W. Joseph Campbell

Media myth outbreak abroad; ‘Cronkite Moment’ goes viral

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on February 9, 2013 at 8:38 am

It’s well-known that media myths — those tall tales about the purported feats of American journalists — can go viral, internationally.

Seldom, though, has there been an outbreak as such yesterday’s, when leading newspapers in Canada, Britain, and Belgium separately indulged in the  “Cronkite Moment” media myth.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson on February 27, 1968: Not watching Cronkite

The “Cronkite Moment” was in 1968, when on-air editorializing by CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly produced a moment of stunning clarity and insight for President Lyndon B. Johnson and altered the course of the war in Vietnam.

Such effects are wildly overstated, but they make for an irresistible tale of powerful media influence, and that’s like so much catnip to contemporary journalists and columnists.

It helps explains yesterday’s outbreak, which was abundantly seasoned with hagiographic praise for Cronkite, who died in 2009:

  • Rick Salutin, in a column for the Toronto Star about a Canadian news anchor, wrote that Cronkite set the “gold standard for anchors” and “was solid as the bronze statue of the American revolutionary minuteman” at Concord, Massachusetts. Salutin further wrote: “When president Lyndon Johnson heard Cronkite turn against the Vietnam War, he said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”
  • Michael McCarthy, the environment editor for London’s Independent newspaper, wrote in a column about filmmaker David Attenborough that Cronkite “was a world figure as America’s most celebrated broadcaster.”Independent masthead McCarthy declared: “Such was his aura and influence that when, on his return from a Vietnam trip in 1968, he pronounced that the US could not win the war, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have exclaimed: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ and shortly afterwards announced he would not seek re-election.”
  • Jean-Paul Marthoz, in a blog commentary for the French-language Le Soir of Brussels, wrote that Cronkite was America’s “most trusted man” and added: “In 1968, on his return from a reporting assignment to Vietnam, a conflict that he covered with rigorous impartiality, he declared that the war couldn’t be won, which led President Lyndon Johnson to declare:  ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America.'”

It’s true that Cronkite, on February 27, 1968, pronounced the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” And he suggested that negotiations might prove to be the way out.

But the effects of Cronkite’s commentary were dramatically more modest than the characterizations of Salutin, McCarthy, and Marthoz.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Lyndon Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired, and there’s no certain evidence he ever saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson was not at the White House on February 27, 1968. He was not in front of a television set when Cronkite’s special report aired.

The president then was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie event marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of Johnson’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was engaging in light-hearted banter about Connally’s age. Johnson hardly was bemoaning the loss of an anchorman’s support.

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

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither profound nor exceptional in early 1968.

For months before Cronkite’s program, U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to characterize the war effort.

The New York Times, in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further stated:

“‘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.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Not only was Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment belated; it was mild compared to other commentary at the time.

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial published four days before Cronkite’s report, said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Strong stuff.

Interestingly, Cronkite in his memoir dismissed the supposedly powerful effects of his report on Vietnam. He wrote in memoir, titled A Reporters’ Life and published in 1997, that the “mired in stalemate” assessment represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

Cronkite repeated the analogy in promoting the book, telling CNBC that he doubted whether the program “had a huge significance. I think it was a very small straw on a very heavy load [Johnson] was already carrying.”

WJC

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