Maureen Dowd marred an otherwise intriguing column in yesterday’s New York Times by mischaracterizing what is known as the “Cronkite Moment.”
The column considered the bizarre falsehoods that Brian Williams, the now-on-leave anchor of NBC Nightly News, has told about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: He wrongly claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while,” Dowd wrote, adding:
“NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.”
In any case, she wrote, network evening news programs have long been shells of their much-watched former selves.
“Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division,” Dowd noted before declaring:
“One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”
Except Cronkite didn’t say we were losing.
Dowd did not specify when Cronkite supposedly “risked his career” as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she clearly was referring to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam that aired in February 1968, after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched an offensive across what then was South Vietnam. The attacks coincided with the lunar new year Tet, and their intensity surprised the U.S. public, which had been assured that significant progress was being made in the fight in Vietnam.
Cronkite said in his memoir that he went to Vietnam to offer “an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” He shared his findings upon his return, in a 30-minute report shown on CBS television on February 27, 1968. It was his most memorable if mythical contribution to reporting the war.
Cronkite concluded the report with an analysis that was unusual for him but striking only for its equivocation.
“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 unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Equivocal though it was, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis rejected the notion the U.S. military was headed for defeat.
Stalemate was hardly a novel characterization for the war in early 1968.
Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report, for example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis that said the war in Vietnam “is not going well,” that victory “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”
The Times analysis, which was filed from Vietnam and published August 7, 1967, further declared:
“‘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, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”
The analysis appeared beneath the headline:
So it was not at all courageous of Cronkite to have invoked “stalemate” when he did.
How, then, did such a tepid, belated assessment come to be so celebrated that it is known as the “Cronkite Moment”? How did it become associated with truth-telling about Vietnam, as Dowd claimed in her column?
In part because of the grandiloquent characterizations by the likes of David Halberstam, who praised Cronkite’s on-air analysis in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. He wrote that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”
Which hardly was the case. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, five years later. The war ended in 1975, when the North Vietnamese military conquered the South.
Another reason it’s called the “Cronkite Moment” is the effect that the anchorman’s analysis supposedly had on President Johnson. According to Halberstam and others, Johnson watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president is said to have snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
But in fact, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either.
He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.
It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Expansive claims for a mythical moment
- Cronkite report on Vietnam was ‘most influential TV show ever’?
- A ‘Cronkite Moment’ in the war on terror? There never was a ‘Cronkite Moment’
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and ‘the most trusted man’
- Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review
- Wasn’t so special: Revisiting the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 44 years on
- ‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk’? Not because of Cronkite
- On version variability and the ‘Cronkite moment’
- Katrina and the myth of superlative reporting
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’