W. Joseph Campbell

Koppel goes on NPR, indulges in media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on November 18, 2010 at 6:19 am

Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline program, has been back in the public eye of late, following his smug but widely noted lament in the Washington Post about the partisanship of cable TV news.

Koppel (Wikicommons)

Koppel renewed his complaint in an interview the other day on NPR’s Talk of the Nation–during which he indulged in some of American journalism’s most alluring mythology.

Specifically, Koppel embraced the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and saluted Edward R. Murrow’s legendary report about Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954–much as Keith Olbermann, Koppel’s nemesis of late, did the other night on his MSNBC show, Countdown.

In the interview on Talk of the Nation, Koppel said one of the most memorable programs in Cronkite’s years as CBS News anchorman was “the piece that he did when he came back after a couple of weeks in Vietnam and of which President Johnson famously said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’”

As for Murrow, Koppel said that “what is most remembered about what Ed Murrow did is the extraordinary See It Now piece that he did on Joseph McCarthy.”

Let’s unpack both dubious claims.

Cronkite first.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, President Lyndon Johnson “did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the [Cronkite] program when it was aired.”

And there’s no evidence he ever saw it on videotape, either.

As such, it’s quite difficult to make a case that Johnson was much moved by a program he didn’t see.

Cronkite closed his report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, with an editorial comment that the U.S. military effort  was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Media myth has it that Johnson, at the White House, saw the Cronkite program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, leaned over, snapped off the television set, and said to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Another, more common version quotes Johnson as saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

There are other versions, too, of what the president supposedly said in reaction.

But Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson at Austin

At the time Cronkite offered his downbeat commentary, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

The president wasn’t agonizing about his policy in Vietnam. He wasn’t wringing his hands about losing the country. He was teasing Connally about his age: “Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” opinion was, by February 1968, neither exceptional nor stunning. Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, the  New York Times published a front-page report that cited “disinterested observers” as saying the war in Vietnam was “not going well.” Victory, the Times reported, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

That analysis was published in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As for Murrow’s “extraordinary” show about McCarthy: It wasn’t all that extraordinary. It aired March 9, 1954–years after other journalists had begun scrutinizing the senator’s exaggerated claims and hard-ball tactics in campaigning against communists in government.

Long before the See It Now program,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Some critics at the time pointed out that the See It Now program had offered nothing new about McCarthy.

“Murrow said nothing, and his cameras showed nothing, that this and some other newspapers have not been saying—and saying more strongly—for three or four years,” Jay Nelson Tuck, the New York Post’s television writer, wrote after the program. He was referring to the 17-part series on McCarthy that ran in the Post in 1951.

“The news” in Murrow’s program, Tuck added, “was in the fact that television was saying it at all.”

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the See It Now program about Murrow was exceptional or decisive.

Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Interestingly, a book that Murrow and Friendly compiled in 1955 about the best of the See It Now omitted the 1954 show on McCarthy, the one that Koppel claims was so “extraordinary.”

WJC

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