W. Joseph Campbell

Considering the irresistible ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on July 17, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Cronkite (Library of Congress)

Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite died one year ago today. The myth that helps define his celebrated standing in American journalism is as robust and irresistible as ever.

The myth is that of the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when the anchorman’s on-air assessment of the war in Vietnam as “mired in stalemate” supposedly swung public opinion against the conflict, altered U.S. policy, and encouraged President Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection.

All of which is exaggerated. All of which represents a serious misreading of history.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War weeks and months before Cronkite’s special report in late February 1968.

By October 1967, a plurality of Americans–47 percent–said having sent U.S. forces to 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,” noting that author Mark Kurlansky in his year-study of 1968 described Cronkite’s critique as “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 Times analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Cronkite’s assessment in late February 1968 was much less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network.

“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

In any case, Johnson wasn’t much moved by such assessments–if he saw them at all.

The crucial component of the “Cronkite Moment” is that Johnson watched the program at the White House and, after hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization, snapped off the television set, telling an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect.

That purported comment infuses the “Cronkite Moment” with power, decisiveness, and enduring appeal. The comment was reiterated just yesterday, for example, in a blog post at the New American online site, which claimed:

“When famed evening news broadcaster Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial expressing his opinion that the war in Vietnam was not winnable, Johnson is reported to have said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

Johnson

But the anecdote’s defining and most delicious element is in error: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at the time in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. Thus Johnson could not have had “the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Johnson watched the Cronkite program later, on videotape.

Even if he had, the program represented no epiphany for Johnson. Indeed, not long after Cronkite’s report, the president gave a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

That 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.”

He criticized war critics as wanting the United States to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s aggressive remarks are difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.

As for Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, the “Cronkite moment” certainly was a non-factor. Johnson’s announcement came at the end of March 1968, a month after the Cronkite program–and a couple of weeks after the president’s poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire.

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

He said as much in his memoirs, writing that he had told Connally early in 1967 that he had “felt certain [he] would not run” for another term.

WJC

Related:

About these ads
  1. [...] I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other media-driven myths, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the time Cronkite [...]

  2. [...] surprise of the evening came in discussing the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” in which President Lyndon Johnson supposedly realized U.S. policy in Vietnam was doomed, given the [...]

  3. [...] I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other prominent media-driven myths, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when [...]

  4. [...] true that Cronkite took to the air on February 27, 1968, in a special report about the war in Vietnam, where U.S. forces and South [...]

  5. [...] frequent use signals not only the irresistible allure of the “Cronkite Moment,” it suggests the anecdote’s appeal across the political [...]

  6. [...] “Cronkite Moment” also is a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent [...]

  7. [...] was when, supposedly, the on-air analysis of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite prompted President Lyndon Johnson to change his thinking about the Vietnam War and led him to [...]

  8. [...] memoir, by the way, has nothing to say about the Cronkite program of February [...]

  9. [...] as I note in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was scarcely novel or stunning at the time. And Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired. He [...]

  10. [...] also reviewed the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968 — that legendary occasion when the on-air assessment of CBS News [...]

  11. [...] too, is the presumed effect of the “Cronkite Moment” which, like the story about Hearst’s famous vow, is “succinct, savory, and [...]

  12. [...] memoir, by the way, has nothing to say about the Cronkite program of February [...]

  13. [...] effects are wildly overstated, but they make for an irresistible tale of powerful media influence, and that’s like so much catnip to contemporary journalists and [...]

  14. [...] and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers [...]

  15. […] putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,715 other followers

%d bloggers like this: