W. Joseph Campbell

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? ‘Salon’ dials up a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Television on May 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

The online news and commentary site Salon today invokes the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 in mulling TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced criticism last night about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Salon logoStewart’s remarks on his Daily Show are evocative, Salon declares, of “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” in which he suggested that negotiations could offer a way out of Vietnam.

Salon adds the media myth, stating:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon then injects a muddled caveat, stated parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”?

Simply put, the “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

And here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his commentary about Vietnam, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying: “Today, you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
  • Cronkite’s on-air remarks had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced at the end of March 1968, not to seek reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s eroding political support: By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting intra-party challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. And Johnson may have decided well before then against another term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that well before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”
  • Cronkite for years rejected the notion that his on-air comments about Vietnam had had much effect on Johnson. The anchorman characterized his observations as akin to “another straw on the back of a crippled camel.” Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s commentary had much influence on popular opinion, either. Polls had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s on-air remarks. Which means the anchorman can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening disenchantment about the war.

What’s more, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s commentary — he also said the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” — was far less emphatic than the on-air remarks not long afterward by a rival network newsman, Frank McGee of NBC News.

On March 10, 1968, McGee declared: “The war is being lost by the administration’s definition.”

Lost: No hedging there about a stalemate.

Not only does Salon indulge in media myth, its commentary probably overstates the impact of Stewart’s segment about the scandals.

The comedian was hardly direct or unrelenting in criticizing Obama. His frustration was aimed primarily at IRS and the agency’s stunning recent acknowledgement that it had singled out conservative organizations for detailed scrutiny.

As such, Stewart’s remarks are unlikely to be remembered as much of a turning point in popular views about the Obama administration.


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