W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment,” an occasion fitting to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is a hoary and tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

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

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Days before Cronkite’s program, for example, 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.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun shifting against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in the now-defunct Media Studies Journal in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“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 unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.


More from Media Myth Alert:


Recalling 1968, year of media myths

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on February 5, 2018 at 8:44 am

Much has been written already this year about 1968, a tumultuous and divisive time of war, civil protest, political upheaval, and bloodshed. It was, we’re told, a year that changed America, or even changed America forever.


Protest: At ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ September 1968

It’s also true, if less hyperbolic, that 1968 can be considered a foundation year for media myths, signaling anew how understanding of the past can be warped by dubious tales and exaggerated interpretations.

Three prominent and tenacious media myths stem from 1968 — the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” which is said to have dramatically altered views about the Vietnam War; the “secret plan” for ending that war, a plan on which Richard Nixon supposedly campaigned for the presidency; and the nuanced myth of bra-burning at the Miss America pageant in September 1968.

Not surprisingly, credulous references to those myths have appeared in recent news accounts and commentaries about the 50th anniversary of 1968.

Notable among the references have been those about the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite offered a pessimistic assessment of the war in Vietnam, asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in its fight against communist forces there. He also suggested that negotiations might prove to be a way out for the United States.

Cronkite’s downbeat characterization was offered at the close of a special report based on the anchorman’s visit to Vietnam during the communists’ Tet offensive, which had begun at the end of January 1968.

“Stalemate,” though, was scarcely an original analysis: It had been invoked for months to characterize the war in Vietnam, as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

What supposedly made it all so exceptional was that Cronkite had turned pessimistic about the war. After all, Cronkite was, as CBS recently recalled, “America’s most trusted newsman” whose assessments supposedly projected unrivaled influence.

Often cited as evidence of such influence is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s purported reaction to Cronkite’s “stalemate” remarks.

As a recent NPR report claimed, “Johnson is said to have told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'” (The San Francisco Chronicle asserted no such qualification last month in stating, “Johnson remarked to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”)

The president’s presumptive comment has become the stuff of legend, even if versions of what Johnson supposedly said vary markedly.

Mentioned far less often is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired, and that there is no clear evidence about whether, or when, he watched the program later, on videotape.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And mentioned even less often is that the Cronkite report appears to have influenced the president’s public stance on the war not at all.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy, urging a renewed commitment to defeating communism in Vietnam.

The president was overtly and vigorously hawkish on the war at a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent. But the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s pessimism and repeatedly sought to rally popular support for the war effort.

Not only that: the claim that Cronkite was the “most trusted” newsman didn’t prominently emerge until 1972; the term was invoked in newspaper advertising bought by CBS, to tout its coverage of Election Night that year.

Nixon’s “secret plan” for Vietnam is another hoary myth that dates to early 1968 and likewise has proven resistant to debunking. William Safire, a former speechwriter for Nixon and later a New York Times columnist, once wrote of the “secret plan” myth:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the [Nixon] non-quotation never seems to go away ….”

Huffington Post invoked the non-quotation in a recent look back at 1968, asserting that “the ultimate winner of the year proved to be a man who campaigned on the thesis that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

No, Nixon did not campaign in 1968 “on the thesis that he had a secret plan,” even though the anecdote does fit the popular image of Nixon as cunning and duplicitous.

As Media Myth Alert has often noted, Nixon never made a “secret plan” a plank of his campaign in 1968. It was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

His opponents occasionally accused him of having a secret plan for Vietnam, but Nixon pointedly and publicly disavowed the notion.

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

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

That a “secret plan” was not a feature of Nixon’s 1968 campaign becomes clear in reviewing a database of the content of leading U.S. newspapers, including for 1968, 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 the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

If Nixon had claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, America’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

A column that promoted a media-driven trope

And then there’s the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning, which can be traced to September 7, 1968, and a women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, N.J., against the Miss America pageant.

The demonstration’s organizers have insisted that while bras, girdles, high heels, and other items were ceremoniously tossed into a burn barrel dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can,” nothing was set afire. Or as a recent 1968 retrospective in the Orange County Register put it, “the protest occurred flame free.”

But such a statement ignores the accounts of two reporters who were at the protest that day.

One of them, John L. Boucher, wrote the next day in the Press of Atlantic City that as “the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Boucher’s matter-of-fact reference to burning bras appeared in the ninth paragraph of his article, which the Press published beneath the headline:

Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.

Boucher’s observation was supported by another reporter at the boardwalk that day, Jon Katz, who in interviews by email and phone, said without hesitation that bras and other items indeed had been set afire during the demonstration.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire,” Katz said. “I am quite certain of this.”

He also said:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, the accounts of Boucher and Katz lend no support for the vivid popular imagery that many bras went set afire in a flamboyant protest on the boardwalk. At most, fire was a modest, fleeting element of the demonstration.

But their accounts make clear that “bra-burning” is an epithet not misapplied to the 1968  protest at Atlantic City.


More from Media Myth Alert:




‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: The Post is a hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, but the emphasis is misplaced.

To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect. The underlying history is dubious, which means The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a clumsy distraction, and it inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper for nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says, yes, go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary these days, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.


More from Media Myth Alert:



%d bloggers like this: