W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘CBS News’

Cronkite ‘the most-trusted’? Where’s the evidence?

In Debunking, Media myths on June 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

The notion that Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” has received fresh stimulus from the recently published biography about the avuncular CBS News anchorman.

‘Most trusted’? How so?

Author Douglas David Brinkley refers often in the book, titled Cronkite, to the anchorman’s “most trusted” status. But Cronkite contains no searching assessment about whether the epithet was justified or based on much empirical evidence.

It’s really a dubious characterization that has  morphed into a tiresome cliché. It was not credibly supported by public opinion polling: It was propelled by CBS advertising.

The “most trusted” epithet can be traced to a survey conducted in 1972 of 8,780 respondents in 18 states. The pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company, sought to assess and compare public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians.

Inexplicably, Cronkite was included in the Quayle poll, which meant he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61%.

The results were not much of a surprise. As the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer wrote in a column shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s score “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Brinkley mentions the poll in Cronkite and says it was strange that the anchorman was included.

But he raises no challenge to the odd methodology (the survey was highly unrepresentative) or to the unsurprising result. Instead, he writes:

“The poll confirmed overnight what had long been apparent: Cronkite was the ultimate reliable source.”

Confirmed? Including Cronkite’s name with those of mostly uninspiring politicians was scarcely a precision measure of “trust.” It was a dubious basis on which to build the claim of “most trusted.”

But the claim was enthusiastically embraced, and propelled, by CBS advertising.

On Election Day in November 1972, CBS published prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads carried this headline:

Re-elect the Most Trusted Man in America.”

In what seems a quaint reference to the limited broadcast news options of the early 1970s, the ad copy read:

“You’ll have three viewing choices on Election Night. … A good reason for watching us is because we’ve got a man on our slate who was recently voted the most trusted American in public life” — an allusion to the Quayle poll.

In italics, the ad copy referred to Cronkite as “The most trusted American in public life.”

CBS later modified the sweeping claim, characterizing Cronkite in an ad in the Washington Post in 1976 as “one of the most trusted men in America” (emphasis added).

Interestingly, Cronkite in the 1970s wasn’t always regarded as the most trusted television newsman, let alone “the most trusted” person in America.

A Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite that year came in fourth.

The following year, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So what did Cronkite have to say about this “trust” stuff? He was quoted in USA Today in 2002 as sort of pooh-poohing it all:

“Trust is such an individual thing. I don’t think it’s definable.”

Then what accounts for the enduring inclination to characterize Cronkite as having been the “most trusted man in America”?

One reason is that the epithet isn’t entirely outlandish.  Like many media myths, the “most trusted” claim rests on the cusp of plausibility. Cronkite was an esteemed anchorman. He cut an unthreatening-yet-authoritative presence on TV. His voice — what Shafer called a “furry baritone” — was as engaging as it was unmistakable.

But it’s the “golden age” fallacy that best accounts for the tenacity of the “most trusted” cliché.

As I describe in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, the “golden age” fallacy is that “flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring.” Such as the 1960s and 1970s, when Cronkite became a dominant figure in American broadcast journalism.

Writer Andrew Ferguson deftly identified this dynamic in an essay in the Weekly Standard in 2008.

Cronkite, Ferguson wrote, “is a kind of synecdoche for American journalism. … From the 1960s onward Cronkite was transformed by some mysterious process into a … spiritual force as imposing and weightless as a dirigible. He was an oracle, a teller of truths, the conscience of a nation, ‘the most trusted man in America.’

“American journalism followed the same trajectory into self-importance, borne aloft on the same draft of hot air and vanity.”

Voilá. The “golden age” fallacy, in full flight.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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CBS marks a Cronkite anniversary, invokes a tenacious media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on April 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

CBS News yesterday marked what has to be among the more obscure anniversaries in broadcast journalism — the 50th anniversary of the debut of Walter Cronkite’s old evening news show.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And in a flattering writeup recalling the occasion, CBS invoked a prominent media-driven myth — the notion that Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 about the war in Vietnam exerted enormous influence. Until late in his life, not even Cronkite believed that was the case.

Even so, the CBS article declared:

“Cronkite’s intense focus on objectivity gave his rare dose of opinion — especially his 1968 assessment of the war in Vietnam — an enormous weight.”

The writeup quoted an executive producer, Susan Zirinsky, as saying:

“Lyndon Johnson remarked, because he looked at that broadcast, and he said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

President Lyndon Johnson’s purported comment lies at the heart of this tenacious media myth — one of the 10 I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Interestingly, the comment so often attributed to Johnson has been described in so many ways. That is, there is no single version of what the president supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s assessment that the war was stalemated.

