W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment” — a fitting occasion to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is but a hoary if tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

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

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun shifting against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in the now-defunct Media Studies Journal in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.

WJC

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