W. Joseph Campbell

Misreading the ‘Cronkite Moment’ — and media power

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on September 13, 2011 at 7:27 am

LBJ wasn't watching Cronkite

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” — that heady occasion in 1968 when an editorial comment by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite purportedly altered the course of the war in Vietnam — lives on as an irresistible parable about the power of the news media.

The parable is timeless and often invoked — most recently in a commentary posted yesterday at the online sports site, Bleacher Report.

The commentary declared:

“The flashy columnist, opinionated radio host, or aggressive TV interviewer that pushes the needle and ultimately helps get those in charge to make a move for fear of public ridicule and backlash.

“A great example of this came in 1968 in the time of the Vietnam War when a story by broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite called the war unwinnable and un-American, then-president Lyndon B. Johnson was reported to have said ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I have lost middle America.’

“That is the kind of power that a strong media personality can have: the power to affect change.”

Except Cronkite didn’t cause such change.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report aired on February 27, 1968. The president wasn’t lamenting the loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

At about the time Cronkite was offering his downbeat assessment about the U.S. war effort, Johnson was quipping:

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

Not only was the president not watching, but Cronkite’s editorial comment wasn’t especially dramatic or incisive. His comment, offered at the close of his special report, was quite mild.

Most certainly Cronkite did not say the war was “unwinnable” or “un-American,” as the Bleacher Report commentary asserts. He said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations eventually might offer America a way out.

The “mired in stalemate” comment was hardly an original assessment.

Leading U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times had turned to “stalemate” for 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 ….”

Far more assertive than the “mired in stalemate” assessment was a Wall Street Journal editorial, published four days before Cronkite’s special report aired.

The Journal 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.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the “Cronkite Moment,” when scrutinized, dissolves as illusory — a chimera, a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising,” I write. “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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