The power of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” knows few bounds.
A column in a Florida newspaper the other day claims that the “Cronkite Moment” was “seminal” because “many say” it “marked the end of the media’s reputation for credibility.”
The occasion was February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite pronounced that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam had become mired in stalemate. Cronkite suggested that negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese should be considered, as a way to end the conflict.
Cronkite’s analysis was supposedly so powerful and insightful that President Lyndon Johnson purportedly told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or words to that effect.
The column in the Hernando Today newspaper, a publication of the Tampa Tribune, doesn’t invoke Johnson’s purported remarks — which, as MediaMythAlert has noted several times, Johnson almost certainly did not say.
The column does, though, say that Cronkite’s remarks “turned the tide of American public opinion and influenced Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection.”
Nope. Not so.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, “there is scant evidence that the Cronkite program had much influence at all on American popular opinion about the war.” As I further write in the book, which is to be published in the summer by University of California Press:
“Polling data clearly show that American sentiment had begun shifting months before the Cronkite program.”
Indeed, those data indicate that Americans’ views about the war had begun to shift months before the Cronkite program.
Journalists at the time also detected a softening in support of the war.
In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, noted that “summer and fall of 1967 [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.”
As for Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, the Cronkite program had little or no effect.
Critical to Johnson’s decision, which he announced at the end of March 1968, was the advice and counsel of his advisers, and the implications of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
The surprising potency of McCarthy’s antiwar campaign was demonstrated in the Democratic primary election in New Hampshire on March 12, 1968. McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote, a far greater portion than expected. Johnson won 49 percent.
Not only that, there is evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection in 1968.
In any event, Cronkite used to scoff at the notion that his report of February 27, 1968, had a powerful influence on Johnson. Rather, he would say, the effect was like that of “a very small straw.”
Near the end of his life, however, Cronkite (who died in July 2009) came to embrace the supposed power of the broadcast.
“To be honest,” he told Esquire magazine in 2006: “I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”
But it didn’t, though. Not really.