W. Joseph Campbell

Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure, he did

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on November 21, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Media-driven myths, I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong,  “tend to minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.”

Cronkite

So it is with the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” one of the most tenacious myths of American journalism.

An important reason for the myth’s hardiness is that it presents a simplified version of a supposed turning point in the long political career of President Lyndon Johnson.

The “Cronkite Moment” has it that CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite told truth to power in reporting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Supposedly, Johnson watched Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president switched off the television set and told an aide or aides:

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

Or something to that effect.

A blogger at CapeCodToday.com recounted the familiar and delicious tale of the “Cronkite Moment” yesterday, writing:

“President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said … after hearing Cronkite’s report, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Not long after that, LBJ stepped down from office, refusing to run for a second term.

“A news person had told a simple truth, and it had helped change history.”

Of course Cronkite’s report on Vietnam had no such effect on history.

There is quite simply no link between the “Cronkite Moment” and Johnson’s decision–announced at the end of March 1968–not to stand for reelection that year.

None.

LBJ at moment of 'Cronkite Moment': Telling a joke

For starters, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

At about the moment Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” interpretation, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

So at the time of the purported “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson wasn’t agonizing about having lost Cronkite’s support; he wasn’t overcome with angst about the war effort in Vietnam.

Johnson was telling a joke.

And it’s hard to argue that the president could have been much moved by a television report that he didn’t see.

Not only that, but Johnson may have decided in 1967 or even earlier not to stand for reelection in 1968. He wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Given those factors, Cronkite’s show at the end of February 1968 recedes into trivial insignificance as a reason for Johnson’s decision–announced a month later–not to stand for reelection.

It certainly is an appealing notion that a newsman such as Cronkite could tell “a simple truth” and, by doing so, help change history.

But such a notion is more often the recipe for a media-driven myth than it is the foundation of historical accuracy.

WJC

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  1. [...] Newsman tells 'a simple truth,' changes history « Media Myth Alert “A news person had told a simple truth, and it had helped change history.” Of course Cronkite's report on Vietnam had no such effect on history. There is quite simply no link between the “Cronkite Moment” and Johnson's . [...]

  2. [...] a month later, Johnson announced he was not running for election–a decision often linked, if erroneously, to Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis about [...]

  3. [...] Newsman ‘tells a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure, he did [...]

  4. [...] more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was hardly a stunning interpretation in early 1968. It was neither notable nor extraordinary for the [...]

  5. [...] Moment,” despite its wobbly and improbable elements, is a delicious story of a journalist telling truth to power–and producing a powerful effect. As such, it probably will live [...]

  6. [...] Both claims are delicious, and often invoked as evidence of the power of the news media. [...]

  7. [...] It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was scarcely novel or stunning at the time. And Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired. He was in Austin, [...]

  8. [...] author doesn’t explain how Cronkite’s views on Vietnam “changed the course of history” (an exaggerated claim sometimes made about the [...]

  9. [...] myths can offer simplified and misleading versions of important historical events. They can be invoked as presumptive evidence of the power [...]

  10. [...] is shorthand for the dubious notion that the on-air assessment of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite forced President Lyndon Johnson to alter policy on [...]

  11. [...] Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure he did [...]

  12. [...] Or something to that effect. Versions vary, but the point is that Cronkite’s assessment supposedly altered U.S. policy, and altered history. [...]

  13. [...] Newsman ‘tells a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure he did [...]

  14. [...] Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure he did [...]

  15. [...] Newsman ‘tells a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure he did [...]

  16. [...] ABC’s claim notwithstanding, Cronkite did not declare the Vietnam War “unwinnable.” At the close of a special report televised on February 27, 1968, the CBS News anchorman said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” [...]

  17. [...] about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was [...]

  18. [...] about the time Cronkite was offering his downbeat assessment about the U.S. war effort, Johnson was [...]

  19. [...] as in the comment often attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing newsman Walter Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war in Vietnam, Johnson supposedly [...]

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  23. [...] Cronkite’s on-air assessment, delivered February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in [...]

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