The New York Times lined up Chris Matthews, voluble host of cable television’s Hardball program, to review Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite, the new biography about legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite.
Matthews turned in a fluffy review, published yesterday, that invoked one the American journalism’s best-known media myths — the claim that President Lyndon B. Johnson was dramatically moved by Cronkite’s on-air assessment about the war in Vietnam.
“Cronkite never shied away from telling hard truths,” Matthews writes in his review. “Recall his half-hour ‘Report From Vietnam’ on Feb. 27, 1968, in which he declared the Vietnam War a ‘stalemate.’ It was a verdict the veteran war correspondent didn’t relish delivering, but Cronkite, who had recently returned from reporting on the Tet offensive, now believed that the war was unwinnable and indefensible.”
Matthews then repeats Brinkley’s thinly supported claim that Cronkite’s “stalemate” pronouncement had “seismic” effects.
Matthews adds, presumably as evidence of such an effect: “President Johnson reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’”
But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever uttered such a remark.
Indeed, the president’s purported comment is defined by what I call acute version variability. That is, there is no agreed-upon version of what Johnson supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment.
Other versions include:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”
As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, if anyone’s words should be captured with precision, they ought to be the president’s. Especially on matters as critical as support for war policy. The wide variance as to what Johnson supposedly said is, then, a marker of a media myth.
The president was not at the White House on February 27, 1968; nor was he in front of a television set when Cronkite’s program aired.
And about the time Cronkite intoned his “stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Texas Governor John Connally (see photo, above).
“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
I further note in Getting It Wrong that there is no compelling evidence that Johnson saw the Cronkite program later, on videotape.
Even if he had, Cronkite’s characterization of the was as a “stalemate” would have come as old news to the president. What Cronkite said about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, hardly earth-shaking, stunning, or original.
In no way did it alter the course of the war or influence American policy.
If anything, Cronkite’s observation about a “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.
For example, the Times said in a news analysis published July 4, 1967:
“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.”
And in a report from Saigon that appeared on August 7, 1967, the Times 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.”
So why bother calling out Matthews for casually invoking the central component of the mythical “Cronkite Moment”?
Doing so serves to highlight how insidious the myth has become, how blithely it is marshalled to support the notion that courageous and motivated journalists can do marvelous things.
And doing so indicates that at least some high-profile contemporary journalists possess a shaky command of the history of their field.
Recent or related:
- A glowing, hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Not off the hook with ‘reportedly’
- Kurtz invokes ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in reviewing new Cronkite biography
- Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong
- Shep Smith ignores WaPo, blames ‘government’ for bogus Lynch-hero story
- Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth
- Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Lynch case
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure, he did
- Cronkite the ‘most trusted’? Where’s the evidence?
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’