W. Joseph Campbell

Lessons unlearned: Indulging in the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on December 6, 2012 at 4:50 am
Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not at the White House

The wide applicability of the mythical “Cronkite Moment” — that occasion in 1968 when Walter Cronkite’s observations about the Vietnam War supposedly altered opinions of the president and the American public — is nothing less than astonishing.

The myth’s resistance to debunking is similarly impressive.

Just yesterday, for example, two media outlets in the American heartland invoked elements of the “Cronkite Moment” as if they were genuine, as if they were instructive.

The sports director of WHO TV in Des Moines, Iowa, asserted in a blog post that “Walter Cronkite didn’t oppose the Vietnam War initially, but when he started questioning what we were doing over there, public opinion turned – correctly – against the war.”

And an item posted yesterday at the online site of the Oklahoma Gazette  arts and entertainment weekly declared: “Lyndon Johnson once remarked that he knew he’d lost Middle America’s support for the Vietnam War when he lost the support of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite.”

Both are inaccurate elements of the larger, mythical interpretation of what Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, said about Vietnam and what President Lyndon Johnson said in reaction.

The “Cronkite Moment”  is the short-hand phrase for Cronkite’s editorial comment, offered February 27, 1968, at the end of a special report about the Vietnam War.

Cronkite said that the U.S. military had become “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations eventually might offer to be a way out.

At the White House, Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, suddenly realized his war policy had received a devastating blow. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president is said to have told an aide, or aides, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

In reality, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Nor is there any persuasive evidence that he watched the show on videotape at some later date.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson was not at the White House but in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie affair marking the 51st birthday of his longtime political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

At the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson wasn’t lamenting the loss of the anchorman’s support. He wasn’t wringing his hands or bemoaning that he had “lost Middle America.”

The president was making lighthearted 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.”

As for Cronkite’s assessment being so powerful as to shift public opinion — that, too, is mistaken: Popular views about the war had begun shifting months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

By October 1967, 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, maintained that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys. The plurality climbed to 49 percent, according to a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

So not only that, but Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation was scarcely  remarkable.

Or novel. Journalists had been using the term “stalemate” for months in commentaries, analyses, and news reports about the war.

For example, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in August 1967:

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

Also in August 1967, 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 analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline: “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Not only did Cronkite’s views of the war lag public opinion, they trailed those offered by rival news organizations.

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of the mythical “Cronkite Moment”?

It’s an accessible tale, easily told and readily understood. It has broad applicability, as the myth’s appearance at WHO TV and in the Oklahoma Gazette suggest.

And it’s unreservedly media-centric: In a period of declining audience share and declining perceived influence, it’s reassuring to media practitioners that there were better, more powerful times when the likes of Cronkite supposedly told truth to power — and supposedly altered policy as a result.

WJC

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