W. Joseph Campbell

On version variability and the ‘Cronkite moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

As I note in my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, version variability–the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling–can be a marker of media-driven myths.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

So it is with the purported “Cronkite moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted in a special televised report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson supposedly saw the Cronkite program and promptly realized the war effort was doomed.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president is reputed to have said in reaction to Cronkite’s pronouncement, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or, as a columnist for Townhall.com wrote yesterday, Johnson “said to an aide, ‘If we’ve lost Walter, then we’ve lost the war.'”

Those are just two of many variations of Johnson’s supposed response to Cronkite’s downbeat assessment.

Other versions include:

“I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

“If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Version variability of that magnitude signals implausibility.”

I also note that version variability “suggests more than sloppiness in journalistic research or a reluctance to take time to trace the derivation of the popular anecdote. The varying accounts of Johnson’s purported reactions represent another, compelling reason for regarding the ‘Cronkite moment’ with doubt and skepticism.”

Moreover, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired February 27, 1968. At the time, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of his longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

Johnson teased Connally about his age, saying: “Today you are 51, John. 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.”

And even if Johnson later heard—or heard about—Cronkite’s assessment, it was represented no epiphany for the president, no burst of clarity about a policy gone sour.

A few weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-thumping speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

The speech was delivered March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So in the weeks immediately following the purported “Cronkite moment,” Johnson maintained an aggressive public stance on the war. He clearly wasn’t swayed by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis.

WJC

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  6. [...] Another version has the president saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.” [...]

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  8. [...] Another, more common version quotes Johnson as saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” [...]

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