W. Joseph Campbell

What a Rash remark: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve….’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on April 2, 2011 at 7:17 am

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” can be an irresistible point of reference in broadcast journalism, especially in assessing the shortcomings and inadequacies of contemporary network news anchors.

A commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Minneapolis Star Tribune offered such a comparison, unfavorably comparing CBS News anchor Katie Couric to the venerable Walter Cronkite.

Couric is believed on her way out as CBS anchor and the commentary’s author, John Rash, noted that Cronkite said he regretted leaving the anchor’s chair in 1981.

In what could pass for a eulogy, Rash also wrote:

“The avuncular Cronkite, once considered the most trusted man in America, was also one of the most influential. His … clear-eyed assessment of Vietnam as a ‘stalemate’ led [John] Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to say, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.'”

There’s no small amount of myth to unpack in that paragraph.

Most trusted?

For starters, the claim that Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America” rests on a flimsy foundation. The characterization stems from an unrepresentative survey conducted in 18 states in 1972, and from subsequent newspaper advertisements in which CBS touted Cronkite as most trusted.

As for Cronkite’s assertion that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — well, there’s no evidence that Johnson reacted by saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

Or by saying anything akin to such a comment.

The Cronkite-Johnson anecdote, though, is one of the best known in American journalism. It’s often called as the “Cronkite Moment” — and it’s also a media-driven myth, one of 10 I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite certainly made the “mired in stalemate” assessment, at the close of a special report that CBS aired on February 27, 1968.

At the White House, the story goes, Johnson watched the Cronkite program and upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” critique, reached over, snapped off the television and said to an aide or aides:

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

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. He wasn’t in front of a television set.

He didn’t see the program.

Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

And about the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson wasn’t wringing his hands about his war policy. He was cracking a light-hearted joke 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.”

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, it is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a television program he didn’t see.

Besides, Cronkite was scarcely the first to invoke “stalemate” in describing Vietnam.

The New York Times turned to that term periodically in the months before the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

In a front-page analysis published August 7, 1967, the Times declared that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

A month before, on July 4, 1967, the Times had 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 the Times said in an editorial published October 29, 1967:

“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 the Times had offered on a number of occasions  in the months before.

“Stalemate” may have been a “clear-eyed” assessment. But by the time Cronkite invoked the term, “stalemate” in Vietnam was neither novel nor stunning.

WJC

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