W. Joseph Campbell

Invoking the ‘Cronkite Moment’ in Canada

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on July 10, 2010 at 9:28 am

Media-driven myths not only can be remarkably hardy; they often find use and application in contexts well beyond their original incarnation.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Evidence for that appears today in a column in Canada’s leading newspaper, the Globe and Mail. The column invokes the hoary myth of the “Cronkite Moment” to underscore how, in a splintered media landscape, no single television anchor projects exceptional influence.

(Or ever did, I would argue.)

In any case, the Globe and Mail column, which discusses the coming retirement of long-time Canadian TV news anchor Lloyd Robertson, declares:

“When venerable CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite declared the Vietnam War could not be won, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson remarked. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths:

“Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that 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 Cronkite program about Vietnam was broadcast on the evening February 27, 1968, not long after the anchorman had returned from a visit to what then was South Vietnam.

Legend has it that Johnson was at the White House and watched the show. After Cronkite editorialized that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson supposedly reached over, snapped off the television set, and exclaimed to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect. Versions vary.

In reality, Johnson was not at the White House that evening. He was not in front of a television set.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, at about the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s 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.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, the president “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would ‘not cut and run’ from Vietnam. ‘We’re not going to be Quislings,’ the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. ‘And we’re not going to be appeasers….'”

So in the days and even weeks following the Cronkite program, Johnson remained openly hawkish on the war.

The “Cronkite Moment” is a particularly delicious media myth in that it exerts enduring, and international, allure. But the notion that a sitting president would be suddenly and dramatically moved by the on-air assessment of a television anchorman is highly improbable.

“It is exceedingly rare for any news report to trigger a powerful, immediate and decisive reaction akin to” the “Cronkite Moment,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Researchers long ago dismissed the notion the news media can create such profound and immediate effects, as if absorbing media messages were akin to receiving potent drugs via a hypodermic needle.”

It just doesn’t work that way.

WJC

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