W. Joseph Campbell

Hagiographic WaPo and the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post on May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

At one point in a long and credulous look back at Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War, the Washington Post this weekend likens the former CBS News anchorman to “an intercontinental ballistic missile of objectivity.”

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That’s a sample of the hagiographic tone of the Post’s retrospective, which centers around the media myth of Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 about the Vietnam War, in which he described the U.S. military as “mired in stalemate” there.

The Post presents a number of dubious claims about the effects of what it says were Cronkite’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s words were hardly that.

His description about the war as a “stalemate” was neither daring nor novel. As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, American journalists for months before Cronkite’s program had invoked “stalemate” to characterize the war. In early August 1967, or more than six months before Cronkite’s report, the New York Times published a front-page analysis from Vietnam about the war, beneath the headline, “Signs of Stalemate.”

“The analysis said:

‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President [Lyndon] Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here [in Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

A month before that, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

So “stalemate” then was a very undramatic, and even conventional, way of characterizing the war.

In invoking “stalemate,” Cronkite certainly was not as “daring” or pointed as the Wall Street Journal had been on its editorial page a few days before. The newspaper declared 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.”

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book-length year-study of 1968, Cronkite’s “stalemate” critique was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

The Post’s takeout further claims that “President Johnson was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That claim is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

So why is the notion that Johnson was deflated, or worse, an erroneous interpretation?

For starters, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, the president may  have seen the show at some later date on videotape.

Rather than treating Cronkite’s remarks as some sort of epiphany, Johnson in effect shrugged them off and, in a succession of public events in the days and weeks afterward, endeavored to rally popular support for the war in Vietnam.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the president in the aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” gave several speeches in which he stoutly defended his war policy.

In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, Johnson traveled to Minneapolis to deliver a rousing speech to the National Farmers Union convention, during which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Punctuating his remarks in Minneapolis by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air, Johnson declared, “We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” He disparaged critics of the war as inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

And a day after that, Johnson declared in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

So even if he had seen Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment” gave no indication of having embraced the anchorman’s message. The president certainly wasn’t taking a policy lead from Cronkite’s unoriginal characterization of the war.

The Post’s writeup quotes Douglas Brinkley, author of a glowing, hagiographic treatment of the Cronkite, as saying the broadcast journalist on his trip to Vietnam in early 1968 “was just doing the gumshoe reporting all over Vietnam and the print reporters all swooned over Cronkite for doing it.”

All swooned?

No way.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam was not remembered fondly by all war correspondents then in Vietnam. George McArthur, a veteran journalist for the Associated Press, years later recalled Cronkite’s visit to the imperial city, Hue, the scene fierce fighting during the Tet offensive” in early 1968.

“’Cronkite is not one of my heroes,” McArthur said. “When Cronkite broadcast in Hue during the Tet offensive, he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This was his famous trip when he supposedly changed his mind [about the war]. Baloney. He’d made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon, and he was up on top of our [diplomatic] mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a … bulletproof vest and a tin pot [helmet]. And I was up there doing my laundry.”

McArthur’s incisive recollections were included in George W. Smith’s 1999 book, The Siege at Hue, and posted online in 2012.

The Post‘s essay also claims “something did pivot when Cronkite crossed the line into opinion. Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment.” But what pivoted? And how do we know that “Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment”? The Post really doesn’t say. It’s assertion, without evidence.

The mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment took more, of course, than the on-air declarations of a 50-something anchorman. Indeed, the antiwar movement was “a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed,” as an essay posted last year at the New York Times’ online opinion site argued. The movement, the essay added, was defined by four overlapping stages — none of which featured or centered around  the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

WJC

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