W. Joseph Campbell

‘Cronkite Moment’ makes ‘Best of the Web’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on September 11, 2010 at 8:41 am

The lead item yesterday of the Wall Street Journal‘s online “Best of the Web” roundup invoked the legendary “Cronkite Moment,” one of American journalism’s hardiest and best-known media-driven myths.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Only “Best of the Web” presented the anecdote as if it were factual, stating:

“‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have lamented in 1968, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The passage set up an observation about President Barack Obama’s declining popularity:

“Obama has been losing Middle America, slowly but steadily, almost since the day he took office, in large part because he has taken his cues from a community of notions whose attitude toward Middle America ranges from indulgent condescension to outright hostility.”

Obama’s fallen popularity is of but passing and academic interest to Media Myth Alert. Far more intriguing is this latest affirmation of the casual yet confident use of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Its appearance in “Best of the Web” was the latest in a spate of recent sitings of the “Cronkite Moment.”

In the past few weeks, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today; Cal Thomas, a conservative syndicated columnist, and  David Zurawik, veteran television writer for the Baltimore Sun, all have invoked the anecdote in commentaries as if it were true.

Such frequent use signals not only the irresistible allure of the “Cronkite Moment,” it suggests the anecdote’s appeal across the political spectrum. Neuharth, for example, typically writes from the left; Thomas and “Best of the Web” offer analyses from the right.

I examine the “Cronkite Moment” in my new book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–apocryphal or improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The “Cronkite Moment” refers to the special report about the Vietnam War that was presented by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite and aired February 27, 1968.

Near the end of his report, Cronkite asserted that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested negotiations might offer a “rational” way out of Vietnam.

Supposedly, President Lyndon Johnson watched the Cronkite program at the White House and, upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, experienced the flash of insight that his war policy had hit the rocks.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson reputedly said, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, accounts vary markedly as to what Johnson supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s commentary.

Some accounts have the president saying: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

Most common is: “If I lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” the version used by “Best of the Web.”

But version variability of such magnitude, I write in Getting It Wrong, signals implausibility.

It’s a marker of a media-driven myth.

Moreover, Johnson was not at the White House the night Cronkite’s special report aired. Nor was the president in front of a television set.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, at about the time Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” editorial comment, Johnson was engaging in mildly humorous banter about Connally’s age.

“Today you are 51, John,” he said. “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.”

Even if Johnson saw the Cronkite program later, on videotape, the president “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong, noting:

“Just three days after the [Cronkite] program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would ‘not cut and run’ from Vietnam. ‘We’re not going to be Quislings,’ the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. ‘And we’re not going to be appeasers….’”

So even if he later heard, or heard about, Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam, it represented no epiphany for Johnson, no stunning revelation about policy gone awry.

Interestingly, the legend of the “Cronkite Moment” began to take hold and gain circulation several years after Johnson’s death in 1973. It was in 1968 neither an instant sensation nor a stunning assessment. “Mired in stalemate” was hardly a novel interpretation at the time.

Indeed, the New York Times had used “stalemate” in a front-page assessment of the war effort in early August 1967, nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

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