W. Joseph Campbell

Loving the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ and indulging in a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on September 10, 2010 at 10:52 am

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968–when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite offered a supposedly withering assessment of the war in Vietnam–is cherished in American journalism.

Johnson and the 'Cronkite Moment'

The occasion supposedly was so exceptional and so memorably potent that it merits special reverence: The “Cronkite Moment.”

It’s not surprising that reverential bows are frequently made to the “Cronkite Moment.”

Such was the case just yesterday. Separate commentaries–one at a TV blog sponsored by the Baltimore Sun and the other in a column at MarketWatch–invoked the moment when Cronkite’s telling insight supposedly altered U.S. war policy.

But as I discuss in my new book, Getting It Wrong, the “Cronkite Moment” is an anecdote of two components–one part true, the other part false.

It’s 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 Vietnamese allies had just repelled a broad and surprising offensive by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.

Cronkite closed his report that night by declaring the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested a negotiated settlement might eventually be the way out.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have watched the Cronkite show and, upon hearing the anchorman’s closing “mired in stalemate” comment, snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide or aides:

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

That’s the not-true component.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of his political allies.

About the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was saying in jest: “Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

Johnson’s memoir, The Vantage Point, is silent about the Cronkite program, offering no clue about whether the president ever saw it or, if he did, what he thought of it. Indeed, there is no evidence that Johnson later saw 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.”

For many reasons, then, the “Cronkite Moment” is a dubious anecdote, a media-driven myth.

But that hasn’t much diminished its appeal.

As is the case with many media-driven myths, the “Cronkite Moment” is too delicious, too seemingly perfect to resist. It finds application in a striking variety of ways.

Take, for example, yesterday’s post at the Baltimore Sun-sponsored blog, “Z on TV.”

The writer, David Zurawik, invoked the “Cronkite Moment” in discussing the Fox News announcement that it would not to cover the Quran-burning spectacle proposed by the once-obscure Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida. And Zurawik wondered whether the Fox decision was a reason Jones said yesterday he was canceling the planned Quran-burning.

“I am only half kidding,” Zurawik wrote, “when I reference Lyndon Johnson’s lament in 1968 after he watched CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite criticize the American war effort in Vietnam: ‘That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’

“I wonder if Pastor Jones was thinking, ‘Without Fox News there to cover it, what’s the point?’ Or, ‘If I lost Fox News …'”

The column posted yesterday MarketWatch.com also signaled the hardy versatility of the “Cronkite Moment.”

The author, Andrew Leckey, discussed Chinese sensitivity to criticism in the U.S. news media. And he referred to a question once  posed to him “by the Chinese host on a special talk show” that focused on Cronkite.

The question, Leckey wrote, was why was there no journalist of Cronkite’s stature in the United States who was able to draw to an end the war in Iraq as Cronkite did in Vietnam?

Leckey didn’t say how he replied.

The best and accurate answer would have been that Cronkite did not bring about an end to the war in Vietnam. The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973–nearly five years after the purported “Cronkite Moment.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the “Cronkite Moment,” under scrutiny “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising. Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace.”

WJC

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