Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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Mimsy Review: A Reporter’s Life

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, November 12, 2013

“In reconstructing this scene, I just made up that last quote (as I will some others before this tale is done).”

Walter Cronkite’s autobiography is an odd beast. He seems to have little introspection; his stories read like urban legends. On the other hand, he’s lived through some amazing times, and has seen dominance in journalism move from newspaper to radio to television.

RecommendationSpecial Interests
AuthorWalter Cronkite
Length382 pages
Book Rating5

Cronkite starts his life story in Moscow, in 1948. He worked for UPI. He tells us that his wife took a job with the US embassy while they were there, but,

Although my United Press salary wasn’t exactly munificent, it wasn’t the extra income that attracted her to this job. It was more a matter of necessity to keep us fed.

He then explains how they had to buy food just as other Muscovites did, which is to say, through Soviet food rations and what little they could acquire through the Soviet markets. Only on the next page does he explain that “not for the money but to keep us fed” meant that the embassy provided their employees with food from the states. They did not provide this food to private citizens in Moscow, something he still holds against them:

The only other Americans living in Moscow were the eight news correspondents, but the State Department, in its bureaucratic wisdom, determined it would somehow violate its sacred rules to take care of us as well.

I can understand the desire to be taken care of by one’s government, but it’s a little ironic that, seeing how poorly the Soviet system worked, he wanted the US to emulate it for him. He doesn’t claim to have asked UPI to provide some of his pay in the form of care packages; the government should have provided.

Cronkite then returns to his formative years in Kansas City, Missouri. About his high school mentor, Houston journalist Fred Birney, Cronkite writes:

Birney, as far as I know, was never taught to teach. His strength was in his deep practical knowledge of his subject, his love of it, and his intense desire to communicate that knowledge and that love to others. That must be the secret of all great teachers, and the shame is that there are probably thousands of them out there who are denied a chance to practice that talent because of crowded facilities, disciplinary overload and stultifying work rules imposed by bureaucratic administrations and selfish unions.

After newspaper work in Houston, he went to work as the news staff of a Kansas City radio station. Here, he was also shanghaied by the police to take part in vote fraud for Kansas City’s Boss Pendergast, voting at least twice when they drove him to the polling place and gave him the name of the people he was voting as each time.

And then he goes to World War II, where his anecdotes read even more like urban legends; having read the entire book, I’m still not sure I trust them.

Not many minutes into D-Day [not the actual D-Day] it seemed that the Texas was about to undergo her baptism by fire. A flight of fighter planes came diving out of the clouds directly for her. We had been advised that the Vichy French were putting up some aerial resistance to the invasion, and every gun on the Texas opened fire. The sky above us was black with antiaircraft bursts as the fighter planes peeled off to escape the barrage, and as they exposed their wings, there were the big white stars identifying them as off the U.S. carrier down at Casablanca. Fortunately, none was hit, and a moment later a furious Captain Roy Pfaff was on the ship’s public-address system.

“Men, there is nothing worse in war than firing at your own men. We’ve been drilling on aircraft identification ever since we left Norfolk. There is no excuse for this. I’m going to find the man who gave the order to fire and I’m going to have him before the mast.

“But, men, my God, if you’re going to shoot at them, hit them!”

This whole war section sounds like soldier urban legends rewritten as happening to him. The new pilot who, on debriefing, discovered that what he thought were some amazing German signaling device were the red flashes of guns firing at him. The Best Midget Piano Player in Folkestone. The multi-purpose four-letter word.

That’s kind of the book in a nutshell. He jumps all over place and time to tell stores; the stories are bland. His complaints are, too, for the most part. He complains about how much the news has to cater to the whims of viewers, rather than uplifting them—then states unequivocally that the news should be completely unregulated. It’s not a bad book, per se, it’s just that it doesn’t show a lot of introspection.


He is both serious and inconsistent about calling out modern journalists for their shortcomings.

After World War II most of the German people protested that they did not know what had gone on in the heinous Nazi concentration camps. It is just possible that many of them did not.

