When Walter Cronkite of CBS News called the Vietnam War a stalemate in 1968, he supposedly set a standard of courage that some journalists yearn desperately to find in contemporary practice.
Did he inspire a ‘Brokaw Moment’?
The latest example of such nostalgic longing appeared yesterday, in a column praising Tom Brokaw’s remarks during Sunday’s Meet the Press program about the terrorist bombings at this month’s Boston Marathon.
The surviving of the two suspected bombers reportedly has said the attack was motivated by U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
To David Sirota, that signals retributive blowback in America’s war on terror. And in a column posted at the In These Times site (also posted at Salon.com), Sirota lavished praise on Brokaw for having said on Meet the Press:
“But we’ve got to look at the roots of all of this. Because it exists across the whole [Asian] subcontinent and the Islamic world around the world. And I think we also have to examine the use of drones that the United States is involved in. And there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.
“And I can tell you, having spent a lot of time over there, young people will come up to me on the streets and say, ‘We love America. But if you harm one hair on the head of my sister, I will fight you forever.’ And there is this enormous rage against what they see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.”
While not particularly pithy or eloquent, such sentiments qualify Brokaw as “a Walter Cronkite of his age,” Sirota wrote in his column, adding that Brokaw’s “declaration recalls Cronkite’s seminal moment 45 years ago.
“Back in 1968,” Sirota went on, “opponents of the Vietnam War were being marginalized in much the same way critics of today’s wars now are. But when such a revered voice as Cronkite took to television to declare the conflict an unwinnable ‘stalemate,’ he helped create a tipping point whereby Americans began to reconsider their assumptions.
“In similarly making such an assumption-challenging statement, Brokaw has followed in Cronkite’s heroic footsteps,” Sirota declared. His commentary carried the headline, “A Cronkite Moment for the War on Terror.”
Whether media historians one day will refer to the “Brokaw Moment” in the war on terror is questionable: I doubt whether Brokaw’s remarks on Meet the Press will prove very memorable.
But what most interests Media Myth Alert is embellishing the so-called “Cronkite Moment” as a kind of lofty and inspiring standard of journalistic conduct, as a singular moment of memorable courage.
Now, there is no doubt that Walter Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. He said so on February 27, 1968, in a special report that aired on CBS television.
But over time, the effects of Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation have been inflated out of proportion to the decidedly modest impact it had in 1968. Sirota’s column is emblematic of that tendency to inflate.
After all, it was scarcely original or provocative to describe the Vietnam War as a “stalemate” in early 1968. In his well-regarded study of that year, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” at the time.
News organizations such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” as early as the summer of 1967 in reporting and commenting about Vietnam.
Indeed, a front-page new analysis about the war, published in the Times in August 1967, carried the headline:
“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”
The evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” comment “helped create a tipping point” in U.S. public opinion about the war.
The “tipping point” had been reached months before.
As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polling had detected shifts in views about the war long before Cronkite’s program. In a very real sense, Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening popular doubts about the wisdom of the war.
For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early October 1967 — 4½ months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation — reported that 47 percent of respondents, a plurality, said it was a mistake to have sent U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. A little more that two years earlier, Gallup had reported that only 24 percent of respondents felt that way.
Journalists detected other evidence in late 1967 of a shift in views about the war. Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 that the previous five or six months had been “a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”
Opponents of the war hardly “were being marginalized” in early 1968. They were increasingly outspoken, and prominent.
As for Cronkite, he pooh-poohed for years the notion his “mired in stalemate” observation was of much consequence.
In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for President Lyndon Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying on a CNN program in 1999:
“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”
The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” lies in the immediate and visceral effects Cronkite’s “stalemate” comment supposedly had on Johnson.
It often has been said that Johnson watched the Cronkite program at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” remark, turned to an aide or aides and said something along these lines:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Johnson: Not in front of a television set
But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program aired. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.
Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.
About the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” opinion, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite. He was making light of Connally’s age.
“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.
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