W. Joseph Campbell

It would be mired in myth: Spielberg considering a ‘Cronkite Moment’ movie?

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on June 15, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Walter Cronkite was months behind media rivals in characterizing the war in Vietnam as a military “stalemate.” He shifted his views about the conflict well after public opinion had begun to turn against the war. And Cronkite’s reporting for CBS News at supposedly a crucial moment in 1968 was tepid and far less adamant than that of some competing news media.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Whether movie director Steven Spielberg is aware of those aspects of the back story to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 is not known.

But it may matter, given a report from Hollywood that Spielberg is contemplating a movie that effectively would embrace the myths that have grown up around the presumed effects of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.

Deadline Hollywood said yesterday at its online site that the Cronkite-movie project, while tentative, would “focus on Cronkite’s relationship with the Vietnam War and the role that America’s most trusted newsman played in turning public opinion against the increasingly un-winnable conflict. So influential was the CBS Evening News anchor that then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is believed to have remarked, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

If that’s even a rough outline of the prospective Spielberg project, the resulting movie would be steeped in media myth. Indeed, Deadline Hollywood’s descriptive paragraph quoted above incorporated no fewer than three myths, specifically about:

  • “Most trusted”: It was not until 1972 when Cronkite began to be called the “most trusted” newsman; even then, the characterization was the inspiration of the CBS advertising department and based on research that can only be described as flimsy.
  • Public opinion: Evidence is scant at best that Cronkite’s pronouncement about Vietnam in February 1968 had any effect in turning American public opinion against the war. Indeed, Cronkite was more follower than leader in the public’s shifting views about Vietnam.
  • The president’s reaction: There is no evidence that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or anything to that effect.

It is known that Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president then was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally who turned 51 that day.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was jesting about Connally’s age; he wasn’t lamenting the loss of an anchorman’s support. “Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson in the days and weeks following the Cronkite report was adamantly and publicly hawkish about the war, asserting in a speech in mid-March 1968, for example:

“Make no mistake about it. … We are going to win.”

What’s more, Cronkite said nothing in his report about the war that hadn’t been said previously by leading journalists. By early 1968, “stalemate” was an exceedingly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 2.41.21 PM

Months before the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In August 1967, for example, the New York Times published a lengthy analysis that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis also said:

“‘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 [in Saigon, capital of what was South Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

The Times, moreover, seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement by asserting in an editorial published February 8, 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s program:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

In his report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. “The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

Not stalemated. Lost.

And four days before Cronkite’s report, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that 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.”

Interestingly, Cronkite for years dismissed the notion his “mired in stalemate” commentary was of great consequence.

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

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

Not until late in his life did Cronkite embrace the supposed impact of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun slipping months before the Cronkite report. The shift in opinions had become apparent by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

Slightly more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day that Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening of support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that summer and fall that year 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.”


More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Question everything you see, read or hear’ — including narratives about military, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 30, 2016 at 2:44 am

“Question everything you see, read or hear.

“Test it. Analyze it. Prove it.”

That’s useful if time-worn advice for journalists, even if they are not always inclined to embrace such guidance. The reminders were offered up over the weekend in a column in the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon.

Lynch_headline_PostIt wasn’t the advice that interested Media Myth Alert; it was the column’s reference to the hero-warrior myth about Jessica Lynch.

The column-writer, Dick Hughes, who is the newspaper’s editorial page editor, invoked the Lynch case in making the point about the importance of questioning everything. In doing so, Hughes stumbled over his own well-intentioned advice.

“Recall,” he wrote, “how George W. Bush’s military, early in the Iraq War, converted soldier Jessica Lynch into a hero for valiantly fighting her ambushers until being taken captive. The national media bought that compelling line, despite what I thought were disconcerting holes in it.”

Had Hughes challenged or questioned the claim about the military’s having concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics, he would have determined that it was a false narrative.Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 1.15.45 PM

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the military did not push the tale of Lynch fighting her attackers: That narrative was thrust into the public domain exclusively by the Washington Post.

In an electrifying, front-page article on April 3, 2003, the Post reported that Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit in Nasariyah, in southern Iraq, “firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her….”

Above the dramatic account — which the Post vaguely attributed to “U.S. officials” — ran the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

As it turned out, the Post’s “fighting-to-the-death” story was wrong in all important details.

Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush; her weapon jammed. She suffered no gunshot wounds but was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee, as she and four comrades of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, tried to escape the attack. The others were killed; Lynch was taken prisoner and moved to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by a U.S. special forces team on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Post  published its report about Lynch’s heroics. The newspaper has never disclosed the identity of the “U.S. officials” to whom it attributed the bogus account about Lynch.

We do know, however, that “George W. Bush’s military” was not pushing the story: We know this from Vernon Loeb, then the Post’s defense correspondent who shared a byline with Susan Schmidt on the hero-warrior story about Lynch. No journalist was with Lynch’s unit in the attack; Loeb and Schmidt reported the story from Washington.

As I noted in  Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and stated, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.” Rather, Loeb said, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington.

Loeb also asserted in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the Post’s “fighting to the death” report was the consequence of the Pentagon’s cynical manipulation.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” said Loeb, who nowadays is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle. “I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.” (In addition, Victoria Clarke, then a Pentagon spokeswoman, told the Associated Press in June 2003: “We were downplaying [the Lynch story]. We weren’t hyping it.” The article Loeb and Schmidt wrote about Lynch included this passage: “Pentagon officials said they had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”)

Seldom do Loeb’s disclaimers find their way into articles, columns, blog posts, and other media discussions about the Lynch case. It’s much easier — and makes for a better story — to embrace the false narrative about the military’s supposed duplicity.

If the military hadginned up” the hero-warrior story about Lynch, “it failed miserably in keeping the ruse from unraveling,” I pointed out in Getting It Wrong. The day after the Post’s “‘fighting to the death’” article was published, the head of the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, told reporters that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed – undercutting central elements of the hero-warrior tale.

In his column, Hughes does allude to the confusion that surrounded Lynch’s supposed heroics at Nasiriyah. “All signs now point to the real hero in the ambush being Sgt. Donald Walters, who grew up in Salem. He gave his life while returning fire and protecting his comrades,” Hughes writes.

Indeed, the derring-do misattributed to Lynch probably were the heroics of Donald Walters, a sergeant-cook in the 507th who was captured after his ammunition ran out, taken prisoner, and executed soon after.


More from Media Myth Alert:

Smug MSNBC guest invokes Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes on May 3, 2016 at 9:10 pm

Assailing Donald Trump’s foreign policy credentials, and his recent speech on the topic, is hardly a demanding task. The blustery frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination exhibits little more than shallow familiarity with national security issues.

MSNBC logoBut Trump’s superficiality hasn’t stopped critics from overreaching as they lambaste him on foreign policy — overreaching to the point of summoning the media myth about Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Activist Phyllis Bennis did just that the other day in an appearance on the MSNBC primetime program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

In his speech last week, Trump vowed to eradicate ISIS, the radical Islamic State, early in his presidency, but didn’t explain how that would be accomplished. With unconcealed smugness, Bennis declared that Trump’s reference to ISIS “was very reminiscent of Nixon’s call when he was running for president [in 1968] and said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’ The secret plan of course turned out to be escalation.”

Her remark about Nixon’s “secret plan” gained fresh circulation yesterday in a post at a Huffington Post politics blog.

But it’s a claim Nixon never made. And he didn’t campaign for the presidency touting a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

That he did not is made clear in the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, had Nixon campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, as Bennis so blithely asserted, the country’s leading newspapers would have publicized it.

Nixon did confront the notion he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon also said:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not make such a claim a feature of his campaign that year. (William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, periodically called attention to the “secret plan” myth, once observing: “Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the non-quotation never seems to go away ….”)

Nixon’s  foes, however, tried to pin the “secret plan” calumny on him. Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, for example, took out a display advertisement in the New York Times on October 23, 1968; the ad included this statement: “Last March he said he had a secret plan to end the war.”

The ad included no reference to exactly when or where Nixon had made such a statement. And it carried the headline, “Trust Humphrey.”

The derivation of the “secret plan” tale can be traced to March 5, 1968 and a speech in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which Nixon said “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International noted in reporting Nixon’s vague remarks  that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch also said “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.” Eisenhower was elected president that year.

The New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted the former vice president as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. Nixon said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief, follow-on report that day in the Times quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in ending the war.

Nixon may have been vague during the 1968 campaign in describing his ideas about Vietnam. But clearly he wasn’t touting, proclaiming, or otherwise running on a “secret plan.”



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