W. Joseph Campbell

A glowing, hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 31, 2012 at 8:41 am

The evidence that the mythical “Cronkite Moment” was of minor consequence is compelling and multidimensional.

The “Cronkite Moment” was the televised report in February 1968 when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Legend has it that President Lyndon B. Johnson was profoundly moved by Cronkite’s assessment.

Among the elements of the minor-consequence brief are these:

  • Cronkite said nothing about the war that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Public opinion had begun shifting against the war months before Cronkite’s commentary. Indeed, Cronkite followed rather than led the changing views about Vietnam.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968, and remained publicly hawkish about the war in the days afterward.
  • Cronkite, until late in his life, pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson, likening its impact to that of a straw.

But little in the minor-consequence brief has kept historian Douglas Brinkley from offering in his new book about Cronkite a glowing, hagiographic interpretation of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Brinkley’s hefty biography is eager to find exceptionality in the “Cronkite Moment,” asserting that it “guaranteed” Cronkite’s “status as a legend.”

Brinkley, however, offers more assertion than compelling evidence in writing that the “aftershock” of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam “was seismic” and in declaring that the report “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”

As evidence of the purported “seismic” effect, Brinkley claims that Cronkite’s assessment “opened the door for NBC News’ Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later.”

But as I point out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization was “far less emphatic” McGee’s on-air remarks on March 10, 1968. “The war,” McGee declared on that occasion, “is being lost by the administration’s definition.”

So McGee’s interpretation wasn’t  “similar” to Cronkite’s at all; he didn’t hedge and invoke the safe characterization of “stalemate.” McGee said the war was being lost.

Brinkley also writes in discussing the supposed “seismic” effect: “Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.'”

The Journal certainly said so — four days before Cronkite’s broadcast. To invoke the Journal’s editorial as evidence of the “seismic” effect of the “Cronkite Moment” is misleading, to say the least.

Brinkley’s writes that “Cronkite had grabbed America’s attention about Vietnam in a way that would have been impossible for Johnson” to have missed. But, again, supporting evidence is thin.

Did opinion polls at the time suggest that “Cronkite had grabbed America’s attention about Vietnam”?

Brinkley offers no such evidence.

Public opinion polling about the war did show that Americans had begun turning against the war by fall 1967, well before the “Cronkite Moment.”

Specifically, Gallup surveys found in October 1967 that a plurality of Americans (47%) said sending U.S. forces to Vietnam had been a mistake. That question was often asked by Gallup and was a sort of proxy for gauging popular sentiment about the war.

In August-September 1965, only 24 percent of Gallup’s respondents said it was a mistake to send troops. Thereafter, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the percentage of respondents saying the U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake increased steadily, reaching a plurality in October 1967.

That moment was 3½ months before the communist Tet offensive across South Vietnam, an extensive and coordinated series of attacks that prompted Cronkite to pay a reporting trip to southeast Asia in early February 1968.

Brinkley, moreover, dismisses as insignificant the pronounced version variability that characterizes Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction to Cronkite’s report about Vietnam.

Depending on the source, the president is said to have said in reacting to Cronkite’s assessment:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

Or, “Well, that’s the end of the war.”

Brinkley doesn’t interpret these varying versions indicating the apocryphal quality of Johnson’s purported reaction. He waves it off, writing:

“It doesn’t make any real difference.”

Oh, but it does.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “version variability” of such dimension “signals implausibility.

“It is a marker of a media-driven myth.”

Indeed, if anyone’s words should be captured with precision, they  should be the president’s. Especially on matters as important as shifting popular support for war policy.

It is quite interesting that Cronkite never spoke with Johnson about the purported “Cronkite Moment” and, as Brinkley notes, the president had nothing to say about it in his memoir.

There’s little contemporaneous evidence that the “Cronkite Moment” was profoundly shocking or moving. Or seismic. But there are plenty of claims to its significance, years after the fact.

The “Cronkite Moment” took on importance not in 1968 but by 1979, when David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be that Cronkite’s report “was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.” Which was nonsense, of course.

But Halberstam’s over-the-top characterization signaled how the “Cronkite Moment” was becoming a memorable and supposedly revealing example about how journalists can have powerful and immediate effects, how they can bring to bear decisive impacts on major issues facing the country.

Even Cronkite embraced the presumptive power of the “Cronkite Moment.” It took him a while, though.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite characterized the program in modest terms, saying that his “stalemate” assessment was, for Johnson, “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” He repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying on a CNN program in 1999, for example:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

But in the years before his death in 2009, Cronkite claimed greater significance for the program. For example, he told Esquire magazine in an interview in 2006:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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