W. Joseph Campbell

‘Such was Cronkite’s influence’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on October 10, 2021 at 6:44 pm

The Boston Herald published an odd commentary the other day, one that scoffed at core elements of the media myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 while repeating the dubious elements anyway.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Such can be the appeal of media-driven myths, those apocryphal or improbable tales about powerful media influence: They can be too compelling to resist and as such invite comparisons to the junk food of journalism.

The Herald’s commentary discussed the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as historical context in considering the lies told about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which may have permanently damaged Joe Biden’s beleaguered presidency.

The commentary asserted:

“Back in 1968 widely respected CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported that the controversial war in Vietnam, which had so divided the country, was lost, hopelessly ‘mired in stalemate.’

“Coming from Cronkite, a battle-hardened World War II reporter, deemed the most trusted newsman on television, the report shook the foundations of the [Lydon] Johnson administration.

“Such was Cronkite’s influence.

“Johnson, following the broadcast, reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’

“There is no proof that Johnson said any of those things, or if he even watched the broadcast.

“But that was what was reported. The myth took hold and weeks later Johnson, who had repeatedly lied to the American people about the war, announced that he would not seek re-election.”

It’s puzzling why a commentator would enlist media myths to illustrate an argument; invoking a dubious tale, after all, brings neither strength nor clarity to that argument.

In any case, there’s much to unpack in the the Herald’s commentary, which overstates Cronkite’s influence as well as the significance of his remarks made in closing an hour-long televised report on February 27, 1968, about the war in Vietnam.

Cronkite that night did not claim the war was lost; he said the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”

Such an assessment was no daring or original analysis about the war; other U.S. news organizations had invoked such a characterization months before Cronkite’s program. The New York Times, for example, declared in a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times report by R.W. Apple Jr. was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Even sterner critiques were in circulation in late February 1968. Four days before the Cronkite program aired on CBS, 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.”

Not stalemated.

Doomed.

Not only was Cronkite’s assessment that night in 1968 unoriginal; it prompted no acknowledged policy shift in Johnson’s Vietnam policy — let alone having shaken the administration’s “foundations.”

It is certain that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president 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. This is significant because presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” resides in its sudden, unexpected, and visceral effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or significantly diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.

Moreover, In the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was aggressively and conspicuously hawkish in his public statements about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort. He doubled down on his Vietnam policy and at one point in mid-March 1968 called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had begun to shift against the war long before Cronkite’s report. 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

Johnson’s surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said on television but on the advice of an informal group of foreign policy experts and advisers known as the “Wise Men.” Days before the announcement, the “Wise Men” had met at the White House and, to the president’s astonishment, opposed escalating the conflict as Johnson was contemplating.

One of the participants, George Ball, later recalled: “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights’” in Vietnam.

The president, Ball said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

Cronkite was not at the table of “Wise Men.” By then, his unremarkable commentary about the war was a month old.

Marginal at best: such was Cronkite’s influence on Vietnam policy.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

An easy caricature: PBS portrait of media mogul Hearst is unedifying, superficial

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Television, Yellow Journalism on September 28, 2021 at 6:01 am

PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven.

They can devote fawning treatment to some subjects, such as the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whom it profiled a couple of years ago. They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, subject of an “American Experience” program early last year.

Citizen Hearst: A superficial treatment

And they can minimize complexity about their subjects, as is the case with Citizen Hearst, a mostly superficial “American Experience” portrtait of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The first of two parts aired last night, and it proved unedifying. Hearst was presented as little more than a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, yet possessed scant commitment to truth-telling.

Such assessments have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000. 

So it is a bit odd that the PBS documentary presses the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claims to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw is shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He is the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads.)

It’s as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex character whose journalism — his “yellow journalism” — defies easy caricature.

As practiced in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, “yellow journalism” was  more than merely sensational. It was a distinctive genre of newspapering. Its defining features, as I discussed in my 2001 book,Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, included:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines, some of which stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war,international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Those elements were adopted by newspapers other than Hearst’s. Pulitzer’s World was another exponent of “yellow journalism,” as were some titles in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, where Hearst owned and published the Examiner. But Hearst’s Journal was the newspaper most closely associated with the extremes of  “yellow journalism,” which  the PBS documentary emphasizes in considering the Spanish-American War of 1898, a controversial chapter of Hearst’s life.

