W. Joseph Campbell

Reported, but unconfirmed: The columnist and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on September 2, 2010 at 9:40 am

Sometimes, media-driven myths are just too juicy and delicious to shun, even if the narrator is unsure about their veracity.

Such was the case with Cal Thomas’ syndicated column this week, which invokes the purported “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly led President Lyndon Johnson to realize the war effort was hopeless.

Johnson at the hour of the 'Cronkite Moment'

Thomas wrote in his column:

“President Obama may have experienced his Walter Cronkite moment over the economy.

“Responding to Cronkite’s reporting from Vietnam four decades ago that the only way to end the war was by negotiating with the North Vietnamese, President Lyndon Johnson was reported (though never confirmed) to have said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’

“Now President Obama appears to have ‘lost’ New York Times liberal economic columnist Paul Krugman. …”

Whether Obama has indeed “lost” the columnist Krugman is unimportant here.

What is relevant, and striking, is Thomas’ sly use of a well-known but dubious anecdote, one introduced by the ambiguous phrase, “reported (though never confirmed).” Such a preface leaves one to wonder: Why invoke the anecdote at all?

And there is ample good reason to avoid the anecdote of the “Cronkite Moment,” one of 10 prominent media myths addressed, and debunked, in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

For starters, President Johnson did not see Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam, which aired the night of February 27, 1968.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

About the time Cronkite was wrapping up his report, asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

Johnson said nothing about having “lost Cronkite.”

Moreover, there is no evidence Johnson watched Cronkite’s program on videotape.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president.

“Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

It is interesting to note that Johnson struck a vigorously hawkish tone about Vietnam earlier in the day, telling an audience in Dallas:

“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.’”

The president also declared:

“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.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that the bravado of the president’s “no retreat” speech in Dallas is “hardly consistent with the crestfallen and resigned tenor of Johnson’s supposed reaction to the Cronkite program later that day.

“It is difficult indeed to imagine how the president’s mood could swing so abruptly, from vigorously defending the war to throwing up his hands in despair. But if the anecdote of the ‘Cronkite moment’ is to be believed, such a dramatic change in attitude is exactly what happened, within just hours of the hawkish speech in Dallas.”

The “Cronkite Moment” is a particularly delicious media myth, I’ll grant that. But as a framing device, as a way to set up a column or commentary, it’s  often not effective.

WJC

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