But this claim of ignorance does not absolve the Nazi-era generation of Germans from blame for Hitler’s atrocities. And why not? Because they complacently permitted Hitler to do his dirty business in the dark. They raised few objections (most even applauded) when he closed their newspapers, sent into exile (or worse) dissident writers and editors and clamped down on free speech. When the German people accepted that, when they agreed by default that they had such faith in their government and their leaders that they trusted them to act in their name without their knowledge, they became responsible for what their government later did in their name.

He compares this to modern media consolidation. Reading this from fifteen years later, I wonder who he would hold responsible in the future when the government chooses to up the ante of government misconduct and arrogance, after seeing that things like Benghazi, Fast and Furious, IRS targeting of dissident groups, and ACA denials of health insurance and care, through price increases and actual denials, have been hidden or sugar-coated by journalists?

But his indignation changes depending on who the secrecy protects. After very quickly dispensing with the press’s silence on Roosevelt’s inability to walk and Kennedy’s liaisons that included a woman with mob ties as reasonable, he berates Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan for lying about press bias. It wasn’t about bias, he says, it was about newsworthiness!

What they knew, because they came from the business, is that what goes on a responsible network broadcast or into a responsible newspaper and how that news is played is determined, with rare exceptions, solely by the story’s news value. A story is newsworthy depending on how many people it affects and how deeply it affects them, and/or how close it happens to home, and/or how aberrational it is.

Emphasis mine.

As proof of this lack of bias, Cronkite points out that newspapers in the days of Roosevelt ran the same stories, and they were “mostly Republican-owned.”

“Amazingly,” he writes, some of those newspaper publishers applauded accusations of bias, as if newsmen could somehow dictate to editors how the news should play. If you have read Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, they did indeed try and often succeeded. Unlike today, where the news media is fairly homogenous from management to reporter, back then there was conflict between relatively conservative ownership and extremely leftist journalists. This adversarial environment was far from ideal, but at least it provided a small measure of balance across papers if not within a single paper.

Cronkite doesn’t praise that arrangement, however. He does praise the sophistication of Teddy Kennedy. Cronkite doesn’t mention at all the Ted Kennedy news that the press chose to embargo almost from the moment it happened. He says that Carter was a good study because he was smart, but that Nixon was a good study because he had an inferiority complex.

No discussion of bias, or even an indication that he recognizes that this might be a symptom of bias.

After talking about how he was almost the first million-dollar anchor, and he thought Barbara Walters was worth a million dollars “compared to a rock-and-roll singer with whom she will share ABC’s airwaves”, he writes:

There was a day not far distant, just before World War II, when nearly all of us newspeople, although perhaps white collar by profession, earned blue-collar salaries. We were part of the “common people.” We drank in our corner bars with our friends, the cops and firemen, the political hacks from City Hall, the shoe salesmen and the ribbon clerks. We suffered the same budgetary restraints, the same bureaucratic indignities, waited in the same lines. We could identify with the average man because we were him.

That perhaps still exists at some levels of journalism and in some communities, but certainly in Washington and the major cities the press today is elitist. Reporters are far better educated as a class than they have ever been before. Many hold advanced degrees. Their incomes elevate them to the upper strata of political and business society, where their friends are among the rich and the powerful.

Among the Fourth Estate elite there are none more elite than the television anchorpeople. There—I should say, our—highly publicized salaries have given them—us—a royal status in the public’s mind, and perhaps occasionally in our own minds.

He thinks that problem will fade, though he doesn’t say why. At least, he says, “newspapers today are more unbiased, more impartial, more factual and accurate than they have ever been.”

“The shame”, he writes, “is that most of our newspapers, for a variety of understandable reasons (not the least of which is confiscatory inheritance taxes), have passed from the hands of individual publishers to large chains.”

In the future the situation could get worse. Today the person seeking only the football scores or the couch potato looking for entertainment-world chitchat is usually exposed to some general news headlines while thumbing through the paper or waiting out the evening news broadcast. But when there are cable and other high-tech channels to which they can go directly for their sports or entertainment news or other specialties, even that limited exposure will end.

