W. Joseph Campbell

Public opinion, Vietnam, and Cronkite’s ‘untouchable aura of authority’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, New York Times on November 5, 2011 at 8:58 am

The fantasy that Walter Cronkite represented an ideal of dispassionate, authoritative news reporting is so alluring that even the anchorman’s long-ago birthday has become an occasion for honoring his “untouchable aura of authority.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s “Around the Mall” blog did just that yesterday, in a post that recalled Cronkite, who was born November 4, 1916, as “an anchor who [spoke] with the authority of a religious leader or founding father.”

A “religious leader or founding father”?

Oh, spare us the hyperbole.

Cronkite read the news for 19 news as anchor of the CBS Evening News program. And his purported trustworthiness was more likely than not a function of a relic of mid-20th century broadcasting called the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Media critic Jack Shafer called attention to this linkage in a fine column written shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009.

Shafer wrote:

“Accepting for the moment the argument the public trusted Cronkite because he practiced trustworthy journalism, it’s worth mentioning that between 1949 and 1987 — which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career — news broadcasters were governed by the federal ‘Fairness Doctrine.’

“The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion. One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy, which all three networks often did.”

Not often did Cronkite court controversy on the air.

The hagiographic “Around the Mall” piece hints at one of those few occasions — in late February 1968 when Cronkite, after a visit to Vietnam, declared the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”

“Around the Mall” asserted that “Cronkite’s untouchable aura of authority led droves of viewers to change their opinions on Vietnam.”

And what evidence did the blog post produce?

A comment by David Ward, an historian at the National Portrait Gallery who is the biographer of Charles Willson Peale. Ward was quoted as saying about Cronkite’s reporting:

“He comes back [from Vietnam] and raises real questions about what our aims are, and whether the aims are being accurately reported to the American people. In 1968, there were plenty of people who were protesting the war in Vietnam. It’s the fact that he’s a firmly established, mainstream, church-going, centrist, respectable person that matters.”

Well, maybe. But the historian’s remark is hardly evidence that Cronkite’s views “led droves of viewers to change their opinions on Vietnam.”

More precisely, it was the other way round: Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, public support for the war in Vietnam had begun declining months before Cronkite went on the air to say the conflict was “mired in stalemate.”

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought sending American forces to Vietnam had been a mistake.

I also point out in Getting It Wrong that print journalists detected a softening in support of the war long before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, noted that the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation was hardly a novel or stunning characterization.

Journalists had been using the term “stalemate” for months in commentaries, analysis, and news reports about the war.

For example, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in August 1967:

“So long as the present ground rules obtain in Vietnam, this war will drag along its indecisive way. … [T]he condition is stalemate.”

Also in August 1967, the New York Times said in a news analysis that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

U.S. victory, the Times said, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

So not only did he trail public opinion, Cronkite followed news media interpretations of the war as well.

WJC

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