The Journal, the documentary claims, offered little more than unfounded, exaggerated, and unverified reporting about the destruction in Havana harbor of the U.S. battleship Maine, a triggering event for the conflict that ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba. At this point, the documentary would have benefited from the insight of Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding biography of the early Hearst.

Whyte pointed out that when stripped from the context New York’s highly competitive newspaper market — where the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule had been an important story for several newspapers for many months — Hearst’s reporting of the Maine disaster in February 1898 and other events in the run-up to the war seems extreme and repellent.

But context matters, Whyte observed, noting:

“Hearst’s coverage [in the run-up to the war] was part of an uproarious national dialogue. His voice sounds freakish when plucked out and examined in isolation, but in the context of the journalistic conversation that erupted as the Maine sank, it sounds quite different.”

Hearst’s Evening Journal, April 1898

Indeed.

PBS often ignores context in pushing its frivolous rich-kid portrait. It misconstrues the fundamental motivation of Hearst’s approach to news-gathering in the late 19th century. Hearst called it the “journalism of action,” which meant newspapers were obliged to take high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

Hearst deployed the “journalism of action” on several fronts — from solving crimes and aiding storm victims to springing a 19-year-old political prisoner from jail in Havana in 1897.

It was an energetic brand of journalism that allowed Hearst’s newspapers to stand out. But the “journalism of action” was not, sustained. It was expensive to pursue, and Hearst’s interests in the early Twentieth Century turned decidedly to politics. Hearst expanded his stable of newspapers but made them platforms for his unfulfilled ambition to win the presidency or the New York governorship.

That Hearst failed in politics ought to tell us something about the presumed power of the press. It’s a topic that PBS sidesteps even while insisting repeatedly that Hearst wielded great influence through his media outlets.

The PBS documentary, which resumes tonight, offers little that is fresh about its subject. It turns tedious at times, and often feels gossipy. It seems impressed by Hearst’s flamboyance but regards it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Once-prominent E&P tells media myths about Murrow, Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2021 at 10:29 am

The trade journal Editor & Publisher once was something of a must-read periodical in the news business. It was never much of a crusading magazine, but its announcements about hirings and departures, as well as its classified ads, were closely watched by professional journalists.

E&P, as it’s called, traces its pedigree to the late 19th century but is hardly much of a force these days. It nearly went out of business 12 years or so ago and more recently was sold to a company led by media consultant Michael Blinder.

He is E&P’s publisher and in a column posted this week at the publication’s website, Blinder blamed the news media for exacerbating political divisions in the country. In a passage of particular interest to Media Myth Alert, Blinder wrote:

“I ask you, in today’s media ecosystem, could Edward R. Murrow have really brought that critical ‘truth to power’ that took down Senator Joe McCarthy? Or would Richard Nixon have had to resign over his many documented cover-ups revealed by Woodward and Bernstein? The answer is ‘no!'”

The answer indeed is “no,” because broadcast legend Murrow of CBS did not take down McCarthy. And Nixon did not resign because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Those claims are hoary, media-driven myths — tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or highly exaggerated.

The myths of Murrow-McCarthy and of Watergate are still widely believed despite having been thoroughly debunked.

And not only debunked: they’ve been dismissed or scoffed at by journalists who figured centrally in the respective tales.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, after his famous See It Now television program about McCarthy on March 9, 1954, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said” about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy: red-baiting senator

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Not only that, but as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists [such as muckraking columnist Drew Pearson] had challenged the senator and his tactics” long before March 1954.

Additionally, Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred W. Friendly, scoffed at the notion that Murrow’s program was pivotal or decisive, writing in his memoir: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Even more adamant, perhaps, was Bob Woodward’s dismissing the notion his reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Woodward declared in an interview in 2004:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Woodward’s appraisal, however inelegant, is on-target. He and Bernstein did not topple Nixon.

Nor did they reveal, as Blinder writes, Nixon’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate, which began with a botched burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

As Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in 1973, in a lengthy and hagiographic account about Woodward and Bernstein:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

They “completely missed” the coverup.

The journalism review quoted Woodward as saying this about the coverup and hush money payments: “‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974, with disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” audiotape, the release of which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

On the “smoking gun” tape — one of many Nixon had secretly recorded at the White House and elsewhere — the president can be heard approving a plan to use the CIA to divert the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in.

The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon may be cheering and reassuring to contemporary journalists. But it is a misleading interpretation that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces — such as the Supreme Court — that were crucial to Watergate’s unraveling and to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: