W. Joseph Campbell

Myth resurfaces in Cronkite-collaborator report

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on May 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

The Yahoo News report yesterday that venerable CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite may have quietly collaborated with antiwar activists in the late 1960s stirred a modest flurry of commentary in the blogosphere.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Few mainstream media outlets appear to have touched the story, which I find to be something of a stretch. An exception was Rupert Murdoch’s  New York Post, which carried a brief article, essentially a rewrite of the Yahoo report.

That report cited newly released FBI documents in saying that in late 1969, “Cronkite encouraged students at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., to invite Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie to address a protest [against the war] they were planning near Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral). Cronkite told the group’s leader that Muskie would be nearby for a fundraiser on the day of the protest, and said that ‘CBS would rent [a] helicopter to take Muskie to and from site of rally.'”

Inevitably, the report recalled Cronkite’s famous on-air editorial comment delivered February 27, 1968, at the end of a special report on Vietnam. On that occasion, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

A post yesterday at mediaite.com noted Cronkite’s 1968 commentary, saying it “is often credited with turning the tide of public opinion against the war.”

Cronkite’s commentary that night has become the stuff of legend. But it was scarcely so powerful or decisive as to much move public opinion.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before the Cronkite program.

In October 1967, a Gallup survey reported that the percentage of respondents saying that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake had reached a plurality—47 percent. That was 4½ months before Cronkite delivered his on-air commentary. (In August-September 1965, just 24 percent of Gallup poll respondents said sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake.)

In a Gallup poll completed in early February 1968, three weeks before the Cronkite program, the proportion saying the war was a mistake stood at 46 percent; 42 percent said it had not been a mistake.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed the day the Cronkite program aired, finding that 49 percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not.

By late February 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “neither notable nor extraordinary.”

I also note that Mark Kurlansky, author of a year-study about 1968, declared Cronkite’s view “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Cronkite’s remarks that night were fairly mild–certainly less emphatic than comments offered about two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network.

“The war,” McGee declared on an NBC News program March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the administration’s definition.”

As I’ve noted previously, it is a bit surprising that McGee’s pointed editorial comments are not more often remembered.

WJC

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