W. Joseph Campbell

The wobbly components of the ‘Cronkite moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on June 7, 2010 at 5:23 am

It’s often claimed that Walter Cronkite’s analysis in February 1968 that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” helped swing public opinion against the war.

Not to mention that Cronkite’s penetrating assessment brought President Lyndon Johnson face-to-face with the realization his war policy was a shambles.

And so incisive was Cronkite’s assessment that it supposedly was a factor in Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to seek reelection to the presidency.

Those are three components of an especially tenacious and popular media-driven myth, all of which I address in a chapter in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

The wide circulation of what I call the mythical “Cronkite moment” was evident in a commentary aired the other day on Vermont Public Radio, which asserted:

“In 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a downbeat report on American progress in Vietnam, public opinion rapidly soured on the war. President Lyndon Johnson lamented, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’  Several weeks later, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.”

In fact, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, public opinion had begun shifting against the war weeks and months before Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968.

By October 1967, 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, maintained that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys.

Moreover, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “neither notable nor extraordinary,” pointing out that Mark Kurlansky in his study of the year 1968 stated that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, nearly seven months before the “Cronkite moment,” the New York Times published on its front page as analysis that said victory in Vietnam “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.” The analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As has been noted many times at MediaMythAlert, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

So he could not have had “the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him,” I write in the book.

There is, moreover, no evidence that Johnson ever watched the Cronkite program on videotape.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

As for Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, which he announced at the end of March 1968: The “Cronkite moment” certainly was a non-factor.

There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection, that he had privately decided in 1967 against another campaign.

Also important in Johnson’s decision was Senator Eugene McCarthy’s surprisingly potent bid for the Democratic nomination for president in early 1968.

Under scrutiny, then, the components of the “Cronkite moment” prove to be wobbly: They don’t hold up to inspection. And that’s “not so surprising,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.”

So it was with the often-misinterpreted “Cronkite moment” of 1968.

WJC

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