W. Joseph Campbell

Country turned against Vietnam before ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 12, 2010 at 6:33 am

Politico posted an item yesterday asserting that President Barack Obama “has lost the most trusted man in the Hispanic media”–the Univision anchorman, Jorge Ramos.

Ramos and Obama, in chummier times

Ramos, Politico said, “has been called the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language media, an unparalleled nationwide voice for Hispanics. And just like the famed CBS newsman’s commentary helped turn the country against the Vietnam War, Ramos may be on the leading edge of a movement within the Hispanic media to challenge the president on immigration—a shift that some observers believe is contributing to Obama’s eroding poll numbers among Latino voters.”

There’s no doubt Obama’s poll numbers are sliding. But the Cronkite analogy is in error. And misleading.

Cronkite’s commentary–an on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate”–did little to “turn the country against the Vietnam War.”

That’s because public opinion had been souring on Vietnam for months before Cronkite’s commentary aired on February 27, 1968.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, the Gallup Organization reported in October 1967 that a plurality of Americans (47 percent to 44 percent) said deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.

A roughly similar response was reported in early February 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

Anecdotally, journalists also detected a softening in support for the war.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 “that the ‘summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters—along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials—appeared to be changing their views about the war.'”

More recently, Greg Mitchell, then editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in 2005: “Those who claim that [the Cronkite program] created a seismic shift on the war overlook the fact that there was much opposition to the conflict already.”

By late February 1968, then, “Cronkite’s ‘mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary,” I note in Getting It Wrong. I cite Mark Kurlansky’s year-study of the 1968 which said that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, just four days before Cronkite’s assessment, the Wall Street Journal declared in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

So reservations and pessimism were abundant and growing by the time of Cronkite’s commentary (which nowadays is often referred to as the “Cronkite Moment”).

As Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in a column soon after the purported “Cronkite Moment,” the anchorman’s assessment about America’s predicament in Vietnam “did not contain striking revelations.”

WJC

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