His answer is of course better education so that the public can discern “good newspapers” as well as other sources, including television, from bad sources such as the Internet. But he does not seem to have foreseen that the press had already become so biased and so desperate to push their bias, that when people stopped listening out of sheer disdain to take refuge in their sports shows, the bias would also infiltrate their sports shows.


Cronkite is often critical of communism in other countries, and also of the media elite’s inability to see the restrictions it imposes on honest journalists. During his time in Russia, he lost respect for the Pulitzer committee when they awarded a prize to a journalist for journalism that didn’t need to be censored over journalism that was hard-hitting enough to require censorship.

In the long parade of depressing days in Moscow, perhaps one of the worst was when the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to my friend, but also my competition, Eddy Gilmore of Associated Press. It wasn’t that Eddy wasn’t a good and diligent reporter and a clever writer, but the dispatches honored by that supposedly learned awards committee in New York had all passed, without correction, through those Soviet censors.

So the Pulitzer committee actually handed its award to Eddy Gilmore and the Russian censors. I lost a lot of respect for the Pulitzer after that.

His descriptions of Soviet politicians and ministers jockeying for food at official functions that had buffets is both hilarious and chilling. And the effects of Communism on the rest of Russia’s population! Here is how he described the people who worked for him:

They drove me crazy. So few Russians did I get to know in my two years there [due to official prohibitions against Russians meeting with foreigners] that I cannot testify whether they were typical, although the experience of other non-Russians seemed to confirm my impression. What I detested was the one trait they shared: They could not wait to try to prove their loyalty to me by citing the disloyalty of the others.

The moment one of them would leave the room, the others would shower me with allegations that their absent colleague had been seen going through my papers, or taking notes from my correspondence, or making mysterious telephone calls. The planting of suspicion seemed to be their entire reason d’être.

I came to the conclusion that this uncivilized behavior was a part of a national cultural heritage prompted by a history of one cruel dictatorship after another. A whole people had it drummed into them for generation after generation that the way to get along with authority in a secret society was to establish one’s own loyalty by impugning that of fellow workers, neighbors or even family members.

And this, of course, was model behavior under Stalin and the politburo.

After describing how Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was killed by the Soviets, he uses the death to segue into thinking that perhaps it was better to be Red than dead. I don’t even know what to say about that segue. Is he seriously arguing that Masaryk should have given in to the Soviets? He’s too coy to make a definitive statement, but it sure sounds like it.

On the other hand, he certainly does recognize some of the the issues of socialism; at one point he interviewed Fidel Castro late into the night, and toward the end of the interview,

I told him [Fidel Castro] of my two years in Moscow and travels through other countries of postwar Eastern Europe and that I had noted that in none of the Communist countries, including his, did the governments seem to pay attention to maintenance. Buildings were left unpainted and unrepaired inside and out, and they quickly fell into utter dilapidation. Why was this, I wanted to know?

It was because, he said, when the Communists won power, the first need of the working class was adequate housing. So they spent all their limited resources on building new apartments for the people and had little left over for proper maintenance of the older, capitalist structures.

But then, he added, it was something else, too: Under Communism, when people didn’t own things, they somehow didn’t seem to take care of them. And, having delivered this astounding admission, he stroked his beard and relit his cigar.

Cronkite then ends the anecdote, without any discussion of how this statement played after it was reported.


“It is too bad the Vietnam war gave itself such a bad name. It was its own worst enemy,” he writes. A lot of people would call that disingenuous, in that Cronkite himself was one of its better enemies. About his famous “mired in stalemate” editorial, Cronkite does add that “David Halberstam would eventually write in his book The Powers That Be that it was the first time in history that an anchorman had declared a war over.”

