W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 27, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Fifty-two years ago tonight, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about the war in Vietnam and declared in closing that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid analysis, hardly novel. But over the years, Cronkite’s assessment has swelled in importance, taking on the aura of a vital, media-inspired turning point. It is so singularly important in American journalism that it has come to be called the “Cronkite Moment.

In reality it is a moment steeped in media myth.

Notable among the myths of the “Cronkite Moment” is that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Versions vary.)

Cronkite’s remarks supposedly were an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists, representing a memorable instance of media influence and power.

But Cronkite’s program on February 27, 1968, hardly had decisive effects. Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

Johnson: Didn’t see Cronkite show

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — and fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the war effort.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were decidedly more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Four days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.” Not long after Cronikte’s report, Frank McGee of NBC News declared the war was being lost if judged by the Johnson administration’s definition. Not stalemated. Lost.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time (see photo nearby) and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, unexpected, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if, in effect, he had brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort. At one point in March 1968, Johnson called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite dismissed the notion that his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He considered its impact as akin to that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun to shift against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said a month before but on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

It is far easier to embrace the notion that Cronkite’s report 52 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than it is to dig into its back story and understand it for what it was: A mythical moment of marginal influence in a war that lasted until 1975.

WJC

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  1. […] 52 YEARS AGO TONIGHT: The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth. […]

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