W. Joseph Campbell

CBS marks a Cronkite anniversary, invokes a tenacious media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on April 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

CBS News yesterday marked what has to be among the more obscure anniversaries in broadcast journalism — the 50th anniversary of the debut of Walter Cronkite’s old evening news show.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And in a flattering writeup recalling the occasion, CBS invoked a prominent media-driven myth — the notion that Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 about the war in Vietnam exerted enormous influence. Until late in his life, not even Cronkite believed that was the case.

Even so, the CBS article declared:

“Cronkite’s intense focus on objectivity gave his rare dose of opinion — especially his 1968 assessment of the war in Vietnam — an enormous weight.”

The writeup quoted an executive producer, Susan Zirinsky, as saying:

“Lyndon Johnson remarked, because he looked at that broadcast, and he said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

President Lyndon Johnson’s purported comment lies at the heart of this tenacious media myth — one of the 10 I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Interestingly, the comment so often attributed to Johnson has been described in so many ways. That is, there is no single version of what the president supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s assessment that the war was stalemated.

There’s the version Zirinsky invoked: “‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

More common is: “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another variant has the president saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And so on.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Version variability of that magnitude signals of implausibility. It is a marker of a media-driven myth.”

And it’s highly likely that Johnson said nothing of the sort.

He did not, after all, not see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968. The president that night was not in front of a television set when, near the close of the program, Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson at that moment was at a black-tie birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally. The president poked fun at Connally, who was marking his 51st birthday.

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

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see. And the power of what often is called the “Cronkite Moment” stems from the supposedly immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s assessment had on the president.

But what Cronkite had to say on air that night was hardly earth-shaking, hardly stunning or novel.

If anything, Cronkite’s observation about “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.

For example in August 1967, the Times inserted “stalemate” into the headline over a front-page news analysis about the war. The Times headline read:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The newspaper’s analysis was filed from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and 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” in the war.

Before that, on July 4, 1967, the Times published a news analysis that 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.”

So in the context of the war in Vietnam, “stalemate” was hardly new by the time Cronkite turned to the word.

WJC

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