Halberstam, who died in an automobile accident three years ago, certainly built an outsize reputation. But unimpeachable?
I’d say no way.
Halberstam, in his hefty and still-popular 1979 study of the news media, The Powers That Be, encouraged the rise of two prominent media-driven myths and endorsed a third.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Halberstam’s Powers That Be was an important source, perhaps the original source, for the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968.
That was when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted in a special report that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”
In Halberstam’s telling, Cronkite’s report represented “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”
Halberstam wrote that President Lyndon Johnson was in Washington and watched the Cronkite special that night. Upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment about Vietnam, the president said that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost Mr. Average Citizen.
Interestingly, Halberstam did not place Johnson’s purported lament inside quotation marks. He paraphrased the remarks and said Johnson had directed them to presidential press secretary George Christian.
But as I write in Getting It Wrong, Johnson was not in Washington that night. He did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Thus, he could not have had the abrupt, dramatic, yet resigned reaction that Halberstam, and others, have attributed to him.
Johnson that night was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally.
About the time Johnson supposedly made the comment about losing Cronkite, he was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, saying:
“That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”
The “Cronkite Moment,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is a media-driven myth. It did not have the effects that Halberstam and many others have attributed to it.”
Halberstam’s Powers That Be also offered a graphic, if exaggerated, account that President John Kennedy supposedly called James Reston of the New York Times in April 1961 and urged him not to publish a report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion.
Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately,” Halberstam wrote, that the Times by reporting the story would damage his policy. Halberstam also wrote that in his call to Reston, Kennedy said the Times risked having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion failed.
Such a conversation never happened, according to Reston and others quoted in Harrison Salisbury’s insider’s account of the Times, Without Fear or Favor.
As I note in Getting It Wrong:
“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives on April 6, 1961, the day the story was prepared for publication.
“Moreover,” I note, “Kennedy had almost no chance to speak with those executives during the interval from when Szulc’s story arrived at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type. … During that time, Kennedy was otherwise preoccupied. He spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.”
In addition, Halberstam’s Powers That Be invoked one of the most enduring media myths–the anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.
The Powers That Be was a popular success, reaching the second spot on the New York Times best-selling list in May 1979. But the book wasn’t without persuasive critics.
In a devastating review published in the American Historical Review, Culbert called The Powers That Be overlong and declared:
“The absence of a developed thesis, lack of proper documentation, and numerous errors of fact for events before the 1960s suggest that historians will have to use this book with caution. There is much here that might be true and, if true, valuable, but there is also no certainty that sloppy research does not undermine the very parts that seem most interesting.”