W. Joseph Campbell

Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on November 17, 2010 at 7:15 am

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann invoked media history the other night in a blustering, on-air response to criticism by Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline, about hyperpartisanship on cable TV news.

Trouble is, Olbermann got it wrong in the two history lessons he cited–the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the Murrow-McCarthy encounter of 1954.

In both cases, Olbermann bought into tenacious media-driven myths.

The so-called “Cronkite Moment” came on February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman said in an on-air commentary that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the morass.

Declared Olbermann: “All that newscast did was convince the 36th president of the United States to not seek reelection.”

It had no such effect.

The media-driven myth surrounding the “Cronkite Moment”–one of 10 media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong–has it that Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, saw the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s commentary, told an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

But Johnson didn’t see the show when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, at the time, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

The president couldn’t have been much moved by–or decided his political future on–a show he hadn’t seen. And there’s no evidence that he watched it on videotape at some later date.

Johnson announced at the end of March 1968 that he would not seek reelection. It was a stunning development–but the Cronkite show had nothing to do with the president’s decision.

Johnson’s announcement came a couple of weeks after his surprisingly poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The president won the primary with 49 percent of the vote. But Senator Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent, an unexpectedly strong result.

Within days, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. So Johnson faced a brutal course to winning the party’s nomination, not to mention reelection.

Moreover, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967, or even earlier, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency. (Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”)

Given those factors, Cronkite’s show at the end of February 1968 recedes into trivial insignificance as a factor in Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection.

Olbermann in his commentary referred to Edward R. Murrow as “a paragon of straight reporting” and claimed the American press “stood idly by” as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy pursued his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

But on March 9, 1954, on a 30-minute television show called See It Now, “Murrow slayed the dragon,” Olbermann declared.

But neither Murrow, nor his producer Fred Friendly, bought the dragon-slaying interpretation. (The latter wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control: “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.”)

And it’s quite clear that the American press did not stand “idly by” as the scourge of McCarthyism emerged.

Drew Pearson

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Indeed, Pearson was McCarthy’s most relentless and implacable media foe during the senator’s witch-hunt.

In his widely read column, Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and dismissed his allegations “way off base.” And those characterizations came in February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s See It Now show on McCarthy.

Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, calling attention to the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and to questionable payments McCarthy received from a government contractor.

McCarthy was so annoyed by Pearson’s probing that he threatened the columnist at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., in May 1950. On that occasion, McCarthy placed a hand on Pearson’s arm and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm….”

That was a prelude to a violent encounter in December 1950, when McCarthy cornered Pearson in the cloakroom of the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington and either kneed the columnist in the groin or slapped him hard across the face.

So, no, the press didn’t stand “idly by” in face of the McCarthy menace.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, by March 1954 Americans weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

They already knew, from the work of Pearson and others.

And Pearson took on McCarthy when doing was not risk-free.


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