W. Joseph Campbell

Knocking down the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on December 22, 2010 at 9:28 am

That’s more like it.

A blog sponsored by the Hollywood Reporter yesterday invoked–and parenthetically disputed–the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on-air that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

The media myth has it that President Lyndon Johnson watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, snapped 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.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the tale almost certainly is a media myth.

Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of his longtime allies.

About the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson wasn’t lamenting the loss of the anchorman’s support. Johnson was making light-hearted comments 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.”

Moreover, there is no compelling evidence that Johnson saw the Cronkite program later, on videotape.

And as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

So here’s what the Hollywood Reporter blog said yesterday, in a column that discussed leading candidates for best motion picture of 2010:

“They say that when President LBJ saw newscaster Walter Cronkite editorialize against Vietnam, he said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.’ (Actually, this is an urban legend, but it’s a fine metaphor so it endures.)”

While it’s not entirely clear why the writer felt compelled to invoke the “Cronkite Moment,” that he promptly knocked it down is commendable.

Calling it out as dubious is necessary if the myth ever is to be unmade.

The “Cronkite 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 on.

It certainly will live on if efforts aren’t made repeatedly to call attention to its improbability: A news anchorman’s brief editorial statement was sufficient to alter a president’s thinking?

Come on.

It doesn’t work that way.

Besides, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s assessment of the U.S. war effort was hardly original.

Nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment,” the New York Times had reported the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

Victory, the Times said in August 1967, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

This analysis was published on the Times’ front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

WJC

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