Sunday, June 24, 2012

Truth ("Cronkite" by Douglas Brinkley)

I was born five years after Walter Cronkite stepped down from the CBS Evening News, so I never really knew him the way millions of others did. And yet, strangely, I don't remember a time when I didn't know of him. It's a testament to his influence that, even in retirement, he was one of those unyielding cultural presences that hung over the world around us--an omnipotent and reliable measuring tool against which we judged not only our journalists and newscasters but our fellow citizens, as well.

In cases like these, the person we idolize will always have flaws that appear later on and threaten to temper our respect, not to mention dirtying their legacies. From the way people have talked about Douglas Brinkley's massive, 830-page biography of Walter Cronkite--667 of biography, the rest of sources and indexes--you'd think the so called "most trusted man in America" was doomed for the same fate. And while there is a lot in Brinkley's biography that makes us second-guess how we think about Cronkite, the bigger problem with Brinkley's book has nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with Brinkley himself. For 667 pages, Brinkley manages to prove just how rare and important someone like Walter Cronkite was by ignoring Cronkite's entire modus operandi of good journalism.

As Brinkley reminds us throughout his biography, Cronkite believed in triple-checking sources to make sure he wasn't being impulsive and, in the process, undermining his credibility by spreading inaccurate information or idle conjecture. Cronkite believed in providing truthful, researched news rather than the entertainment of news--that is, news that gets attention for being first and being loud rather than being right. But as one online reader after another has pointed out, Brinkley's own book seeps with violations of this attitude. For example, there are misspellings ("Silverseas"), incorrect facts (Daniel Schorr's official role during Watergate, the death of Bob Post during WWII), the occasional snarky interjection, and insignificant gossip, most of which centers on the tension between Cronkite and Dan Rather in the 80s and 90s.

On top of this, almost the entire book is written in stilted, uninteresting prose that never quite pulls the reader in. (The only exceptions, in my opinion, are the chapters on Cronkite's role as a journalist in WWII, which are written in a lucid, engaging, and often suspenseful style.) You get the impression that, with Cronkite having passed away just under three years ago, Brinkley and his publisher rushed to get this book to the press in order to capitalize on the subject's name recognition while the generation of his lifelong viewers was still around to buy the book. (After all, the idea of someone my age--26--or younger purposely picking up this book seems a little farfetched. Most twentysomethings today probably have no idea who Cronkite was.) I'd like to think this wasn't true, that Brinkley didn't rush this biography, that he had more than enough time to finish it the way he wanted, but something tells me it isn't.

Still, Brinkley should be commended for taking on such a difficult and well-lived subject. That Cronkite's life and career should require so many pages doesn't seem surprising, given the man's extensive influence on American life. But Brinkley, in giving Cronkite his due number of pages, should have also given the man his time and patience in order to get everything right. Cronkite deserves a lot of what Brinkley has to offer--praise, scorn, doubt, cynicism--but he doesn't deserve to be boring.