W. Joseph Campbell

Likening Jon Stewart to Murrow: ‘Ignorant garbage’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times on December 28, 2010 at 12:04 am


The New York Times piece that extravagantly compared TV comedian Jon Stewart to Edward R. Murrow stirred considerable discussion yesterday in the blogosphere and beyond.

The most incisive and inspired characterization I encountered was that of Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He was quoted by ABC News as saying that likening Stewart to Murrow or legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite “is childish, it is garbage, it is ignorant garbage.”

Ignorant garbage: Scathing but accurate, indeed.

Gitlin, whom I do not know, also was quoted as saying, quite correctly, that Stewart “is not a news person. He’s a satirist and when he chooses to be blunt, he has the luxury of being blunt.” Stewart is host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Embedded in the Times article were two prominent media-driven myths, both of which I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

One was the notion that Murrow’s half-hour television report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 turned public opinion against the senator and his communists-in-government witch-hunt. In fact, however, McCarthy’s favorable ratings had been falling for a few months before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954.

The other embedded myth was the allusion to the “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968. That was when Cronkite declared on-air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Supposedly, Cronkite’s analysis was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was a shambles.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was scarcely novel or stunning at the time. And Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo).

LBJ didn't see Cronkite show

As such, it is very difficult to believe the president was much moved by a program that he hadn’t watched.

Left largely unaddressed in the discussion of the Times claim about Stewart, Murrow, and Cronkite is why–what accounts for the appeal of such extravagant characterizations?

In part, they are driven by an understandable urge to distill and simplify history–to be able to grasp the essence of important historical events while sidestepping their inherent complexity, messiness, and nuance.

Characterizations such as those in the Times yesterday also seek to ratify the importance of contemporary television personalities, to locate in them the virtues and values that supposedly animated the likes of Murrow and Cronkite.

Such an impulse skirts, if not indulges in, the “golden age” fallacy.

But it should be noted that Murrow, in particular, was no white knight, no paragon of journalistic virtue.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Murrow’s biographers have acknowledged that the broadcasting legend added to his employment application at CBS five years to his age and claimed to have majored in college in international relations and political science.

He had been a speech major at Washington State University.

Murrow also passed himself off as the holder of a master’s degree from Stanford University–a degree he never earned.

And Cronkite for years pooh-poohed the notion that his 1968 program on Vietnam had much effect on Johnson and U.S. war policy. Cronkite said in his memoir, A Reporter’s Life, that his  “mired in stalemate” assessment represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

Cronkite later told the CNBC cable network that he doubted the program “had a huge significance.

“I think it was a very small straw on a very heavy load [Johnson] was already carrying.”

Only late in his life, as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” gained legendary dimension, did Cronkite begin to embrace the anecdote’s purported power.

“It never occurred to me,” Cronkite said in 2004, that the 1968 program “was going to have the effect it had.”

But Cronkite’s initial interpretation was most accurate: The show had little to no effect on policy or public opinion.


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