|Sandy Socolow (CBS News)|
You may never have heard of Sandy Socolow, especially if you weren't around during the 60s and 70s and beyond, when watching Walter Cronkite deliver the nightly news on CBS was a ritual in millions of American homes.
I confess that he wasn't exactly a household name to me, either, until I got to know his former wife, Nan, through New York Times commenting. (Nan has contributed several poems to Sardonicky, and a Watergate-era poem she wrote to him is reprinted with her permission at the end of this post.)
Sandy Socolow, longtime producer of Walter Cronkite's newscasts, died on January 31 at the age of 86. He was among the last of the so-called "Murrow Boys," former newspapermen who turned the new medium of television into a unique and popular information-delivery vehicle. This was before news, and entertainment and corporate sponsor interests merged, and TV news -- as evidenced most recently by the Brian Williams scandal -- has been exposed as something of a personality, money- and ratings-driven fraud.
Journalists, many of them with perfect hair and pretty faces, were both physically and psychologically embedded deep within George W. Bush's misbegotten adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to glorify the war effort and probably helping to prolong it as well, through their largely non-critical coverage. (Remember the phony "Saving Private Jessica" story, and the staged toppling of Saddam's statue as preludes to the selling of war as a soap opera of infotainment?)
TV war coverage was, and is, a long way from Vietnam in more than time and distance. Back then, there was a Fairness Doctrine (broadcasting in the public interest). Back then, journalists tended to take their "afflict the comfortable" duties more seriously, as opposed to their banal goals today: getting access to the powerful and engaging in he said/she said debates instead of proactively digging for the truth. It was Sandy Socolow who produced the famous Morley Safer film segment that showed American troops setting fire to a Vietnam village, which sparked the previously lacking public outrage and hastened the end of the war. Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam himself, came back, urged a withdrawal of troops in the name of human decency, and caused LBJ to realize that since he'd lost Cronkite, he'd lost America.
Sandy Socolow (his last name is Russian for "eagle" or "falcon," says Nan) worked with Cronkite almost continuously from the time he arrived at CBS in the mid-50s until Cronkite's own retirement. As Bruce Weber chronicles in his excellent New York Times obituary, Socolow risked his job by producing Cronkite's succinct and damning overview of the then-obscure Watergate scandal:
Less than two weeks before the presidential election, the “Evening News” broadcast Cronkite’s two-part summation of the unfolding Watergate story, largely following the reporting in The Washington Post by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
The first installment, which detailed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington and a dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by the committee to re-elect President Richard M. Nixon, appeared on Friday, Oct. 27, absorbing an extraordinary 14 minutes of the 22 minutes or so devoted to the news.
But Sandy Socolow chose to ignore the threatening directive, imparted through CBS chairman William S. Paley, to kill the second part of the story, opting instead to trim it down. The rest, as they say, is history:The Nixon White House put pressure on CBS corporate executives to cancel the second installment of the report, which was to focus on the financing of the illicit doings and on the ways figures involved in the Watergate scandal were connected to the president.
Fast forward 40 years, and a shocking 64% of investigative journalists are convinced that their own government is spying on them. Fast forward 40 years, and the Fourth Estate is largely a glorified steno pool. As Maureen Dowd writes in her Sunday New York Times column on the Brian Williams debacle,The CBS report nonetheless had a significant impact, not least because it gave the Watergate story the imprimatur of the nation’s most authoritative newsman, Walter Cronkite. Less than two years after Nixon was resoundingly re-elected, the Watergate scandal forced his resignation.
Although there was much chatter about the “revered” anchor and the “moral authority” of the networks, does anyone really feel that way anymore? Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division. One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.
So on top of Orwell's 1984, we've got the anesthetizing frosting of Huxley's Brave New World. Distractions and delusions are the order of the day. My response to Dowd:But TV news now is rife with cat, dog and baby videos, weather stories and narcissism. And even that fare caused trouble for Williams when he reported on a video of a pig saving a baby goat, admitting “we have no way of knowing if it’s real,” and then later had to explain that it wasn’t. The nightly news anchors are not figures of authority. They’re part of the entertainment, branding and cross-promotion business.
CNN was actually pre-empting their usual terror and sabre-rattling coverage on Saturday because of LyinBrianGate. Poppy Harlow fumed that it was "too soon" for Maureen Dowd to have exposed Brian Williams as a phony. Poppy hopes he gets his job back, because they're all like family.
I'm glad Maureen mentioned Walter Cronkite, because the longtime producer of his news program died just last weekend. Sandy Socolow was a trailblazer for TV news. It was largely due to Socolow that the American people learned the awful truth about Vietnam. And thus was the war dealt a mortal blow by the power of independent journalism.
Brian Williams, on the other hand, bathed himself in jingoistic glory and glamor. The viewers were numbed and awed, and the horror show went on. Those, of course, were the years of the "embed" -- the sneaky way that the Bush cartel controlled reporters by giving them unprecedented access to the battlefield and all the military toys and garb at their disposal. Chelsea Manning, the truly courageous soldier who did expose the war crimes -- including film of helicopter snipers shooting Reuters reporters to death -- languishes in prison while infotainer Williams is raking in the millions for performing the joint function of actor and propagandist.
There is no anti-war movement because we're not being told the truth about any of the wars. But now that Williams has been exposed as a fraud, let the chips fall where they may, and let all our eyes and minds be opened.Nan Socolow shares the poem she wrote to her husband to celebrate his courage under fire from what had been, until the past couple of administrations anyway, perhaps the worst assault on journalism by government in American history. It was originally published in the June 1975 New Republic.
RIDING INTO BATTLE,MY HEART ON YOUR LANCEYou're my peachyou're my princepennonedgonfalonedtietackedyou joustmosey alongastride yourfalcon steed.You're my beeyou're my berrymy cufflinked
of traffic jamsand medieval nightsthe modern dayvassal ofMedici me.Nan Socolow
|Three Generations of Socolows: Nan With Her Sons and Grandsons|