W. Joseph Campbell

Embedded myths of journalism history

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

Popular media myths were in circulation over the weekend at the conference of journalism historians—signaling anew how embedded myths are in American media history and how difficult they can be to uproot.

One presentation at the conference in New York City discussed Walter Cronkite’s standing in collective American memory and in media history. The presentation inevitably invoked the notion that the Cronkite’s on-air commentary in 1968 dissuaded Lyndon Johnson from seeking reelection to the presidency.

Supposedly, Johnson watched Cronkite’s special report on CBS about Vietnam. Cronkite ended the program with by saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations eventually might be considered as a way out of the conflict.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat editorial assessment, Johnson switched off the television and turned to an aide or aides, muttering something to the effect of:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

The program’s effect supposedly was so singularly powerful that it also turned public opinion against the war and came to be called the “Cronkite Moment.”

As I’ve noted several times at MediaMythAlert, and as I write in Getting It Wrong, my  forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson at the time was not in front of a television set but on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, at a party marking the 51st birthday of one of his political allies, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there evidence that Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.

Not only that, but as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, there is scant evidence to suggest that the “Cronkite Moment” had much influence at all on public opinion about the war.

Indeed, polling data “clearly show that American sentiment had begun shifting months before the Cronkite program,” I write in the book, which will be out this summer.

Also heard during conference presentations was what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–the notion that the reporting of two young reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

This is a trope that even Post officials have dismissed over the years.

In 2005, for example, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The heroic-journalist myth is addressed, and debunked, in Getting It Wrong, which says that interpreting Watergate “through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

The conference in New York was Saturday, and was sponsored by the History Division of AEJMC and the American Journalism Historians Association. AEJMC is the acronym for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.


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  3. […] there we are again–the hoary claim resurfaces that Nixon was “brought down” by the reporting of the intrepid Post […]

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  7. […] discussion made me recognize anew how deeply embedded and tenaciously held some media-driven myths really are, and how an hour-long program is hardly […]

  8. […] in which the United States routed Spanish forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The myth is that Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism whipped American public opinion to such an […]

  9. […] the years since Nixon resigned in 1974, the heroic-journalist meme has become embedded and solidified as the dominant narrative of Watergate–as a short-hand way of vaguely understanding the […]

  10. […] those and other factors, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is a media myth that refuses to die. One reason for its tenacity, I point out in Getting It Wrong, is that the tale […]

  11. […] Koppel renewed his complaint in an interview the other day on NPR’s Talk of the Nation–during which he indulged in some of American journalism’s most alluring mythology. […]

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  15. […] observation about Vietnam and Watergate are on target: News coverage did not bring about an end to the war in Vietnam; nor did the press didn’t bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate […]

  16. […] telling advice — that it crossed long ago from the cinema to the vernacular, and has become embedded in Watergate […]

  17. […] “Large numbers of Americans are beyond media influence,” I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. […]

  18. […] important to keep in mind, too, that Felt hardly was a heroic figure, even though “Deep Throat” is portrayed that way in the cinematic version of All the […]

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