Considering History: Walter Cronkite, David Halberstam, and Two Legacies of Adversarial Journalism

This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

Fifty years ago this evening, on February 27, 1968, legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite concluded a special report on the ongoing conflict in Vietnam with a striking three-minute commentary. The special report had cast a long and searching look at the haphazard progress and challenges of the “police action” in Southeast Asia, but Cronkite’s closing commentary went much further still.

Acknowledging that his “analysis must be speculative, personal, subjective,” he nonetheless laid bare the stark realities of the situation in Vietnam: “For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.”

Walter Cronkite (Wikimedia Commons)

Cronkite’s sober realism wasn’t just an overarching attempt to counter such optimistic narratives of the war—it was also quite specifically adversarial to the perspectives coming out of the American military and political leadership. “With as much restraint as I could,” Cronkite narrated, “I turned to our own leaders whose idea of negotiation seemed frozen in memories of General McArthur’s encounter with the Japanese aboard the Battleship Missouri. … We’ve been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders.” As he so often did, Cronkite presented this adversarial stance in a restrained and civil way, a tone befitting his role as an elder statesman of American journalism. But his opposition to the narratives coming out of Washington was clear and crucial nonetheless.

That restrained, civil, and statesmanlike form of rebuke could be called public adversarial journalism, and was a key facet of Cronkite’s voice and role throughout his decades on the air. It had the ability to shift national conversations in a gentle but very real way, framing a new way of understanding unfolding histories and issues for both Cronkite’s listeners and the powerful figures to whom he was speaking his truths. Building on the legacy of influential predecessors like Edward R. Murrow, and making this critical tone a more consistent part of his efforts as anchor than any of his contemporaries, Cronkite’s public adversarial journalism became a vital component of the television news landscape throughout the 1960s and 70s.

David Halberstam in 1978. (William H. Mortimer, Wikimedia Commons)

Yet while such public adversarial journalism has vital roles to play in changing national conversations by speaking uncomfortable truths, it is not necessarily as well-equipped for investigating and uncovering such truths. For that, a more private adversarial journalism is needed, one that confronts leaders and spin artists directly, calls them out on their partial or false representations, and works to find the truth that lies behind them. In the same period as Cronkite’s public stance on the Vietnam War, a young investigative journalist named David Halberstam modeled this form of private adversarial journalism, helping shift the relationship of war journalists to the military effort in the process.

Halberstam told the story of his most striking and inspiring moment of private adversarial journalism in a 2005 speech to the Columbia School of Journalism:

Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon— we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.

One day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV—the American military command— tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there—calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.

In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a captain, called the Five O’clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.

On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a ajor but by a major general, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.

General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.

And I stood up, my heart beating wildly—and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.

I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened.

Through this and many other moments of private adversarial journalism, Halberstam and colleagues like Sheehan were able to uncover the truth of what was happening with US forces and efforts in Vietnam—a truth that became a crucial influence on shifting the perspectives on the war of public journalists and figures like Cronkite.

While they differ in tone, role, and other specifics, Cronkite’s and Halberstam’s public and private adversarial journalism are ultimately complementary, each a necessary part of a journalistic enterprise that pursues truth and presents it to its audiences and society. The legacies of both these men and moments remain vital models for American journalism.