the man aside, it seemed appropriate to read some of the recent newspaper columns reporting his life and recent death. That is when I encountered Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times.

This is not a Walter Cronkite story. His death has been covered interminably on television and in the newspapers, and the slick magazines have already started to hit the stands. He has temporarily replaced Michael Jackson in the dead celebrities race. You'll get plenty of coverage there. The topic of this column is the performance of the Maureen Dowd of New York Times TV coverage--one Alessandra Stanley. I found some glaring errors in her reporting on Cronkite, but since I am not a regular reader of the Times (as you may have guessed), I decided to see if this was typical of her reporting skills. It was quite an eye-opener.

Apparently, regular readers of the New York Times fall into two categories. The majority who consider her the best thing to happen to the Times since Walter Duranty, and the minority who read her column just to find out which fact she'll get wrong today. As I read through her reports, I found her reporting things that I remembered somewhat differently. Sad to say, I'm old enough to have seen Cronkite's nightly news as anchor from the very beginning. Fortunately there are followers of Stanley's column who have the documentation.

Cronkite came aboard as anchor in 1962. Stanley reported that Cronkite's team included the "A-team" of Mike Wallace, Howard K. Smith and Morley Safer. Howard K. Smith left CBS in a very angry and very public dispute with the network in 1961, nearly a full year earlier. It must have been a different Howard K. Smith that Stanley was talking about.

Considered dour in his later years, Cronkite was known for throwing in happy little asides earlier on. Stanley reported that upon Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the surface of the moon, Cronkite uttered "oh, boy!" Cronkite actually made that comment when the lunar module first touched down, not after Armstrong exited. I didn't catch that one, but one of the Times watchers at nytpick.com did.

Oddly enough, Stanley's paean of praise to Uncle Walter got a major fact wrong concerning the Cronkite team's popularity. She said that for many years The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC had higher ratings and "more pizzazz" and that Cronkite caught up only after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. The truth is that by 1967 Cronkite was beating NBC and ABC by major numbers, and his report remained number one right up to his retirement in 1981. How else to explain Cronkite's singular influence on America's attitude toward the VietNam War when he announced that "the war is lost" in 1968 folllowing the Tet Offensive? Cronkite reported the battle as a major and victory-killing defeat for America when in fact it was complete disaster for the communists, depleting the resources of the army of North Vietnam and eliminating the Viet Cong as a major force in the south. Even North Vietnamese General Giap later praised Cronkite for his irresponsible assessment, writing in his memoirs that "we were uttterly defeated after the Tet Offensive."

In addition, Stanley reported that Cronkite had worked previously for UPI (United Press International), when in fact it didn't become UPI until much later. When Cronkite worked for the agency, it was called simply "United Press." She also got the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing wrong, and referred to a Soviet communications satellite as TellStar when it was actually named Telstar. That's four major and two minor errors in one lone report.

Although it is now only the third city, and halfway across the continent, Chicago's Tribune has been tracking Stanley's errors for some time now. There seems to be some sort of personal feud between Stanley and former Tribune TV critic John Cook. At one point he was handicapping the race for title of most error-prone between Stanley and Geraldo Rivera, but he seems to have decided that Stanley has pulled so far ahead as to be unbeatable.

Here are some tidbits from the catalog of Stanley's errors. She has called the WB network a cable network, and referred to the Fox series "North Shore" as a series about the sex industry. She got the economic times of the series "Friends" completely backwards. She reported in 2004 that Admiral James Stockdale ran as the Republican candidate for Vice President on a ticket with John McCain in 1996. Stockdale, of course, ran as an independent on a ticket with Ross Perot in 1992, and McCain never became the candidate of the Republican Party until 2008. She referred to the late Peter Jennings' first big job as being at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is actually the Canadian Broadcasting Company. She referred to CNN's Jeff Greenfield as Jeff Greenberg. She correctly assessed the movie The Path to 9/11 in relation to the fact that Bill Clinton was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky affair to catch Osama bin Laden, but she misreported that the 9/11 Commission had made that determination. And when Steven Colbert coined the expression "truthiness," Stanley several times referred to it as "trustiness."

Common mathematics among her critics and chroniclers, as well as her own Times correction notes, place her error rate at about 14-15%, with at least half of them being major boo-boos. Stanley is a Harvard graduate whose uncle was a Harvard Trustee. She is the daughter of a former assistant Secretary of Defense, and was married at one time to reporter Michael Specter of the Washington Post, the New York Times and The New Yorker. Then she fell in with bad company--Jill Abramson (not the obnoxious lawyer, the obnoxious editor of the New York Times and mentor of mega-liar Jayson Blair) and Maureen Dowd (acerbic and often inaccurate writer for the Times). Intending it as a compliment to the Times, Seth Mnookin of Vanity Fair, former heroin addict (and formerly with Newsweek) said that for most journalists the rate of error is about one error out of twenty stories while Stanley's is about one in seven, but he also said the New York Times has "gotten much better about not viewing every correction as an embarrassment." Scant praise, indeed.

Alessandra Stanley is a piece of the fabric which makes up the New York Times. The "newspaper of record" which prints "all the news that's fit to print" is the leader of the print media in arousing disgust and distrust among its readers (and former readers). As its readership continues its steep decline and its stock reaches all-time depths, the Sulzberger crowd continues to circle the wagons, feed the liberal beast and provide the occasional truth, the partial truth, and nothing but the sort-of truth, so help them Pinch. In fact, Alessandra, it's truthiness.

