W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite, public opinion, and Vietnam: LATimes overstates the link

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs, Television on February 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Today is the anniversary of the mythicalCronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s assessment about the war in Vietnam supposedly had powerful effects on viewers and non-viewers alike.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Cronkite’s report of February 27, 1968, “shifted public opinion on the war.”

But it didn’t. Not demonstrably, not measurably.

The “shifted public opinion” claim is embedded in the Times’ profile of Scott Pelley, a successor to Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

The profile, posted online yesterday, mentions photographs on Pelley’s office walls, images that include “Walter Cronkite in Vietnam for his documentary that shifted public opinion on the war.”

What CBS aired 47 years ago tonight was a special, hour-long news report about the Tet offensive launched at the end of January 1968. The communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies struck then across South Vietnam and the extent of their attacks surprised the American public, which had been told the U.S. military was making significant progress in the war.

The offensive prompted Cronkite to travel to Vietnam to gather material for his special report, which he closed by declaring the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” — a tepid characterization that hardly was very original.

Cronkite also suggested in his wrap-up assessment that negotiations might eventually prove to be a way out of the war. Nor was that a particularly bold suggestion.

In time, though, Cronkite’s report came to be thought of as legendary, as exceptional, as the “Cronkite Moment.” It has become barnacled with media myth.

It is often said the President Lyndon Johnson was at the White House that night (he was in Texas), that he watched Cronkite’s report (he did not), and that Cronkite’s assessment prompted him to say something to the effect of “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (there’s no evidence he said anything of the sort, and it’s hard to believe the president was much moved by a report he did not see).

As for the notion that Cronkite’s analysis altered American public opinion about the war, supporting evidence is extremely thin.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. That shift was evident 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.

A little more than two years earlier, just 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 Cronkite’s program 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 a softening in 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 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 Cronkite’s report had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

WJC

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Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes on February 9, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Maureen Dowd marred an otherwise intriguing column in yesterday’s New York Times by mischaracterizing what is known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

Dowd_Twitter

Dowd (from Twitter)

The column considered the bizarre falsehoods that Brian Williams, the now-on-leave anchor of NBC Nightly News, has told about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: He wrongly claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while,” Dowd wrote, adding:

“NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.”

In any case, she wrote, network evening news programs have long been shells of their much-watched former selves.

“Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division,” Dowd noted before declaring:

“One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say we were losing.

Dowd did not specify when Cronkite supposedly “risked his career” as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she clearly was referring to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam that aired in February 1968, after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched an offensive across what then was South Vietnam. The attacks coincided with the lunar new year Tet, and their intensity surprised the U.S. public, which had been assured that significant progress was being made in the fight in Vietnam.

Cronkite said in his memoir that he went to Vietnam to offer “an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” He shared his findings upon his return, in a 30-minute report shown on CBS television on February 27, 1968. It was his most memorable if mythical contribution to reporting the war.

Cronkite concluded the report with an analysis that was unusual for him but striking only for its equivocation.

He declared:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Equivocal though it was, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis rejected the notion the U.S. military was headed for defeat.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s observations that night were “neither notable nor extraordinary.”

Stalemate was hardly a novel characterization for the war in early 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report, for example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis that said the war in Vietnam “is not going well,” that victory “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from Vietnam and published August 7, 1967, further declared:

“‘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, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The analysis appeared beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

 So it was not at all courageous of Cronkite to have invoked “stalemate” when he did.

How, then, did such a tepid, belated assessment come to be so celebrated that it is known as the “Cronkite Moment”? How did it become associated with truth-telling about Vietnam, as Dowd claimed in her column?

In part because of the grandiloquent characterizations by the likes of David Halberstam, who praised Cronkite’s on-air analysis in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. He wrote that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Which hardly was the case. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, five years later. The war ended in 1975, when the North Vietnamese military conquered the South.

Another reason it’s called the “Cronkite Moment” is the effect that the anchorman’s analysis supposedly had on President Johnson. According to Halberstam and others, Johnson watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president is said to have snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But in fact, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

WJC

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Disputed? Use it anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on January 24, 2015 at 9:13 am
LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Nothing to say about Cronkite

It’s disputed, but what the heck?

Use it anyway.

That, essentially, is how New York Times today presents the mythical tale of President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to anchorman Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment of the Vietnam War in 1968: The tale is “oft-cited if disputed,” the Times says in an article about a Univision journalist — but it repeats the dubious tale nonetheless.

As if there’s no need to let a media myth stand in the way of a useful anecdote.

The “oft-cited” anecdote centers around Cronkite’s claim, offered February 27, 1968, at the close of a special report on CBS, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out of the conflict.

Supposedly, Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect: Versions vary markedly as to what the president purportedly said.

Here’s how the Times presented the anecdote today, embedded in a report about the influence of Jorge Ramos, news anchor for the Spanish-language Univision network:

“‘Remember what L.B.J. said, “When you lose Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the war”?’ said Matthew Dowd, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, recalling the oft-cited if disputed story that President Lyndon B. Johnson said he lost ‘middle America’ when Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War. Among Latino voters, Mr. Ramos has the sort of influence and audience that Cronkite had more broadly among Americans in his day.”

Let’s unpack that myth-freighted paragraph.

First, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. This is crucial because the power of the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote rests on the immediate and visceral effect that anchorman’s assessment supposedly had on the president. It was, supposedly, an epiphany for Johnson: He suddenly understood the futility of pressing the war in Vietnam (even though U.S. combat troops remained in Vietnam until 1973).

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not at the White House.

He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. And about the moment Cronkite was on television intoning his “mired in stalemate” remark, Johnson 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.”

Johnson on that occasion (see photo, above) had nothing to say about Cronkite.

Second, it is impossible to square Johnson’s purportedly downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — with his sharply more hawkish remarks made at that time about Vietnam.

Just hours before the Cronkite program aired Johnson, delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he cast the war effort in Churchillian terms, saying at one point:

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed.”

Johnson also declared in the Dallas speech, “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam. “I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further said:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

It is inconceivable that Johnson’s assertive, “no retreat” views about the war would have swung so immediately, and so dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor.

An opinion that was hardly exceptional, novel, or shocking in late February 1968.

By the time of Cronkite’s report, “stalemate” had become an unremarkable — and not uncommon — way to characterize the war in Vietnam.

The Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, notably in a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it, the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Vietnam, further declared:

“‘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 analysis was published on the Times front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Moreover, even if Johnson later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, it represented no epiphany. If the president later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s analysis, he didn’t take it to heart in his public statements.

Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson was in Minneapolis where he delivered a hawkish, lectern-pounding speech, urging a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice,” Johnson said in the speech, in which he disparaged foes of the war as wanting the country to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

So the Times would do well to offer a correction or clarification: The Cronkite-Johnson tale certainly is “oft-cited,” but it is more problematic than merely “disputed.”

It is illusory. It is mythical.

WJC

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