W. Joseph Campbell

The expanding claims for the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on July 16, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Prominent media-driven myths tend to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners,” I write in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

That’s an important reason why media myths are so appealing to journalists, and so tenacious. They serve to identify a time when the news media were decisive forces in American life, told truth to power, and prompted change for the better.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring.”

Few media myths illustrate the yearnings inherent in the golden age fallacy as well as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968, when CBS newsman Walter Cronkite took to the air and declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment supposedly prompted a reappraisal of U.S. policy in Vietnam, swung public opinion against the war, and helped Lyndon Johnson decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

To that roster of presumed effects, the blog Firedoglake would add revelations that “our leaders had lied and our policy might fail” in Vietnam.

A writer at the blog made those claims yesterday, in a post asserting that the U.S. news media news media “are not providing enough in-depth coverage to foster an informed debate about war policy” in Afghanistan. During the Vietnam War, he wrote, the “news media didn’t focus deeply enough on the possibility that our leaders had lied and our policy might fail until Walter Cronkite said so on CBS.”

In reality, the prospects of failure in Vietnam had been discussed in the news media long before Cronkite’s program (which did not accuse U.S. military and political leaders of having lied about the war).

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary in early 1968.

“Leading American journalists and news organizations had … weighed in with pessimistic assessments about the war long before Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam,” I note, adding that Mark Kurlansky, in his year-study about the events of 1968m wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Moreover, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial four days before the Cronkite program 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.”

And nearly seven months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. had cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple wrote, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

Apple’s downbeat analysis was published on the Times’ front page in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Several months before that, in late March 1967, the nationally syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak ruminated about “the frustrations of … a seemingly endless war [in Vietnam] that will not yield to the political mastery of Lyndon Johnson. Never before in his career as a political leader … has Mr. Johnson been so immobilized.”

So Cronkite’s editorial comments about Vietnam offered no startling insight, no fresh analysis.

As Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in his column at the time, Cronkite’s assessment about America’s predicament in Vietnam “did not contain striking revelations.” It served instead, Gould wrote, “to underscore afresh the limitless difficulties lying ahead and the mounting problems attending United States involvement.”

A reminder, it was: Not a revelation.

WJC

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  1. [...] Public opinion polls as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that Americans’ views about the war had begun to shift in 1967, months before the “Cronkite Moment.” [...]

  2. [...] if the “Cronkite Moment” is to be believed, that’s what happened: An abrupt, dramatic, and decisive change of heart [...]

  3. [...] any case, the power of the reputed “Cronkite Moment” lies “in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the [...]

  4. [...] capacity to tell truths to power, the “Cronkite Moment” turns up in the media in all sorts of ways. He of the 'Cronkite [...]

  5. [...] of 1968–when the on-air assessment of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly altered U.S. policy in Vietnam–invites such [...]

  6. [...] slimmed-down version of the “Cronkite Moment” appeared in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, in a commentary about a supposed surfeit of [...]

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