W. Joseph Campbell

Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter

In Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Spanish-American War on April 24, 2010 at 9:02 am

A book review in the New York Times the other day referred to David Halberstam, the legendary author and journalist, as an “unimpeachable” source.

Halberstam, who died in an automobile accident three years ago, certainly built an outsize reputation. But unimpeachable?

I’d say no way.

Halberstam, in his hefty and still-popular 1979 study of the news media, The Powers That Be, encouraged the rise of two prominent media-driven myths and endorsed a third.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Halberstam’s Powers That Be was an important source, perhaps the original source, for the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968.

That was when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted in a special report that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

In Halberstam’s telling, Cronkite’s report represented “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Halberstam wrote that President Lyndon Johnson was in Washington and watched the Cronkite special that night. Upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment about Vietnam, the president said that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost Mr. Average Citizen.

Interestingly, Halberstam did not place Johnson’s purported lament inside quotation marks. He paraphrased the remarks and said Johnson had directed  them to presidential press secretary George Christian.

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, Johnson was not in Washington that night. He did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Thus, he could not have had the abrupt, dramatic, yet resigned reaction that Halberstam, and others, have attributed to him.

Johnson that night was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Johnson supposedly made the comment about losing Cronkite, he was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, saying:

“That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

The “Cronkite Moment,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is a media-driven myth. It did not have the effects that Halberstam and many others have attributed to it.”

Halberstam’s Powers That Be also offered a graphic, if exaggerated, account that President John Kennedy supposedly called James Reston of the New York Times in April 1961 and urged him not to publish a report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion.

Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately,” Halberstam wrote, that the Times by reporting the story would damage his policy. Halberstam also wrote that in his call to Reston, Kennedy said the Times risked having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion failed.

Such a conversation never happened, according to Reston and others quoted in Harrison Salisbury’s insider’s account of the Times, Without Fear or Favor.

Indeed, there is no evidence that Kennedy called anyone at the Times in advance of the report–which was written by Tad Szulc and published April 7, 1961, on the Times front page (see right).

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives on April 6, 1961, the day the story was prepared for publication.

“Moreover,” I note, “Kennedy had almost no chance to speak with those executives during the interval from when Szulc’s story arrived at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type. … During that time, Kennedy was otherwise preoccupied. He spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.”

In addition, Halberstam’s Powers That Be invoked one of the most enduring media myths–the anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

That anecdote is revisited, and dismantled, in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong.

The Powers That Be was a popular success, reaching the second spot on the New York Times best-selling list in May 1979. But the book wasn’t without persuasive critics.

Among them was David Culbert, an historian at Louisiana State University who years ago raised questions about the “Cronkite Moment,” noting that Johnson was in Texas when the program aired.

In a devastating review published in the American Historical Review, Culbert called The Powers That Be overlong and declared:

“The absence of a developed thesis, lack of proper documentation, and numerous errors of fact for events before the 1960s suggest that historians will have to use this book with caution. There is much here that might be true and, if true, valuable, but there is also no certainty that sloppy research does not undermine the very parts that seem most interesting.”

WJC

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  1. [...] Legend has it that Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s editorial comment, snapped off the television and said to an aide or aides: [...]

  2. [...] no, the bestselling author David Halberstam, who promoted each of these stories with unfailing pomposity, was not a reliable chronicler of even [...]

  3. [...] my “overrated” list was David Halberstam‘s The Powers That Be, followed by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward‘s All the [...]

  4. [...] U.S. combat troops were not completely withdrawn from Vietnam until 1973–despite the claim by David Halbertstam in The Powers That Be that Cronkite’s program represented “the first time in American history a [...]

  5. [...] the legend of the “Cronkite Moment” began to take hold and gain circulation several years after Johnson’s death in 1973. It was in 1968 neither an [...]

  6. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-provider [...]

  7. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter [...]

  8. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter [...]

  9. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? The myth-provider [...]

  10. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter [...]

  11. [...] his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam offered a graphic, though exaggerated, account of Kennedy’s calling James Reston of the [...]

  12. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter [...]

  13. [...] Halberstam the ‘unimpeachable’? Try myth-promoter [...]

  14. [...] the newspaper’s first edition hit the streets around 7 p.m. (In his The Powers That Be, David Halberstam depicted Kennedy as having called Reston to argue “strongly and passionately” against [...]

  15. [...] CBC sidebar referred specifically to David Halberstam, who wrote The Powers That Be, and Peter Wyden, author of Bay of Pigs: The Untold [...]

  16. [...] Halberstam‘s Powers That Be, after all, is no authoritative source on the tale of the Times‘ self-censorship. Far from it. [...]

  17. [...] Moment” was powerful and decisive has been promoted by many historians, notably David Halberstam in his error-riddled The Powers That [...]

  18. [...] “It [also] has figured in innumerable discussions about Hearst and about the news media and war. It has been repeated over the years by no small number of journalists, scholars, and critics of the news media such as Ben Bagdikian, Helen Thomas, Nicholas Lemann, and the late David Halberstam.” [...]

  19. [...] Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. [...]

  20. [...] Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. [...]

  21. [...] support that claim, Brinkley turns to the exaggerated assertion in David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history that [...]

  22. [...] “Cronkite Moment” took on importance not in 1968 but by 1979, when David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be that Cronkite’s report “was the first time in American [...]

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