Peggy Noonan, the prominent weekend columnist for the Wall Street Journal, attempts in her latest commentary to explain the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump — and in doing so trips over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.
That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in visceral reaction said something to the effect of:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; he was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally. Nor is there evidence the president watched Cronkite’s report on videotape at some later date.
So it’s hard to imagine how the president could have been much moved by a TV program he did not see.
I further noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War.
“Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite’s report. For example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”
The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:
Which takes us to Noonan, formerly a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She opens her column this weekend by writing: “So, more thoughts on Donald Trump’s candidacy, because I can’t stop being fascinated.”
The Trump phenomenon, she argues, signals that “[s]omething is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways” in American political life.
She also invokes Trump’s recent news conference confrontation with Jorge Ramos, the showboating anchorman for Univision. At the news conference, he refused to wait his turn in posing a question and was escorted from the room. Ramos was allowed back in a short time later.
Noonan, whose columns invariably lean on personal anecdotes, mentions an acquaintance named “Cesar,” a Dominican immigrant who works at a New York City grocery and who, she says, is more impressed by Trump than Ramos.
Cesar’s views, Noonan suggests, may be representative of the shifting political contours.
“Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America,” she writes. “New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”
Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may seem odd, indirect, and even a bit confusing, given the context. But there’s no doubt she was treating as genuine one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.
The “Cronkite Moment” indeed is one of journalism’s favored and most compelling stories, as it tells how a perceptive and courageous anchorman could effect powerful change.
After all, Cronkite’s assessment is often said to have shifted U.S. public opinion about the Vietnam War.
Except that it didn’t.
That shift had taken place months earlier, and was detected when a plurality of respondents to a Gallup survey in October 1967 characterized as a mistake the Johnson administration’s decision to send U.S. troops to Vietnam.
A little more than two years earlier, in August 1965, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.
Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”
In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.
Moreover, print journalists had reported softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.
In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”
Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite in early 1968 was following rather than leading public opinion on the war.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- ‘Persuasive and entertaining’: WSJ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’
- Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review
- Cronkite, public opinion, and Vietnam: LATimes overstates the link
- Wasn’t so special: Revisiting the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 44 years on
- Disputed? Use if anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth
- Misreading the ‘Cronkite Moment’ — and media power
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- That awesome ‘Cronkite Moment’
- WikiLeaks disclosure no ‘Cronkite Moment’
- ‘When I lost Cronkite’ — or ‘something to that effect’
- Why not the ‘McGee Moment’?
- Exaggerating the power of the ‘napalm girl’ photo
- About that Hearst quote on public’s fondness for entertainment
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism
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