W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite ‘dissed’ Johnson? Think again

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on April 30, 2010 at 3:40 pm

When the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart weighed on the Apple-Gizmodo dust-up over the lost prototype of a next generation iPhone, it was akin to Walter Cronkite’s taking to the air to criticize the U.S. war effort in Vietnam in 1968.

Or so says an item posted yesterday at the  tech-news blog DVICE.

Stewart the other night called out Apple over the police search at the home of the Gizmodo editor who had blogged about the iPhone prototype, which an Apple employee reportedly had lost at a bar.

In a segment about the Gizmodo controversy, Stewart in mock lament asked of Apple: “Are you becoming the Man?”

He also said in skewering Apple: “I mean, if you want to break down someone’s door, why don’t you start with AT&T, for god’s sake? They make your amazing phone unusable as a phone.”

In reaching–overreaching–for significance, DVICE said of Stewart’s segment:

“Is that a paradigm we feel shifting? It reminds us of when President Lyndon Johnson got dissed by Walter Cronkite in a scathing report on the futility of the Vietnam War, with Johnson saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

Interesting analogy.

Trouble is, there’s no documented evidence of Johnson ever having said anything of the sort.

The Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is one of 10 media-driven myths that I address, and debunk, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

The anecdote–often called the “Cronkite moment“–centers around the special report on Vietnam that aired February 27, 1968, on CBS. At the end of the program, Cronkite declared the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested a negotiated settlement would be the only way out.

Legend has it that Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s editorial comment, snapped off the television and said to an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect. Versions vary.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t in Washington when the Vietnam special was shown. He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally–and did not see the Cronkite program.

As such, I write:

Johnson in Austin, February 27, 1968

“Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.”

Moreover, I add, “Johnson’s supposedly downbeat, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply with the president’s aggressive characterization about the war. Hours before the Cronkite program, Johnson delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms. It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”

I further write in Getting It Wrong that even if the president had “later heard—or heard about—Cronkite’s assessment, it was no epiphany for Johnson. Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So Johnson “got dissed” by Cronkite? One might say that, but Johnson didn’t care. Or even know about it. Not immediately.

And more important, Cronkite’s comments made no significant difference to Johnson and his Vietnam policy.


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