I recently reviewed Journalism’s Roving Eye, a hefty, impressively researched study by John Maxwell Hamilton of the history of American foreign correspondence.
In my review, written for the quarterly Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, I note:
“Hamilton ranges widely and confidently over the colorful history of American foreign correspondence. … Journalism’s Roving Eye is engaging, and highly readable.”
But I also note the book “projects a surprising sense of conventionality in recounting memorable moments in U.S. foreign correspondence.” As an example, I cite the anecdote — one of the favorites in all of American journalism — about Walter Cronkite’s on-air editorializing February 27, 1968.
That anecdote has become so wrapped in legend that it is has come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”
On that occasion, Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam had become “mired in stalemate” and suggested that time was approaching for negotiations to end the conflict.
President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment, the president abruptly switched off the television and supposedly told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Hamilton cites that anecdote and quotes David Halberstam’s line from The Power That Be, that the Cronkite’s editorializing “was the first time that a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”
But, of course, that wasn’t the case.
The last U.S. combat troops did not leave Vietnam until 1973, more than five years after the “Cronkite Moment.”
What’s more, as I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, “Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.
“That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired.”
The president was in Austin, Texas, at the time of the Cronkite program, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.
Moreover, I write in Getting It Wrong, “Johnson’s supposedly downbeat, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply with the president’s aggressive characterization about the war. Hours before the Cronkite program, Johnson delivered [in Dallas] a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms.”
In late winter 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither stunning nor particularly cutting-edge. About seven months earlier, I note in the book, “the New York Times had suggested the war in Vietnam was stalemated.”
Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network.
“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson's] administration’s definition.”
There was no equivocating about being “mired in stalemate.” No nuanced suggestions about maybe opening negotiations.
It’s faintly curious that McGee’s pointed and emphatic editorial comment is not more often remembered.
But of course no one ever talks about the “McGee Moment.”