W. Joseph Campbell

He may be a crook, but he’s right about Vietnam, Watergate

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 31, 2011 at 10:20 am

He may be a crook, but he’s right about Vietnam and Watergate: They were no “crowning achievements” for the news media, even though journalists love to embrace them as such.

Black mug shot

The crook is erstwhile media mogul Conrad Black, who was released on bail late last year from a prison in Florida. In a speech this week in New York, Black declared journalism “an occupation that suffers from a collective and in some cases individual narcissism.”

The Canadian-born Black, who gave up his citizenship to accept a British peerage, was quoted indirectly by Toronto’s Globe and Mail as saying:

“What journalists believe to be crowning achievements — for example, the crusading reporting on the Vietnam War and Watergate — are nothing of the sort.”

So why should anyone care what Black thinks or says? He was, after all, accused of looting Hollinger International, the company that once was at the heart of his media empire.

But even a disgraced former press tycoon can offer useful insight, and Black’s observation about Vietnam and Watergate are on target: News coverage did not bring about an end to the war in Vietnam; nor did the press didn’t bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.

Journalists, though, do love to believe both self-reverential claims.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out last year, such “purported achievements are compelling and exert an enduring allure; to expose them as exaggerated or untrue is to take aim at the self-importance of American journalism.”

The media myth about Vietnam often revolves around the so-called “Cronkite Moment” in February 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Supposedly, President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite’s report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, realized his Vietnam policy was a shambles.

In a supposed moment of dazzling clarity, Johnson is said to have snapped off the television set and declared to an aide or aides:

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

Or:

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

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

Which was demonstrably not the case.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s program when it aired. He was at the time cracking a light-hearted joke in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

It is hard to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a show he hadn’t seen.

In the days and weeks immediately after the “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson was hardly reduced to wringing his hands over failed policy in Vietnam. Rather, he gave a couple of robust speeches in which he urged renewed commitment to the war.

Johnson vowed in one speech that the United States would “not cut and run” from its obligations in Vietnam. In another, in mid-March 1968, he called for “a total national effort to win the war.”

And the notion that the press — specifically, the Washington Post — brought down Nixon in the Watergate scandal is an interpretation that even the Post has sought to dismiss.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Bob Woodward, one of the two lead reporters for the Post on Watergate, said as much, if in earthier terms. He declared in an interview with American Journalism Review in 2004:

“To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

So even if he didn’t go into much detail about Vietnam and Watergate, Black had something useful to say about those matters. (It should be noted, too, that Black wrote a hefty and largely sympathetic biography of Nixon.)

According to the Globe and Mail, Black in his speech “excoriated the U.S. legal system, describing the original charges against him as ‘nonsense’ produced by prosecutors throwing ‘spaghetti at the wall.’”

Black formerly was chief executive of Hollinger, the holdings of which once included the Chicago Sun-Times and the London Daily Telegraph. He was convicted in Chicago in 2007 on three counts of fraud and one of obstructing justice and sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.

The laws under which he was convicted were narrowed in a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision and Black was released on bail, pending review of his sentence.

WJC

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