W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite’s view on Vietnam had ‘tremendous impact,’ new book says: But how?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths on June 9, 2017 at 7:20 am

A new book by prominent non-fiction writer Mark Bowden both treats skeptically and embraces key elements of the “Cronkite Moment,” a tenacious myth about media influence and the war in Vietnam.

Bowden is best known for Black Hawk Down, a well-regarded book about a failed U.S. military mission in Somalia in 1993. Bowden devotes passing reference to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in his latest work, Hue 1968, a detailed account of the weeks-long battle for the Vietnamese provincial capital Hue during the Tet offensive, launched by communist forces at the end of January 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam

The offensive swept across much of what then was South Vietnam and deeply surprised the American public. The scope and shock of the assaults prompted Walter Cronkite, the anchorman at CBS News, to travel to Vietnam and gather first-hand details about the U.S. war effort.

Cronkite reported in his findings in an hour-long special report that aired at the end of February 1968. At the close of the broadcast, Cronkite offered his assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid appraisal; his “stalemate” observation mirrored what other American journalists had been saying for months.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting it Wrong, Cronkite’s assessment has gained the luster of decisiveness, and is often recalled as an occasion when a prominent journalist spoke truth and influenced the powerful.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite’s report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, said something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

So powerful and timely was Cronkite’s opinion that it also swung public opinion against the war.

From Google Books

Supposedly.

In Hue 1968, Bowden dismisses elements of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that Johnson “probably never said the line that has been widely attributed to him after the broadcast — ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’

“Nor,” Bowden adds, “is it true, as David Halberstam would later write, that ‘it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.'”

Indeed, the Vietnam War dragged on seven years for after the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

But Bowden also writes that Cronkite’s assessment “had tremendous impact and made it much harder to dismiss those who opposed the was as ‘hippies’ or un-American.”

He provides no evidence to support the claim of “tremendous impact,” however.

In fact, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. The shift became evident by Fall 1967.

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

A little more than two years earlier, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed U.S. forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed hours before Cronkite’s program was aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

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 been.

Moreover, print journalists had detected softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s report.

In December 1967, for example, journalist Don Oberdorfer, wrote that the previous summer and fall 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.”

So a persuasive case can be made that rather than having had “tremendous impact,” Cronkite followed rather than led U.S. public opinion on the war.

And until late in his life, Cronkite downplayed the effects of his report from Vietnam, saying in an interview in 1999 that its impact on the Johnson administration was akin to that of a “straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Only in the years before his death in 2009 did Cronkite embrace the mistaken notion his report in February 1967 had exerted powerful effects.

A closing note about Bowden’s book: It lacks an index and bibliography, which likely curbs its value to scholars.

WJC

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WaPo’s ‘myths about Watergate’ article ignores the scandal’s best-known mythical narrative

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

The Washington Post’s commentary section yesterday presented a rundown about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate.

Trouble is, the article unaccountably ignored the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Instead, the article addressed hackneyed claims such as “Watergate was politics as usual; Nixon just got caught” or obscure arguments such as “Nixon could have quieted the scandal by firing employees.” The sort of stuff few people find especially compelling.

Washington Post illustration

What many people do embrace is a claim often repeated in the news media in America and abroad.

And that is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, the mythical go-to narrative that the Post and its intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, unearthed the incriminating evidence that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

It’s a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively obscure.

It’s also a narrative rejected by those who ran the Post as the scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher at the time, insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and compelled the testimony and uncovered the evidence that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Against that tableau, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

The “myths of Watergate” article published yesterday made its nearest approach to the heroic-journalist narrative in addressing the notion that Woodward’s high-level secret source, code-named “Deep Throat,” was “pivotal to Nixon’s downfall.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt who, for a time, had been second in command at the FBI.

Felt conferred with Woodward periodically in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Washington suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. Typically, “Deep Throat” passed on to Woodward, or confirmed for him, piecemeal evidence about the scandal as it unfolded. At least that’s the version Woodward offered in The Secret Man, his book about Felt.

A far more prominent Watergate myth about “Deep Throat” is that he advised Woodward to “follow the money” in unlocking the intricacies of Watergate.

Follow the money” may be the single best-known quotation associated with Watergate (rivaled, perhaps, by Nixon’s statement in November 1973 that he was “not a crook”).

“Follow the money” was born of dramatic license, a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting.

“Follow the money” was memorably uttered by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie was outstanding in playing a conflicted, twitchy, and tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such assurance and confidence that it seemed to offer a roadmap to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

But even if Woodward had been counseled in real life to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office was not the mishandling of funds raised for his presidential reelection campaign but evidence of his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

That evidence was contained in one of the many audiotapes Nixon secretly made of his conversations at the White House from 1971 to 1973. The existence of the tapes was disclosed not by Woodward and Bernstein but by a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, in testimony before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Twelve months later, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tell-tale “Smoking Gun” tape to the Watergate special prosecutor, precipitating the president’s resignation.

WJC

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Why Trump-Russia is still not Watergate redux

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Watergate myth on May 14, 2017 at 10:28 pm

We need not take Bob Woodward’s word for it: The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his associates to jail.

Saturday Night Massacre

Even so, exaggerated claims have flourished in the days since President Donald Trump sacked the preening FBI director, James Comey.

Firing Comey was reminiscent — vaguely — of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when the top two Justice Department officials resigned rather than carry out the president’s order to dismiss Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.

A persuasive case can be made that Comey, unlike Cox, merited dismissal. But Trump’s conduct was puzzling nonetheless: What better way to encourage Trump-Russia suspicions than to fire the head of an agency investigating those suspicions?

Still, the Trump-Russia matter differs from Nixon-Watergate in significant respects, not all of which are well-recognized.

For starters, Watergate originated with a crime — a thwarted burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Arrested in the break-in were five men linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign, including the security coordinator.

The  Trump-Russia matter, however, is a mess of suspicion, of feverish speculation that Trump may have benefited from, encouraged, or somehow participated in Russia’s suspected meddling in the stunning 2016 presidential election.

But the centerpiece crime in Trump-Russia? No one can say. As Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the other night: “No one has yet to explain to me what the core crime that would be investigated with regards to Russian influence.”

More than six months after the election, it remains unclear what Trump’s campaign did — if anything — to collude with Russian operatives.

And it’s unlikely that Russian interference would have been decisive in tipping the election to Trump. The inept, highly centralized campaign run by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton effectively accomplished that. Trump was the beneficiary of Clinton’s flawed candidacy.

It’s also important to recognize that although Watergate’s outcome may seem now to have been inevitable, bringing about Nixon’s resignation was rather a close call.

Although journalists may love the interpretation, Nixon quit the presidency in 1974 not because of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Nixon resigned after the Supreme Court compelled him to surrender telltale audio tapes that he had secretly made of many of his conversations at the White House. (Woodward, himself, said last week: “The Supreme Court forced Nixon to turn those [tapes] over and that ended the reign.”)

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), absent the audiotapes “Nixon likely would have served out his term.” The tapes were key. They were compelling evidence that captured him, in his own words, approving a scheme to sidetrack the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglary.

It is, moreover, important to keep in mind the sui generis character of Watergate. The scandal was sweeping; it went to the heart of America’s political and constitutional system, as Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, noted. Its reach and implications were exceptional, and they will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to duplicate.

WJC

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