W. Joseph Campbell

Kurtz invokes ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in reviewing new Cronkite biography

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Media critic Howard Kurtz invokes one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths in a review today about the forthcoming biography of Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman from 1962-81.

Out soon

Kurtz writes in the review, which is posted at the Daily Beast:

“As everyone from presidents to astronauts catered to him, Cronkite used that access to drive unflinching coverage of civil rights, corruption, and especially the morass of Vietnam — when his own reporting led him to declare that ill-fated conflict a stalemate. When LBJ said that ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,’ he was acknowledging that a single newsman had the power to change a national narrative.”

It’s highly arguable whether Cronkite “had the power to change a national narrative.”

But first, that mythical “I’ve lost Cronkite” quotation.

As I discuss in my latest my book, Getting It Wrong, there is no compelling, first-hand evidence that LBJ — President Lyndon B. Johnson — ever uttered the comment about losing Cronkite.  (Douglas Brinkley, author of the Cronkite biography, writes in the latest issue of American Heritage magazine that Johnson “probably didn’t” make such a statement. The evidence is far more persuasive than “probably didn’t,” though.)

Legend has it that Johnson said something of the sort in reacting to Cronkite’s special televised report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. At the close of the broadcast, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

Johnson, supposedly, watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s assessment, the president snapped off the television set and declared to an aide or aides:

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

Or, as Kurtz writes, the president said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

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

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

Or something to that effect. Versions vary (and version variability of such magnitude is a signal of a media myth).

The power of that broadcast stems from the immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s critique supposedly had on the president.

It is, though, exceedingly unlikely that Johnson had any reaction of the sort. After all, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the president wasn’t in front of a television set that night.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time the anchorman intoned his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t lamenting any loss of support from Cronkite. Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

So it’s difficult to fathom how Johnson could have had much moved by a television program he didn’t see. Or ever discussed with Cronkite.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that Johnson’s supposedly “self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply” with his contemporaneous characterizations of the war.

“Hours before the Cronkite program,” I write, “Johnson delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms. It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”

In that speech, Johnson declared:

“Persevere in Vietnam we will, and we must.” The militancy of the president’s remarks render the purported despairing comment about having “lost Cronkite” all the more improbable.

Even if Johnson later heard — or heard about— Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment, it would have come as no epiphany. “Stalemate,” after all, had been bruited for months in Washington policy circles and in South Vietnam.

Indeed, less than three weeks before Cronkite’s televised commentary, the New York Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The phrasing seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s on-air assessment, in which he declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

In any case, Johnson didn’t turn dovish in the days following Cronkite’s report. Not long after the program, the president delivered a lectern-thumping speech in Minnesota in which he urged a “total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace,” Johnson said on that occasion, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So publicly, at least, Johnson remained hawkish in the immediate aftermath of the Cronkite program.

And as for Kurtz’s claim that Cronkite possessed singular power “to change a national narrative”? Cronkite, himself, didn’t much buy into that notion, not in the context of his 1968 report on Vietnam.

For example, Cronkite said in 1997 in promoting his memoir that the program’s effect on Johnson was akin to “a very small straw on a very heavy load he was already carrying.” Hardly narrative-changing.

(In the years just before his death in 2009, Cronkite did begin to embrace the purported impact of his 1968 program.)

In any event, public opinion polls indicated that Americans were turning against the Vietnam War by autumn 1967, well before the Cronkite report.

As Daniel C. Hallin memorably wrote in the former Media Studies Journal in 1998:

“Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”

WJC

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