W. Joseph Campbell

The sporting version of the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies on November 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” is a hardy and impressively flexible tale.

As a presumptive lesson about journalism’s capacity to tell truths to power, the “Cronkite Moment” turns up in the media in all sorts of ways.

He of the 'Cronkite Moment'

It appears even on the sports pages.

The “Cronkite Moment“–in which the downbeat assessment of CBS New anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to understand the futility of his Vietnam War policy–turned up yesterday in a column posted at cbssports.com.

In discussing the firing of Wade Phillips as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, columnist Ray Ratto wrote:

“Cronkite one night came out against the war, right there on the evening news (when there were just three networks and the evening news meant something), and Johnson knew at that moment that he was finished. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ Johnson is alleged to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.””

Flexibility may make the anecdote appealing and long-lived. But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the “Cronkite Moment” is  a media-driven myth, a tall tale about the news media masquerading as factual.

Let’s unpack what Ratto wrote:

  • Cronkite didn’t really come “out against the war”: He described the U.S. military effort in Vietnam as “mired in stalemate,” which hardly was a striking or novel interpretation at time his assessment was offered in early 1968.
  • Cronkite didn’t present his “mired in stalemate” commentary on the evening news: It came at the end of an hour-long special report about Vietnam that aired February 27, 1968.
  • Johnson did not know “at that moment that he was finished.” Johnson, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, didn’t even see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

At about the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set. He didn’t exclaim, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”–or words to that effect. He said:

“Today you are 51, John. 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.”

There was no woe-is-me about having “lost Cronkite.” There was no epiphany for the president that his war policy was a shambles.

Only a light-hearted comment about Connally’s turning 51.

The power of the “Cronkite Moment,” I write in Getting It Wrong, lies “in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president.” Had Johnson seen the program later, on videotape, it would not have carried the sudden, unexpected punch that the “Cronkite Moment” is presumed to have had.

Indeed, I write, “Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

As I say, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” view was neither notable nor extraordinary in early 1968. Mark Kurlansky wrote in his fine year-study about 1968 that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, a report in the  New York Times had cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.” Victory, the Times reported, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

This analysis was published on the Times’ front page in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

WJC

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