He was proud of that, yet he is also sensitive to the claim that media coverage helped lose the war. He sets up the strawman that media coverage lost the war to the exclusion of other factors. What he reports is true, but he leaves out a lot. Certainly, if Cronkite had not “declared the war over” on the air, that would not have meant an automatic victory. But it did help the North Vietnamese. They were demoralized after the Tet offensive; their plans had failed in all respects. They had underestimated the capabilities and mobility of South Vietnamese forces, and overestimated the desire of the South Vietnamese to rise in revolution. The Tet offensive was, according to their records, a last-ditch effort—they did not have the resources to continue war in South Vietnam and would soon become irrelevant without a great victory. In the aftermath of Tet, they thought they had lost, until news reports from American media began to come in. They quickly capitalized on these reports and adjusted their efforts to align US news reports.

The Pentagon also learned from the media’s Vietnam reporting: they started restricting press access in war. Funnily, after complaining about all of the restrictions placed on the press in the Persian Gulf, he complains that the Pentagon allowed the media to televise briefings. Cronkite calls this “the most diabolical move in their entire public relations offensive.” Why? Because reporters are notoriously ignorant and incompetent, and putting them on the air “exposed [them] as the ignoramuses that some of them indeed are.”

Cronkite also reasonably goes on to acknowledge that “there must be military censorship in time of war” to protect troop movements, strategies, etc. He wants the press to be there to record events in forward forces and during live military operations, for eventual release when permitted by the military “as in World War II”.

I can understand his concerns. We do need such records. But what he’s either missing or being disingenuous about is that technology has changed since he was a young reporter. When they wanted to broadcast the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, they had to charter a special flight to transfer the footage to America for broadcast here. With today’s technology and today’s journalists, the military cannot reasonably expect to keep secrets out of public view long enough that the enemy can’t make use of them. Today’s military can’t even keep secrets from leaking out on the cell phones and flash drives of people who work for them. How can they expect to keep people whose jobs don’t depend on them from deliberately or accidentally leaking an operation in progress?

Preserving freedom of the press requires a better class of journalists than we have today. The current class is neither trustworthy, nor, as Cronkite admits above, competent enough to allow them unrestricted access to active operations. The military has to be very careful to choose reporters who can be trusted. At its best, this means reporters such as Michael Yon; at its worst, it means reporters who either don’t have opinions at all or whose opinions mirror that of the military brass.


Cronkite’s last decades were spent at CBS, where he started the anchor position and made the news show. According to Cronkite, he required CBS news to remain flexible. Unlike other news shows, whose broadcast studios we’re “several floors away from their newsrooms”,

I had insisted that our newsroom be our studio because only then could I enforce my philosophy—namely, that we were a medium that should pride itself on our technical ability to get on the air instantly, whenever news broke. Therefore, I required that the deadline for our broadcast not be when we went on the air but when we went off the air.

For example, when President Lyndon Johnson died, Johnson’s assistant called Cronkite during the last commercial break to inform him; when they came out of commercial, Cronkite was still on the phone, and began relaying information from their source to the news audience. “We had a clear beat, and thanks to a staff that was well practiced in handling the unexpected, it was broadcast as smoothly as if it had been scripted.”

Watch the video. It’s pretty amazing watching Cronkite wordlessly ask the news audience to hold with one hand while listening on a phone with his other hand. Of course, to do something like that you must have truly trustworthy sources. What Cronkite wasn’t doing there was verifying the news. He couldn’t have done that if he couldn’t recognize his source’s voice or couldn’t trust the source to be absolutely right. Not without turning CBS news into his personal blogging platform.

Ultimately, I’m at a loss as to how much to recommend A Reporter’s Life. Cronkite has obviously lived through some interesting times, but he rarely takes the extra step beyond simple anecdotes into context and consequences. Further, I’m not even sure how much to trust; that line at the top of this review about making up quotes is from the beginning of the book. The quote he acknowledges making up is inconsequential; the ones he doesn’t acknowledge are, of course, unknown. I’m left thinking of the great reporter Carl Kolchak, closing his reports with “Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.”

I just don’t know.

A Reporter’s Life

Walter Cronkite

Recommendation: Special Interests