It’s striking how prominent politicians, entertainers, and celebrities contribute to the recycling and, thus, the solidifying of media-driven myths, those hoary and exaggerated tales that often tell of magnificent deeds by journalists.
During his vice presidency, gaffe-prone Joe Biden went to Moscow and repeated the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, about how, in his words, “it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”
The claim is absurd, but it has resonance across the political spectrum. Last year, for example, Rush Limbaugh, the voluble conservative talk-radio host, indulged in the heroic-journalist myth, declaring on his show last year that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post “destroyed the Nixon presidency.”
That’s an interpretation not even Woodward embraces. He once told an interviewer: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”
Now comes Dick Cavett, the former television talk show host, who in a shrill and shallow commentary posted recently at the New York Times online site, recycles the media myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when an analysis of the CBS News anchorman about the Vietnam War supposedly brought an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Cavett writes in what is a sneering and superficial assessment of the Vietnam conflict:
“At long, long last the war was ended.
“Not by a president or a Congress or by the protesters. Someone said it was the only war in history ever ended by a journalist.
“‘The Most Trusted Man in America,’ Walter Cronkite, not always a critic of the war, went to see the damage of the Tet offensive, came back, and said on his news broadcast that we had to get out. The beleaguered Lyndon Johnson’s reported reaction: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”
So let’s unpack that bundle of myth and exaggeration.
The reference to “only war in history ever ended by a journalist” sounds much like David Halberstam’s hyperbolic and unsourced claim in his book, The Powers That Be, that Cronkite’s analysis about Vietnam “was the first time in history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”
Moreover, the notion that Cronkite reigned as America’s “most trusted man” rests more on advertising by CBS News, his employer, than on persuasive empirical evidence such as representative survey samples.
As for Cavett’s claim that Cronkite “said on his news broadcast that we had to get out” — well, that’s not what Cronkite said.
The claim refers to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which CBS aired on February 27, 1968. At the close of the program, Cronkite said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be a way out.
It was hardly a call for withdrawal.
Finally, there’s no compelling evidence that President Lyndon Johnson reacted to Cronkite’s assessment by declaring in a flash of insight:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Johnson that night was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending a black-tie birthday party for his longtime political ally, Texas Governor John Connolly.
About the time Cronkite’s was intoning his tired “mired in stalemate” observation, the president was making light of Connolly’s age.
“Today, you are 51, John,” he said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Disputed? Use it anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth
- List of flubs by pols incomplete without Biden’s Watergate gaffe
- ‘We’re trying to toughen you up’: Never happened with Obama and news media
- Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic
- What was Rush Limbaugh talking about?
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and America’s ‘most trusted man’
- Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’