W. Joseph Campbell

Mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’ is ‘believed because it’s believable’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on November 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Johnson and 'Cronkite Moment'

The Wall Street Journal‘s “Best of the Web” online feature yesterday invoked the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, recalling it as “the oft-told story of President Johnson lamenting, ‘If I’ve lost [Walter] Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

Best of the Web,” which is compiled and written by James Taranto, noted that the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote “is almost certainly apocryphal, but it was widely believed because it was believable.”

It’s a telling point: The tale is believed–and is often retold–because it is believable. Like other media-driven myths, the “Cronkite Moment” resides on the cusp of plausibility.

The anecdote tells of Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be the way out. Johnson reputedly watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s show-ending commentary, leaned over and switched off the television and said to an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect. Versions vary markedly as to what the president supposedly said.

Cronkite’s assessment reputedly was an epiphany to the president, who after the “Cronkite Moment” altered war policy and decided against seeking reelection. In the aftermath of Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, American public opinion also swung against the war.

Or so the story has it.

But as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s report, which aired on CBS on February 27, 1968, had none of those effects–principally because Johnson did not see the show program when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally (see photo, above).

There’s no evidence that Johnson later saw the program on videotape, or what he thought of it, if he did see it.

We do know, though, that Johnson was openly hawkish about the war in the days and weeks immediately following Cronkite’s report. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, in mid-March 1968, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

So Johnson was hardly throwing up his hands in despair. That he remained hawkish signals how the “Cronkite Moment” represented no epiphany for the president.

Taranto’s quite right about the anecdote’s being “believed because it was believable.” Although it’s doubtful whether Cronkite ever was “the most trusted” man in America, he was a force in American broadcast journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when network television news mostly was delivered on just three or four channels.

The Cronkite-Johnson story also lives on because it is so readily grasped and easily recalled. As I write in Getting It Wrong, prominent media myths are tenacious because they are reductive–they tend to “minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.”

The Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is a simplistic tale, but it also affirms the supposed power of the news media in American life. On important issues, the anecdote says, the news media can tell truth to power. They can be vital, even courageous forces in shaping and executing policy.

But all of those powerful effects begin to dissolve when it’s pointed out that Johnson never saw Cronkite’s program in the first place.

WJC

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