W. Joseph Campbell

Mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’ invoked in ‘USA Today’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

In his column this week, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, invokes the dubious “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and suggests an outspoken television journalist today could help end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Neuharth’s column refers to Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. Near the end of the report, the CBS anchorman declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite suggested that negotiations might represent a “rational” way out of Vietnam.

Neuharth then invokes the mythical component of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that President Lyndon Johnson, upon hearing “the CBS shocker,” declared:

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

As 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 it aired. Nor is there evidence he watched the program later, on videotape.

Johnson on the night of the program was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

Johnson at Connally's party

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

It represented no epiphany for him.

Indeed, in the days and weeks immediately following Cronkite’s program, Johnson’s rhetoric on the war remained hawkish. On March 18, 1968, for example, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

He also declared in that speech:

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

Moreover, it’s clear that by early 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment about the war was unremarkable. Mark Kurlansky said as much in his well-received year-study about 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, the New York Times published a front-page news analysis that said victory in southeast Asia “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis was published in August 1967 and carried the headline, “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

And as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, former NBC newsman Frank McGee offered an analysis about Vietnam in March 1968 that was more forceful and direct Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization.

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

“Being lost,” McGee said: No hedging there.

But almost no one remembers Frank McGee’s blunt assessment.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the purported “Cronkite Moment” has become for many American journalists “an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in wartime reporting. It is an objective that contemporary practitioners at times seem desperate to recapture or recreate.”

Neuharth’s column makes  just that point, stating:

“The TV man—or woman—who suggests a ‘rational’ way out of Afghanistan could become today’s Cronkite.”

Not likely, not in today’s diverse and splintered media landscape in which audiences for network television have been in sustained decline.

In any case, it’s interesting to note that until late in his life, Cronkite disputed the notion that his 1968 report on Vietnam had much of an effect.

In his 1997 memoir, for example, Cronkite characterized his “mired in stalemate” assessment in decidedly modest terms, stating that it represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

He reiterated the “just one more straw” analogy in interviews promoting the book.

But by 2007, two years before his death, Cronkite had embraced the purported power of the “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with the Gazette of Martha’s Vineyard:

“There are a lot of journalists out there today who if they chose to take that strong stand and course [in opposing the Iraq War] would probably enjoy a similar result.”

WJC

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