W. Joseph Campbell

Murrow, Cronkite myths cited in Poland’s top paper

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Watergate myth on January 4, 2011 at 10:25 am

I’ve discussed from time to time at Media Myth Alert how media-driven myths about the U.S. news media have a way of traveling well and finding expression in news outlets overseas.

Watergate-related myths are notable examples of this tendency.

A couple of prominent media myths popped up yesterday in an article posted at the online site of Gazeta Wyborca, the leading daily in Poland and a newspaper with a remarkable past.

Gazeta Wyborca traces its lineage to what was the leading underground newspaper in Poland of the 1980s, Tygodnik Mazowsze. The clandestine title appeared under the noses of Poland’s communist authorities, week after week, from 1982 to 1989–some 290 issues in all.

Tygodnik Mazowsze was run almost entirely by women affiliated with Poland’s then-banned Solidarity opposition. When the country’s communist rulers permitted Solidarity candidates to stand in elections in 1989, one of the conditions was that the movement be permitted to publish an above-ground newspaper.

So the staff of Tygodnik Mazowsze moved up from the underground to launch Gazeta Wyborca, which means “electoral newspaper.” In the years since, Gazeta has become the dominant news outlet in Poland, which now is a thriving democracy.

Gazeta yesterday referred to the debate that bubbled last week in U.S. news media over a New York Times article that likened TV comedian Jon Stewart to legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow.

Gazeta noted that U.S. news media “triumphantly” mentioned “cases in which journalists have changed the course of history” and referred to Murrow’s “instrumental” role in ending Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.

It also noted CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s criticism of the Vietnam War in 1968, which supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize his war policy was a shambles.

It’s too bad Gazeta didn’t point out that both cases are media-driven myths.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow was quite late in confronting McCarthy, doing so most prominently in a half-hour television program that aired March 9, 1954.

That show came months, even years after other American journalists–notably, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson–had reported critically, closely, and often about McCarthy and his exaggerated charges.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

By then, they knew all too well.

Nor was Cronkite at the cutting edge of criticism of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

Far from it.

The CBS anchorman declared in a televised special report on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

LBJ in Texas, February 27, 1968

But that scarcely was a remarkable assertion.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, stalemate” had been appearing as early as the summer of 1967 in New York Times editorials and analyses about the war.

What supposedly made the Cronkite characterization stand out is that President Johnson saw the program and, as it ended, said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But in fact, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set that night. He didn’t see the Cronkite program when it aired.

At the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of one of his longtime political allies, Governor John Connally.

So it’s difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program that he hadn’t seen.


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