W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘Cronkite Moment’ was fictive

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on July 8, 2011 at 8:01 am

Cronkite in Vietnam

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 offers supposedly timeless and irresistible lessons for journalists about the importance of telling truth to power and about the media’s potential to wield decisive influence.

Trouble is, the “Cronkite Moment” is fictive: It had little of the impact so often ascribed to it — impact of the kind described yesterday by Paul Fanlund, editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.

He wrote at a Capital Times blog:

“One has to be of a certain age, or a student of history, to know Walter Cronkite’s impact on Vietnam. In 1968, the famed broadcaster, who had been privately pro-war, pronounced on air that the war was no longer winnable, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to remark, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’”

Unpacking that paragraph reveals that it’s exaggerated in three ways.

One is that Cronkite (as he himself claimed for many years) had little if any “impact” on the war in Vietnam.

Two, Cronkite did not say on air that “the war was no longer winnable.” He said, in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might offer America a way out.

Three, Cronkite’s on-air assessment about Vietnam did not prompt President Lyndon Johnson to declare, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Or anything akin to such a remark.

As I discuss in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. And there is no evidence the president watched the show later, on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson was not in front of a television set when the Cronkite report about Vietnam was broadcast.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted remarks at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning his failed Vietnam policy; he wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support.

He was jesting about Connally’s age.

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

Even if he had watched the Cronkite report, it’s unlikely Johnson would have been much moved by the “mired in stalemate” assessment. It was hardly an original observation.

Leading U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” periodically in the months before the Cronkite program.

For example, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

In a report from Saigon that was published August 7, 1967, the Times noted:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening. They use the word for many reasons ….”

By the end of February 1968, “stalemate” had been often used, and had become a rather tame assessment.

Far more assertive was the Wall Street Journal, which, in an editorial published four days before Cronkite’s report, said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Interestingly, Cronkite disputed the notion his report about Vietnam had much impact.

He said in his 1997 memoir that his “mired in stalemate” assessment represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” It was an analogy Cronkite repeatedly made.

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel,” he said in an interview on CNN in 1999.

But late in his life, Cronkite began to embrace the purported power of the “Cronkite Moment.” He said in 2006, in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

A case of believing one’s own clippings.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Under scrutiny, the ‘Cronkite moment’ dissolves as illusory — a chimera, a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising. Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.

“So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the ‘Cronkite moment.’”

WJC

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