Few media-driven myths are more enticing, delicious, or retold as often as the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” when the views of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly altered American policy in the Vietnam War.
The presumptive “Cronkite Moment“–one of 10 media-driven myths I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong–took place February 27, 1968, when Cronkite declared on air that U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.
At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” analysis, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
The words of the anchorman supposedly represented an epiphany for the president.
“Opinion inflation has invaded every aspect of our lives,” wrote the commentary’s author, Stephen Randall, the deputy editor of Playboy.
“There was a time,” he added, vaguely, “when thoughtful people tried to be balanced. The old-style political columnists were famous for saying nothing.”
Randall further declared:
“Walter Cronkite voiced so few opinions that when he uttered one—about the Vietnam War—it changed the course of history.”
My opinion? Such ruminations are glib, superficial and, in reference to Cronkite, the stuff of media myth.
The author doesn’t explain how Cronkite’s views on Vietnam “changed the course of history” (an exaggerated claim sometimes made about the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward). But Randall’s clearly alluding to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968.
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “serious flaws are associated with the presumptive ‘Cronkite moment.'”
Notable among them is that President Johnson did not see Cronkite’s Vietnam program when it aired.
Johnson at the time wasn’t at the White House and he wasn’t in front of a television set.
Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.
As Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age.
“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”
It was hardly the best presidential joke ever told. But it clearly demonstrated that Johnson was not bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support.
Indeed, it is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been moved by a program he did not see.
Not only that, but Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was by late February 1968 neither striking nor original.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, “stalemate” had been invoked for months to describe the war in Vietnam.
Notably, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”
The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:
And that wasn’t the only occasion in 1967 when the Times turned to “stalemate” to characterize the war.
A review of database articles and editorials published in the Times reveals that “stalemate” was invoked not infrequently in the months before the supposedly revealing “Cronkite Moment.”
For example, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:
“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”
And in an editorial published October 29, 1967, the Times said:
“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite–on both sides–to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”
So Cronkite in his report about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, essentially reiterated an assessment that had been offered several times by the Times.
And embracing the view of the Times “changed the course of history”?
U.S. troops were in Vietnam for five years after the “Cronkite Moment.”
Recent and related:
- Finding hints of Hearst in the Tucson aftermath? What a stretch
- The sporting version of the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Fact-checking WaPo columnist on the ‘McKinley moment’
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- Blaming assassination on overheated commentary: No new tactic
- Koppel goes on NPR, indulges in media myth
- Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong
- Embedded myths of journalism history
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’