W. Joseph Campbell

What ‘lesson’ from Cronkite?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on November 18, 2011 at 2:20 am

The presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 has gained significance far beyond what little influence it exerted at the time.

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” came February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared in a special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the program has “become the stuff of legend — certainly among the most unforgettable moments in American journalism.”

The gauzy legend was embraced yesterday in a commentary at the “Philly Post,” a blog of Philadelphia Magazine.

The commentary argued that journalists should emphasize truth-seeking rather than impartiality in their reporting, and invoked the “Cronkite Moment” to support that claim.

“In one of his most famous newscasts,  the ‘most trusted man in America’  threw objectivity out the window” and offered the “mired in stalemate” assessment about Vietnam, the commentary said, adding:

“In calling it like he saw it, Cronkite was not being impartial, but that doesn’t mean he was being biased. He was stating the conclusion he was led to by the evidence; and Americans — at least those sensible enough to listen— respected him for it. Among the many lessons modern journalists can learn from Cronkite, this is perhaps the most important.”

So that was Cronkite’s “most important” lesson?

A thin lesson it was, then.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment  “was neither notable nor extraordinary” in early 1968.

That’s because “stalemate” had been in use by U.S. news media months before the so-called “Cronkite Moment.”

In August 1967, for example, 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 Times’ analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Also in August 1967, the syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote:

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

And a few weeks before Cronkite’s on-air commentary, the Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The real lesson of the “Cronkite Moment” was how the vaunted anchorman trailed the emerging media consensus about the war, turning to “stalemate” only after the characterization had been tested and invoked often, by other news organizations.

Cronkite also trailed public opinion as it turned against the war.

A Gallup poll in October 1967 reported, 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.

So in his assessment about Vietnam, Cronkite was neither brave nor cutting edge.

Nor legendary at all.

WJC

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