16 comments:

LawHawkSF said...

Aser: Indeed they are, and the President was right in calling them that. Walter Cronkite was nearly put on the back bench for the Apollo 11 landing because the young Turks at CBS had decided that he was too old to be reporting on space age news. But Cronkite prevailed. He maintained his usual quiet demeanor throughout the landing, but occasionally he was unable to contain his boyish excitement at such a great event. It was one of the highlights of Cronkite's career.

StanH said...

Your example of this writer for the NYT is the prime reason that the “newspaper reporter” and industry in general has become laughable. On a purely nostalgic basis I will miss Cronkite he was a voice of my childhood, on a practical basis however, he was a leftist, and damaged this country with his opinions such as his analysis of the Tet Offensive and his open support of Jimmy Carter. To be fair, he was a FDR Democrat as was many in his age group were, and his leftist bent came honestly from, The Depression, WWII and his love of FDR. The leftist we have today are the ‘60s radical and their spawn, a very dangerous un-American group indeed.

Writer X said...

I've never been a Walker Cronkite fan, so I'm probably in the minority. I'll never forgive his reporting during the Vietnam war. If his reporting was so great (ASU even has a Journalism school named after him), you'd think we'd have better reporters. Journalism has gotten dreadfully worse, not better. That's some legacy.

CrispyRice said...

And newspapers wonder why they're losing readership. >>eyeroll<< Journalism is dead.

AndrewPrice said...

Who needs to be accurate when you can be strident?

LawHawkSF said...

StanH: Cronkite was a memorable character, but he was the first major influential TV anchor to do what newspapers also do to their discredit--editorialize on the news pages. In a period guided by the so-called "fairness doctrine," he had enough pull to be able to declare a war lost with nothing more than his own opinion to back it. And he stated it as news. With his notoriously self-aggrandizing correspondent in VietNam assisting, one Dan Rather, the American public was led down the path of self-defeat.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: The problem wasn't so much that his reporters weren't good, it was that they were dishonest. They told a great story, put it together with Cronkite acting as the family sage, and misled the public by telling only the stories they wanted America to hear, and only from their perspective.

CrispyRice: I have a problem with the very concept of journalism school. In the dim past, reporters went out into the field as apprentices, and learned how to report the news. They sent it back to their newspapers where it was printed as what happened. Why it happened was reserved for the editorial pages. There was no pretense of neutrality as to what political party a newspaper supported, because they were very open about it on their editorial pages. Journalism schools don't teach students how to report the news, they teach them how to be the news. "Social justice" has replaced fact as the goal of reporting (much like today's law schools).

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: The difference between Cronkite and Dan Rather was that Cronkite didn't get caught lying until long after he left the anchor chair. If there's no need for the news people to be honest, fair and accurate, why would we expect those who report on the reporters to be honest, fair and accurate? Thus, we get "reporters" like Alessandra Stanley and Maureen Dowd making up stories which will benefit their favorites. It's downright incestuous.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I have long lamented the utter implosion of the journalism industry. I think when they stopped being "reporters" and decided to become "journalists", it all started to fall apart.

When you see the AP change their policy to allow reporters to start spinning stories, and paper after paper gets caught publishing made up stories, tabloid journalism runs wild, liberal bias runs rampant, and genuine idiots are given jobs to "grill" people who they cannot even begin to understand, that's a recipe for professional suicide.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: How true that is. Cronkite's tag line "and that's the way it was" wasn't even entirely genuine. In the late fifties, before he became the "serious reporter" that he later pretended to be, he was the host of a TV docudrama series entitled "You Are There." The show took historical events, re-enacted them with "reporters" setting up the various segments and Cronkite doing the intro and wrapup. At the end, he closed each episode with the following words: "And that's the way it was--June XX, 18XX. Filled with those events which alter and illuminate our times--and you were there!" Don't ask me why I remember something from that long ago so clearly, but it was one of my favorite shows as a kid. I think that Cronkite got his concept of news reporting from that show. News isn't a series of facts, it's a script to be manipulated as you see fit to dramatize the parts you like and ignore the parts you don't like.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk: I remember that show clearly and it was one of my favorite shows as well (along with Cheyenne.) I clearly remember it was sponsored by Prudential because I remember the Rock of Gibraltar. I am straining memory to remember the theme song, though. Geez you make me feel old.

Andrew, nice post. I am so non-NYT I have never even heard of this woman.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: I had forgotten that Prudential sponsored the program, but as soon as you mentioned it, I could suddenly picture it. I don't remember the theme either, though. For years after, I thought that Prudential was the only real insurance company.

Tennessee Jed said...

As I think about it, I believe the theme may have been a portion of Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: Right again. It sounded right, so I did a little research, and indeed that was the theme for the show. The piece was also used as the opening music for several Democratic Party conventions prior to 1952. Coincidence?

Mike Kriskey said...

It's not often I laugh out loud, but "the best thing to happen to the Times since Walter Duranty" is a heckuva line.

LawHawkSF said...

Mike Kriskey: I'm glad you noticed. Duranty always got the "big story" right about the humanitarianism and egalitarianism of communism, so why ruin the story with details about a few million dead Russian peasants? If they had read the plan properly, they would have known they were only supposed to eat and stay warm on the third Thursday of each month. But what can one expect? After all, they were peasants.

Post a Comment