W. Joseph Campbell

Searing insight that wasn’t: Fox Business and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on March 25, 2011 at 7:59 am

It’s intriguing how media myths — especially those distilled to pithy turns of phrase — are invoked by commentators to infuse their arguments with a presumptive moral authority.

Johnson: Cracked a joke instead

A telling example of this tendency is the mythical line attributed to President Lyndon Johnson — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (or words to that effect).

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s almost certain that Johnson never made the comment, at least not in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

But the mythical line lives on because it’s pithy, memorable, and telling. Supposedly.

It suggests the news media can offer power-wielding authorities insight so profound and searing that can alter policy and even change the course of a war. Which is what Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization purportedly represented for Johnson.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s assessment “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite Moment.‘”

How the “Cronkite Moment” can be applied in reaching for the high moral ground was evident the other day in a commentary aired on the Fox Business cable channel.

The commentator, Gerri Willis, slammed Obamacare, the year-old federal health care legislation, as a looming financial disaster that “sure ain’t what it was advertised to be.”

Fair enough: No argument there.

But in closing, Willis reached for the “Cronkite Moment,” as if to gild her argument.

It came off sounding like a non-sequitur.

Here’s what she said:

“It’s no wonder that an all-star panel of health care backers — which included Ted Kennedy’s widow Vicki Kennedy and Tom Daschle, among others — are nowhere to be found.

“President Johnson said during the Vietnam War, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite I’ve lost Middle America.

“Well Mr. Obama ,” she said, referring to President Barack Obama, “look at the polls. You lost Middle America on this a long time ago.”

Invoking a media myth hardly clinches the argument. Turning to the dubious line makes the argument appear a bit frivolous and decidedly  less than sedulous.

And why is the comment attributed to Johnson a media myth?

For several reasons, which are discussed in Getting It Wrong.

For starters, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party for a longtime political ally, Gov. John Connally.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set when Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” commentary. Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, cracking a joke (see photo).

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

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a television program he didn’t see.

And even if the president watched the Cronkite report on videotape at some later date (and there’s no evidence he did), it represented no epiphany, no moment of revealing insight.

Johnson in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program was publicly urging a national recommitment to the war in Vietnam.

Just a few days after Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Texas, declaring that the United States would “not cut and run” from commitments in Vietnam.

In mid-March 1968, Johnson gave lectern-pounding speech in Minnesota, urging “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace,” Johnson said, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Clearly, the “Cronkite Moment” offered no searing insight for Lyndon Johnson.

WJC

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