W. Joseph Campbell

Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

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Hagiographic WaPo and the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post on May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

At one point in a long and credulous look back at Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War, the Washington Post this weekend likens the former CBS News anchorman to “an intercontinental ballistic missile of objectivity.”

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That’s a sample of the hagiographic tone of the Post’s retrospective, which centers around the media myth of Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 about the Vietnam War, in which he described the U.S. military as “mired in stalemate” there.

The Post presents a number of dubious claims about the effects of what it says were Cronkite’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s words were hardly that.

His description about the war as a “stalemate” was neither daring nor novel. As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, American journalists for months before Cronkite’s program had invoked “stalemate” to characterize the war. In early August 1967, or more than six months before Cronkite’s report, the New York Times published a front-page analysis from Vietnam about the war, beneath the headline, “Signs of Stalemate.”

“The analysis said:

‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President [Lyndon] Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here [in Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

A month before that, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“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.”

So “stalemate” then was a very undramatic, and even conventional, way of characterizing the war.

In invoking “stalemate,” Cronkite certainly was not as “daring” or pointed as the Wall Street Journal had been on its editorial page a few days before. The newspaper declared 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.”

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book-length year-study of 1968, Cronkite’s “stalemate” critique was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

The Post’s takeout further claims that “President Johnson was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That claim is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

So why is the notion that Johnson was deflated, or worse, an erroneous interpretation?

For starters, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, the president may  have seen the show at some later date on videotape.

Rather than treating Cronkite’s remarks as some sort of epiphany, Johnson in effect shrugged them off and, in a succession of public events in the days and weeks afterward, endeavored to rally popular support for the war in Vietnam.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the president in the aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” gave several speeches in which he stoutly defended his war policy.

In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, Johnson traveled to Minneapolis to deliver a rousing speech to the National Farmers Union convention, during which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Punctuating his remarks in Minneapolis by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air, Johnson declared, “We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” He disparaged critics of the war as inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

And a day after that, Johnson declared in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

So even if he had seen Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment” gave no indication of having embraced the anchorman’s message. The president certainly wasn’t taking a policy lead from Cronkite’s unoriginal characterization of the war.

The Post’s writeup quotes Douglas Brinkley, author of a glowing, hagiographic treatment of the Cronkite, as saying the broadcast journalist on his trip to Vietnam in early 1968 “was just doing the gumshoe reporting all over Vietnam and the print reporters all swooned over Cronkite for doing it.”

All swooned?

No way.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam was not remembered fondly by all war correspondents then in Vietnam. George McArthur, a veteran journalist for the Associated Press, years later recalled Cronkite’s visit to the imperial city, Hue, the scene fierce fighting during the Tet offensive” in early 1968.

“’Cronkite is not one of my heroes,” McArthur said. “When Cronkite broadcast in Hue during the Tet offensive, he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This was his famous trip when he supposedly changed his mind [about the war]. Baloney. He’d made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon, and he was up on top of our [diplomatic] mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a … bulletproof vest and a tin pot [helmet]. And I was up there doing my laundry.”

McArthur’s incisive recollections were included in George W. Smith’s 1999 book, The Siege at Hue, and posted online in 2012.

The Post‘s essay also claims “something did pivot when Cronkite crossed the line into opinion. Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment.” But what pivoted? And how do we know that “Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment”? The Post really doesn’t say. It’s assertion, without evidence.

The mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment took more, of course, than the on-air declarations of a 50-something anchorman. Indeed, the antiwar movement was “a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed,” as an essay posted last year at the New York Times’ online opinion site argued. The movement, the essay added, was defined by four overlapping stages — none of which featured or centered around  the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

WJC

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Convergence encore: Now the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on May 22, 2018 at 2:05 pm

Wasn’t I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the same time?

Well, here we are again.

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

This time the Federalist online magazine, in a roundup posted today about memorable cases of media misreporting, invoked what is known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, which centers around a prime-time special report by CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

The broadcast, which Cronkite based on a reporting trip to Vietnam, aired February 27, 1968. At the program’s close, Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

The Federalist essay says “the proclamations he made on his broadcast that night — to which President Johnson is said to have reacted with ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ — were dubious at best, and not at all based on fact.”

“Dubious at best”? That’s arguable, especially as the war was widely regarded as having lapsed into a stalemate in 1967.

But what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s visceral purported reaction — “‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!'”

It’s the stuff of a tenacious media myth.

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, that night, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” assessment (which was decidedly unoriginal), Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The show was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat analysis while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort.

The Federalist had company in invoking the mythical Cronkite-Johnson claim. The CBS outlet in Boston, WBZ, also turned to the myth today, stating in a post by the station’s political analyst:

“There’s a famous story from the Vietnam War era about the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, known back then as ‘the most respected man in America,’ as hard as that might be for today’s news consumers to imagine. When President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite deliver a scathing report about the progress of the war, he reportedly turned to an aide and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

Actually, the report wasn’t so “scathing.” Cronkite’s assessments were, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “somewhat muddled and far less emphatic than those offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. ‘The war,’ McGee declared on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, ‘is being lost by the administration’s definition.'”

Not “mired in stalemate.” “Being lost.”

It is impossible, moreover, to know whether Cronkite was “the most respected man in America” in 1968. He was sometimes called “the most trusted man in America” — but was so anointed in 1972, in Election Day advertisements CBS placed in major U.S. newspapers.

Media myths can converge in another fashion — as when a single article or essay offers up more than one tall tale about media power or media failings. And that takes us back to the Federalist essay, which also invokes the hoary myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain 120 years ago.

The essay declares that “Hearst sent famed American artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to check on the progress of a rumored rebellion against the Spanish government there.

Hearst: Denied sending message

“Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that read ‘Everything quiet here. There is no trouble. There will be no war. Wish to return.’ Hearst famously replied ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Less than a month later, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana.”

Let’s unpack the errors in those few sentences.

First, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule was hardly a “rumored” conflict. It was very real, having begun in early 1895. By the time Remington arrived in Havana in early 1897, the rebellion had reached islandwide proportions, prompting Spain to send about 200,000 troops to Cuba.

Additionally, the essay’s sequencing is off: Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897; the USS Maine blew up in February 1898, more than a year later.

Moreover, that telegrams were exchanged has never been proven. Hearst denied having sent such a message to Remington, and Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which gained wide circulation beginning in the mid-1930s, long after the artist’s death.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation: It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

It lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

It is highly likely that Hearst’s purported telegram (had it been sent) would have been intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their surveillance, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

An incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been seized upon and called out by Spanish authorities as an example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

But they made no such outcry.

So what does the latest published convergence of media myths tell us?

It certainly testifies to the hardiness of media myths, and to their enduring accessibility. It reminds us that media myths, which fundamentally are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity, can be too apt and too tempting to be checked out.

They can seem almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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