W. Joseph Campbell

Gorging on the mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2011 at 1:55 am

Cronkite in Vietnam

The phenomenon of version variability runs rampant across the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” the mythical broadcast in 1968 when Walter Cronkite’s editorial comment supposedly altered U.S. war policy in Vietnam.

Version variability is the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling, and it’s a marker of a media-driven myth.

The “Cronkite Moment” supposedly was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, prompting him to declare:

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

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

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

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

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

To that dubious roster, the Irish Independent the other day offered this version:

“It’s said that Lyndon Johnson knew his presidency had imploded when he sat down one evening after a gargantuan Texan dinner to watch Walter Cronkite denounce his Vietnam policy straight to camera.

“Johnson knew that … it was time to start planning the presidential library.”

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set the night Cronkite offered what really was an unremarkable assessment of the Vietnam War.

The CBS News anchorman said at the close of an hour-long special report about Vietnam that the war effort there had become “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually be the way out for the United States.

Other commentators and news outlets had been turning for months to stalemate” to describe the U.S. war effort. So Cronkite’s assessment was hardly striking, hardly very original. Indeed, it was quite tame compared to other commentaries at the time.

But Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired February 27, 1968 (and there’s no evidence he saw it later, on videotape). The president most certainly didn’t gorge on “a gargantuan Texan dinner” before sitting down to watch Cronkite’s program.

As the show aired, Johnson was en route to the University of Texas at Austin, to attend the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

Johnson spoke for a few minutes at the party. He didn’t bemoan the loss of Cronkite’s support. Rather, he offered light-hearted comments about Connally’s age.

About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” closing assessment, Johnson was saying:

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

I further note in Getting It Wrong that even if Johnson saw the Cronkite’s program on videotape, the president “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

“Just three days after the 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 under scrutiny, the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” dissolves as illusory— a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence. So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

WJC

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