W. Joseph Campbell

CNN commentary incorporates a rare media-myth twofer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes on July 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

In an essay that mocks “conservative media” for clinging to an “‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative,” a high-profile historian writing for CNN completed the unusual feat of working two prominent media myths into a single commentary.

The essay, posted yesterday, speculated that recent criticism by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Ross Douthat, both of whom are syndicated columnists, may signal significant erosion in Trump’s support among conservatives in the face of suspicions his presidential campaign last year improperly colluded with Russia’s government.

Maybe. But one can argue whether those columnists project much agenda-setting authority. Especially Krauthammer, whose wariness of Trump has long been evident.

In any case, what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay-writer’s invoking persistent myths about Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and about Edward R. Murrow’s televised report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954.

The writer, Julian Zelizer, set up references to those myths by writing:

“Historically, significant shifts among journalists in how they cover and analyze a story can have major political effects. The media has the power to sway public opinion.”

Perhaps on occasion.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), media power “tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.” Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.” (And I note that economist Robert Samuelson has offered similar observations.)

Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, repeats the hoary claim that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, delivered at the close of an hour-long report about Vietnam, had a sudden and visceral influence on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Zelizer writes:

LBJ wasn’t watching Cronkite

“Watching on one of his television sets in the Oval Office, Johnson told his aides, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on February 27, 1968, and there’s no sure evidence when or if he saw the program later on videotape. (The power of this anecdote, I write in Getting It Wrong, “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect [Cronkite’s assessment] supposedly had on the president: such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”)

Johnson was neither in front of television sets that night, nor was he at the Oval Office. He was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for one of his long-time allies, Governor John Connally Jr.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment — a characterization hardly novel or unprecedented in early 1968 — Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally, saying:

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

The president left Austin shortly afterward and later that night boarded Air Force One to return to Washington.

Zelizer’s commentary invokes the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, and says the program “exposed the contradictions and lies of rabid anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Exposed?

Not quite.

“It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding that by March 1954, McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics “were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread. …

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists — including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson — had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson was an energetic muckraker who openly challenged McCarthy beginning in 1950, shortly after the senator’s speech in West Virginia in which he claimed more than 200 communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

The columnist pointedly dismissed the allegations, writing that they seemed derived from an outdated and discredited list that Congress had examined three years before. Pearson also noted that he had covered the State Department for about 20 years, and during that time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson pursued his critical reporting about McCarthy, so angering the senator that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950 following a dinner-dance at the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington. Not long after that, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to assail Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Zelizer’s commentary makes no mention of Pearson and his work to expose McCarthy’s “contradictions and lies” but claims “Murrow’s broadcast was an important moment in Sen. McCarthy’s downfall.”

More accurately, it was very belated in the media’s exposés of McCarthy — as Murrow’s friend and colleague, the CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, pointed out years later.

The See It Now program on McCarthy, Sevareid noted, “came very late in the day. The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

Also of note is that Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred Friendly, pointed to another factor in ending McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch hunt — the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in spring of 1954. The hearings centered around allegations that McCarthy’s key associate, Roy Cohn, pressured the Army to grant special treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide.

“What made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy, Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir, “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings. People saw the evil right there on the tube. ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy.” (Emphasis added.)

Several weeks after the See It Now program on McCarthy, the New York Post’s television critic, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow was feeling “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Deep in his essay, Zelizer acknowledges that it is “much too early to tell” whether anti-Trump commentary by some conservative pundits “will turn into something bigger and more sustained, or if the majority of the coverage on these [conservative] outlets remains pro-Trump.” He takes a swipe at those news outlets, citing a New York Times commentary in stating that “most of the conservative media still clings to an ‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative.”

“Alternative reality”? What are media myths if not expressions of “alternative reality”?

WJC

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