W. Joseph Campbell

‘Johnson is said to have said’: Squishy attribution, thin documentation, and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on July 23, 2019 at 10:14 am

Media-driven myths spring from diverse sources, including what charitably can be called thin documentation.

So it is with the purported “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted on the air what others in the news media had been saying for months — that the war in Vietnam was stalemated.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Given that it was the high-profile Cronkite who made the statement, his words carried exceptional impact. They were so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles and declared something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or so the media myth has it.

But there’s scant documentation that Johnson was much moved by Cronkite’s interpretation, and we do know that the president did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. Johnson at the time was at a black-tie party in Texas to mark the 51st birthday of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that Johnson saw the program at some later date on videotape. Or that the program ever prompted Johnson to say something akin to “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or that he took to heart Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal characterization of the war.

In fact, in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s program, Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy. This was a period when the anchorman’s assessment could have been expected to exert its greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor would have been most pronounced.

Instead, the president mounted an aggressive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart. If, that is, he was aware of it at all.

For example, in mid-March 1968, Johnson told a group of business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson made several similar statements on other occasions following the “Cronkite Moment,” including a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which the president urged a “‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So Johnson at the time hardly was throwing up his hands in despair about his war policy.

A credulous reference to the “Cronkite Moment” appeared the other day in a column by the Los Angeles Times television critic, who waxed nostalgic about TV coverage of the first manned mission to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. (“We went to the moon on television,” the column declared.)

The column also stated that in 1968, Cronkite “took time on the CBS Evening News to declare Vietnam ‘a stalemate,’ which some credit as turning the tide of public opinion against the war: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ President Johnson is said to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

There’s much to unpack in that sentence.

For starters, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization came at the close of an hour-long special report, not on the Evening News show.

More important, “the tide of public opinion” had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s report. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Gallup polling in October 1967 found that for the first time, a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

That plurality edged up to 49 percent in a Gallup poll completed on the day of Cronkite’s special report.

If anything, then, Cronkite was following rather than “turning the tide of public opinion about the war.”

Especially striking in the Times column is the phrase, “Johnson is said to have said.”

That really is thin attributive cover, not unlike invoking “reportedly” to allow the inclusion of material that a writer hasn’t independently confirmed, or has doubts about. It’s a squishy sort of dubious attribution that ought to set off alarms for editors.

And for readers.

We know what Johnson said at about the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment. Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support. He was making a light-hearted comment about John Connally’s age.

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

WJC

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