Rush Limbaugh attracts the largest talk-show audiences on radio. Which is why it’s troubling when he indulges in media myths, as he’s done the past two days.
Program transcripts show that Limbaugh made clear if passing references to the “Cronkite Moment,” the 45th anniversary of which falls tomorrow, and to the hero-journalist myth that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Limbaugh on today’s program called attention to an Associated Press report that skeptically considered President Barack Obama’s claims of great disruption should federal government spending cuts, collectively known as the sequester, take effect beginning Friday.
Limbaugh, according to the program transcript, declared that “if Obama is losing AP on this, it’d be like Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite on the war in Vietnam.”
The reference was to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment, delivered February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.
Upon hearing Cronkite’s comment, Johnson supposedly understood that his war policy was in tatters and declared: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. And at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president was making light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.
“Today you are 51, John,” he said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”
So it’s hard to believe that the president could have been much moved by a program he did not see.
The importance of the debunking the “Cronkite Moment” goes beyond whether Johnson saw the program; far more significant is the anecdote’s deceptive message that a prominent journalist can profoundly alter policy.
Altering war policy certainly wasn’t the effect of Cronkite’s program 45 years ago. Even Cronkite likened the program’s influence to that of a straw placed on the back of a crippled camel.
Johnson did announce at the end of March 1968 that he was not seeking reelection to the presidency. But that decision had far more to do with his health and the prospect that Democrats would not renominate him than with Cronkite’s fairly tame and unoriginal commentary about Vietnam.
“Woodward brought down Nixon.”
But that’s a myth not even Woodward embraces.
In 2004, for example, Woodward told American Journalism Review, “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”
And on another occasion, in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”
Other principals at the Post have over the years similarly dismissed such outsize claims.
The best answer is that unraveling a scandal of the reach and complexity of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.
“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings” in 1974, making inevitable an early end to his presidency.
In the end, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was of faint consequence to Watergate’s dramatic outcome.
It merits mentioning that there’s no small irony in Limbaugh’s giving voice to these media myths.
He is, after all, a prominent conservative commentator and the “Cronkite Moment” and the Watergate myth center around journalists and news organizations commonly associated with liberal views.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was
- So it begins: Woodward, Bernstein, and excess in run-up to Watergate’s 40th
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- Wasn’t so special: Revisiting the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 44 years on
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review
- Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong
- Kurtz invokes ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in reviewing new Cronkite biography
- Oprah as ‘this generation’s Walter Cronkite’?
- Misreading the ‘Cronkite Moment’ — and media power
- Recalling who gave us the ‘manufactured heroism’ of Jessica Lynch
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic