W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite, Johnson, and the deceptive ‘yardstick’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on December 7, 2011 at 11:25 am

Cronkite: Wasn't watching Cronkite

The Huffington Post blog bit on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” yesterday, declaring it “a yardstick for how much things have changed.”

That is, how news media once were trusted and respected and influential. Nowadays, not so much.

But if the “Cronkite Moment” is a yardstick of any kind, it’s a measure of how profoundly the media myth has become embedded in the lore of American journalism.

The purported “Cronkite Moment” was on February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations ultimately might offer a way out.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, as the myth has it, watched the Cronkite report at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Or something to that effect.)

The Huffington Post essay invoked the president’s purported comment in referring to the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” asserting:

“LBJ famously commented, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,’ after the beloved journalist called the war ‘unwinnable.’ Several weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection as president.”

That paragraph embraces some of the most prominent myths and misunderstandings that have grown up around the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” Let’s peel them back.

First, Cronkite did not declare the war in Vietnam “unwinnable.” He said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” — which hardly was a novel or stunning assessment in early 1968. Many news organizations in fact had used “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program to characterize the war.

Second, Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 had nothing to do with Cronkite’s program. Indeed, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967, or even earlier, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency.

Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time wasn’t at the White House but at a black-tie party in Austin, Texas, marking the 51st birthday of Governor John Connally.

The president wasn’t agonizing that night over the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support; he wasn’t lamenting having “lost Cronkite.”

Instead, Johnson was offering light-hearted comments about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, there’s no evidence Johnson saw the Cronkite program at a later date, on videotape.

Even if he had, it made no difference to his thinking about Vietnam.

Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, where he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That speech was given March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Under scrutiny, then, the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” dissolves as illusory. And not  surprisingly so.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“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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