W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite report on Vietnam was ‘most influential TV show ever’?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Television on June 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

The most influential TV show ever?

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

It’s rather a thumbsucker, but it’s the topic of the “Big Question” feature in the June number of the Atlantic. And the responses, culled from TV executives, producers, and show creators, range from All in the Family, to the Simpson’s, to Saturday Night Light, to Walter Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam.

I always thought All in the Family was grating and repetitive; the Simpson’s predictable, and Saturday Night Light ever-erratic. But the Cronkite report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968?

The most influential?

That’s just wrong. Factually wrong.

The Cronkite program was proposed as “most influential” by John Langley, co-creator of the series Cops, who wrote in explaining his choice:

“Public opinion followed Cronkite’s assessment, leading President Johnson to observe, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That assessment includes a couple of important errors, to be addressed in moment.

Some background, first: Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, went to Vietnam in February 1968, shortly after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched a surprisingly extensive but ultimately failed offensive across South Vietnam.

Upon returning to New York, Cronkite prepared a report about Vietnam, describing the U.S. war effort there as “mired in stalemate” and suggesting that negotiations could offer a way out.

In the supposed reactions to Cronkite’s report lurks one the most popular and enduring myths of American journalism.

As Langley writes, American public opinion supposedly followed Cronkite: Americans were swayed, supposedly, by the assessment of someone as trusted as Cronkite, and they likewise turned against the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s special report, knew his war policy was in tatters and purportedly uttered something to the effect of:

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

In fact, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before the Cronkite program: Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening doubts about the wisdom of fighting in Vietnam.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a plurality of Americans (47 percent) told pollsters for Gallup in October 1967 that sending U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. That plurality edged upward to 49 percent in a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

Journalists, moreover, had detected a softening of popular support for the war.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, reported that the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Wasn’t watching Cronkite

As for Johnson, he didn’t see the Cronkite report on Vietnam when it aired. He wasn’t in front a television set that night; he was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

And about the time Cronkite was intoning his pessimistic, “mired in stalemate” editorial comment about the war, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” was an appraisal that was neither stunning nor novel in late February 1968. U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to describe the war effort for months before the Cronkite program.

For example, the New York Times asserted in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

While the Atlantic’s “Big Question” had the intended effect of stirring debate and discussion, it wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the rankings issued last year of the “most impactful moments” on U.S. television of the past 50 years. Notably, none of the top 20 was an entertainment program.

The rankings were prepared from a survey conducted by Nielsen and Sony Electronics, and topping that list was coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the reporting of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and of the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdicts in 1995.

While dramatic, the Katrina coverage, was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the reporting on TV and in print “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

But few if any of the nightmarish accounts of violence, anarchy, and mayhem proved true.


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