W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Columnist’

WSJ columnist, trying to explain Trump, trips over Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on August 30, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Peggy Noonan, the prominent weekend columnist for the Wall Street Journal, attempts in her latest commentary to explain the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump — and in doing so trips over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan (Harvard University)

That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in visceral reaction said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; he was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally. Nor is there evidence the president watched Cronkite’s report on videotape at some later date.

So it’s hard to imagine how the president could have been much moved by a TV program he did not see.

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War.

“Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite’s report. For example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Which takes us to Noonan, formerly a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She opens her column this weekend by writing: “So, more thoughts on Donald Trump’s candidacy, because I can’t stop being fascinated.”

The Trump phenomenon, she argues, signals that “[s]omething is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways” in American political life.

She also invokes Trump’s recent news conference confrontation with Jorge Ramos, the showboating anchorman for Univision. At the news conference, he refused to wait his turn in posing a question and was escorted from the room. Ramos was allowed back in a short time later.

Noonan, whose columns invariably lean on personal anecdotes, mentions an acquaintance named “Cesar,” a Dominican immigrant who works at a New York City grocery and who, she says, is more impressed by Trump than Ramos.

Cesar’s views, Noonan suggests, may be representative of the shifting political contours.

“Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America,” she writes. “New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may seem odd, indirect, and even a bit confusing, given the context. But there’s no doubt she was treating as genuine one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

The “Cronkite Moment” indeed is one of journalism’s favored and most compelling stories, as it tells how a perceptive and courageous anchorman could effect powerful change.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

After all, Cronkite’s assessment is often said to have shifted U.S. public opinion about the Vietnam War.

Except that it didn’t.

That shift had taken place months earlier, and was detected when a plurality of respondents to a Gallup survey in October 1967 characterized as a mistake the Johnson administration’s decision to send U.S. troops to Vietnam.

A little more than two years earlier, in August 1965, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had reported softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall 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.”

Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite in early 1968 was following rather than leading public opinion on the war.


More from Media Myth Alert:

He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Cohen (NYTimes photo)

Roger Cohen, a twice-a-week foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, stirred murmured commentary not long by defending Rupert Murdoch as a phone-hacking scandal swirled around the tycoon’s media holdings in Britain.

“If you add everything up,” Cohen wrote about the tough, old media mogul, “he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.”

Maybe Cohen was being contrarian. Or maybe he didn’t quite grasp what the scandal says about Murdoch and his corporate management.

In a more recent column, Cohen revealed that he’s not fully up to speed with the revised interpretation of Zhou Enlai’s famous comment in 1972 that “it’s too early” to discern the implications of upheaval in France.

The conventional interpretation is that Zhou was speaking about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

As such, his comment suggests a sagacity and a long view of history seldom matched by Western leaders.

Recent evidence has emerged, however, that says Zhou was referring not to the French Revolution but to the more recent political unrest that rocked France in 1968.

The new evidence was offered last month by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired U.S. diplomat who a was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman discussed the context of Zhou’s remark last month at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. London’s Financial Times was first to report on the revised interpretation that Freeman offered about Zhou’s comment.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said that Zhou made the remark during a discussion about revolutions that had failed or succeeded.

He pointed out that it was clear from the context that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to upheaval in France in May 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s misinterpreted comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” adding that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.

And it’s not infrequently repeated.

Cohen invoked the conventional interpretation late last week, in a column that began this way:

“When I asked Gen. David H. Petraeus what the biggest U.S. mistake of the past decade has been, he did a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution number to the effect that it was too early to say.

“The outgoing commander in Afghanistan and incoming Central Intelligence Agency chief is adept at politics,” Cohen wrote, “one reason he’s the object of the sort of political speculation once reserved for Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the face of the military to most Americans before Petraeus assumed that role later in the post-9/11 era.”

The passage, “he did a Zhou Enlai,” suggests how irresistible Zhou’s misconstrued remark really is — a quality that’s typical of quotations that seem just too highly polished.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Among the myths is the remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who after watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic, on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam aired on CBS television on February 27, 1968.

The president wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

At about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was quipping:

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


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