W. Joseph Campbell

Not off the hook with ‘reportedly’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on December 17, 2010 at 10:08 am

“Reportedly” is a squishy weasel word that journalists use to deflect immediate responsibility or as a buffer against blame.

LBJ at time of 'Cronkite Moment'

In invoking “reportedly,” journalists in effect are saying: “I can’t vouch for this statement first-hand, but others have used it. It’s in wide circulation.” So they slap “reportedly” before the claim and go with it.

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968–when the on-air assessment of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly altered U.S. policy in Vietnam–invites such usage.

Today’s Dallas Morning News invokes the r-word in a column on the entertainment page that parenthetically recalls the “Cronkite Moment.”

The column referred to CBS newsman Bob Schieffer and his comments about Afghanistan, offered at a recent luncheon in Dallas. It states:

“Schieffer took a page out of Cronkite’s book and expressed his skepticism about our approach to the war in Afghanistan. (After Cronkite’s 1968 editorial on Vietnam, LBJ reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’)”

“Reportedly” doesn’t let the journalist off the hook of responsibility. It’s a thin cover, a vague caveat. Its use doesn’t make the claim about the “Cronkite Moment” any less assertive.

Or any less the media myth.

I address and debunk the “Cronkite Moment” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, pointing out that until late in his life even Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his program on Vietnam had much effect on U.S. policy.

The program that gave rise to the “Cronkite Moment” was an hour-long special report that aired February 27, 1968. Near the close of program, Cronkite declared the U.S. military in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might eventually lead to a way out.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, switched off the television set and muttered to an aide or aids:

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

Or something to that effect. Versions vary markedly.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. He did not see the Cronkite program when it aired, and there is no solid evidence he later watched the show on videotape.

And as Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was in Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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.”

It wasn’t the funniest presidential joke ever told. But the comment makes clear that Johnson that night wasn’t lamenting his having “lost Cronkite.”

The show was no epiphany for Johnson; it offered no flash of insight that his war policy was a shambles. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much moved by a television program he had not seen.

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

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, 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.”

Given the that earlier reporting, Cronkite might well have said on his program about Vietnam that the U.S. war effort was “reportedly mired in stalemate.”

WJC

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