There’s the version Zirinsky invoked: “‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

More common is: “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another variant has the president saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And so on.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Version variability of that magnitude signals of implausibility. It is a marker of a media-driven myth.”

And it’s highly likely that Johnson said nothing of the sort.

He did not, after all, not see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968. The president that night was not in front of a television set when, near the close of the program, Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson at that moment was at a black-tie birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally. The president poked fun at Connally, who was marking his 51st birthday.

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

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see. And the power of what often is called the “Cronkite Moment” stems from the supposedly immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s assessment had on the president.

But what Cronkite had to say on air that night was hardly earth-shaking, hardly stunning or novel.

If anything, Cronkite’s observation about “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.

For example in August 1967, the Times inserted “stalemate” into the headline over a front-page news analysis about the war. The Times headline read:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The newspaper’s analysis was filed from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and noted:

“‘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” in the war.

Before that, on July 4, 1967, the Times published a news analysis that said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

So in the context of the war in Vietnam, “stalemate” was hardly new by the time Cronkite turned to the word.


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Fact-checking ‘Mother Jones’: A rare two-fer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Spanish-American War on April 26, 2011 at 7:07 am

The most prominent media-driven myths — those dubious or apocryphal stories about the news media that masquerade as factual — include William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” and the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Mother Jones magazine, in the cover story of its May/June number, cites both tales as if they were genuine, in a rare, myth-indulging two-fer.

In an article written by Rick Perlstein and titled “Inside the GOP’s fact-free nation,” Mother Jones says of Hearst (who was no Republican):

“In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer, he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which the Washington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic — although far too cautiously for Hearst’s taste. ‘You furnish the pictures,’ he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, ‘and I’ll furnish the war.’ The tail wagged the dog.”

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Couching it with “supposedly” allows no free pass for myth-telling.

It’s quotation most often attributed to Hearst. And as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s a durable media-driven myth that has survived “concerted attempts to discredit and dismantle it.”

It is, I add, “succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.”

The purported recipient of Hearst’s telegram was not “a reporter,” as Perlstein writes, but Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

Hearst had assigned Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spanish colonial rule. They arrived in Havana in early January 1897, and Remington six days later.

He parted ways with Davis in Matanzas, Cuba, and, before leaving Havana for New York, supposedly cabled Hearst, saying:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst, in reply, cabled his famous vow, telling Remington:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Remington didn’t stay. He promptly returned to New York, where his sketches were given prominent display in Hearst’s New York Journal, appearing beneath such headlines as:

“Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal.”

That’s hardly an accolade Hearst would have extended to someone who had so brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.”

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Anyone who read U.S. newspapers in early 1897 “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” which gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The tale about the Remington-Hearst exchange is surely apocryphal.

So, too, is the presumed effect of the “Cronkite Moment” which, like the story about Hearst’s famous vow, is “succinct, savory, and easily remembered.”  It reputedly demonstrates the potency of broadcast journalism.

The “Cronkite Moment” was, I point out in Getting It Wrong, purportedly “an occasion when the power of television news was unequivocally confirmed,” a rare, pivotal moment when a truth-telling broadcast demonstrated the folly of a faraway war.

Perlstein writes in Mother Jones:

“Walter Cronkite traveled to Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, saw things with his own eyes, and told the truth: The Vietnam War was stuck in a disastrous stalemate, no matter what the government said. That was a watershed.”

Well, no, it wasn’t.

Cronkite did indeed travel to Vietnam in February 1968 and upon his return to the United States aired an hour-long special report about the war, in which he concluded that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations offered the best way out.

But “mired in stalemate,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was neither notable nor extraordinary” by February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s report aired. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his study of the year 1968, Cronkite’s assessment was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, months before the program, the New York Times had been using “stalemate” to describe the war in Vietnam.

On July 4, 1967, for example, the Times said this about the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in a front-page analysis published August 7, 1967, the Times declared “the war is not going well.” Victory “is not close at hand.”

The Times published the analysis beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

And in an editorial published October 29, 1967, the Times offered this assessment:

“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite – on both sides – to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” represented no watershed, no assessment of exceptional and stunning clarity. Cronkite said as much in his memoir, which was published in 1997. He wrote that his special report represented for President Lyndon B. Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

In fact, public opinion had begun shifting away from supporting the war months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

It’s often said that Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” interpretation, snapped off the television set and said something to the effect of:

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

LBJ: Not watching TV

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report went it aired. The president at that time wasn’t in front of a television set. And he certainly wasn’t lamenting the loss of Cronkite’s support. Indeed, it is hard to fathom how he could have been much moved by a show he did not see.

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

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


Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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