W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Cronkite Moment’

Cronkite did all that? The anchorman, the president, and the Vietnam War

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on August 23, 2020 at 6:07 am

The endless appeal of media-driven myths rests largely in affirming that journalists are powerful actors whose work and words can exert great and decisive effects on war, politics, and public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam

This thread runs through all prominent media myths, from William Randolph Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century to the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, that exposés by two Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The thread also defines the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the Vietnam War.

Cronkite’s assessment, which came after he visited what then was South Vietnam in the wake of the communist-led Tet offensive, was unremarkable for the times. Even so, it has taken on legendary status as a moment of telling unvarnished truth to power, as an occasion when an anchorman’s words brought clarity to a President who, as if in an epiphany, realized his war policy was a shambles.

Journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote of Cronkite’s assessment, “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Cronkite of course had declared no such thing and the war in Vietnam ground on until 1975. But Halberstam’s hyperbole is emblematic of the mythical proportions the “Cronkite Moment” has reached.

Late August brings the anniversary and inevitable reminders of the bloody 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. The approach of the anniversary this year was the occasion for the Guardian of London to post an essay of reminiscences by a photographer who was there.

What particularly interested Media Myth Alert was this passage, crediting Cronkite with decisive influence and power:

“President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the years-long Vietnam war, chose not to run for re-election after a critical editorial by the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, the man then dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Losing Cronkite’s confidence, Johnson believed he had lost Middle America as well.”

There’s much to unpack and dismantle in those two sentences, which imply that Cronkite’s assessment about the war, offered in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, led Johnson not to seek reelection.

But we know that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired. The President that night was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for a long-time political ally, John Connally. And it is not clear whether, when, or under what circumstances Johnson may have seen the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, the power of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” resides in the immediate, unexpected, and visceral effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect likely would have been muted or absent had Johnson seen the program, or excerpts, on videotape.

Even if he did screen the program on videotape soon after February 27, it is clear Johnson did not take Cronkite’s assessment to heart. In the days and weeks afterward, the president mounted a vigorous public defense of his war policy. In mid-March 1968, for example, he told a meeting of business leaders 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.”

Two days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Not only that, but the anchorman’s characterization of “stalemate” was hardly novel in late February 1968.

The term had been invoked frequently by critics — and for months before Cronkite’s program — to describe the war. In early August 1967, the New York Times published a lengthy, front page news analysis about the war beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The analysis, filed from Vietnam by R.W. Apple Jr., said in part:

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

The essay won Apple an Overseas Press Club award.

What tipped Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 were his declining political fortunes and the views of an informal group of advisers — and not, as the Guardian essay suggests, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

By the end of March 1968, when he announced he would not run for another term, Johnson had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary election to an antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. And an even more formidable rival for the Democratic party nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had entered the race. Johnson was becoming a spent force, politically.

His informal advisers, collectively known as the “Wise Men,” had gathered in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s war policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” one adviser, George Ball, later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted.

A few days afterward, Johnson announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection.

The Guardian essay also claims that Cronkite was known at the time as “the most trusted man in America.”

In fact, that characterization was applied to him years after 1968 — when CBS publicists touted him as such in advertising the network’s Election Night news coverage in 1972.

Their basis? A survey conducted that year of 8,780 respondents in 18 states by the pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company. The poll sought to assess and compare levels of public trust among U.S. politicians. Oddly, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaningn that he was being compared to the likes of Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent, which as media critic Jack Shafer once noted, “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.” The generic “average senator” came in second at 67 percent.

CBS publicists nonetheless embraced the survey’s results. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads encouraged readers to tune into the CBS election coverage — and proclaimed Cronkite the “most trusted American in public life.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

 

Of Trump’s chances and Mark Twain’s ‘exaggerated’ quip

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2020 at 6:59 am

CNN (really) offered not long ago one of the more coherent recent assessments about the unfolding election campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

A commentary by two Democratic analysts argued against prematurely dismissing Trump’s chances of winning reelection, despite the polls of July that overwhelmingly are in Biden’s favor.

Twain in 1907

“It seems,” wrote Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan, “that Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.

“Those declaring Trump politically finished,” they added, “should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that ‘the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.‘”

The analysis  is persuasive; but what most interests Media Myth Alert is the remark attributed to Twain, the American humorist and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens.

The quotation itself is exaggerated — as it has been over the years — and is more emphatic than it really was.

What Twain said in an interview in early June 1897 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was subdued. Flat, even.

“The report of my death,” he simply said, “was an exaggeration.”

The more evocative version that appeared in the CNN commentary is not unusual. Twain’s line often has been presented as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Or “grossly exaggerated.” And sometimes the Journal is said to have been the source of the erroneous report, not its prompt and thorough debunking.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s comment was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

The Herald reported Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain at the time was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for Hearst’s Journal. That association allowed the Journal to quickly knock down the Herald‘s story.

In a front-page article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald‘s account as false and presented Twain’s straightforward “exaggeration” comment.

The Journal’s article, which carried the byline of Frank Marshall White, began this way:

“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him … of he report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

“He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children, and has only this week finished the narrative of his recent travels ….”

After invoking the remark about the “report of my death was an exaggeration,” White further quoted Twain as saying: “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Interesting, all that, but why bother with an exaggerated, long-ago quotation?

One reason is that quote-distortion happens often, to Twain and other prominent figures.

As I discussed in a chapter in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” For many reasons, the well-known, often-invoked comment is surely apocryphal. Yet it lives on as an presumptive evidence of Hearst’s war-mongering ways in the late 19th century.

Consider, too, the unlikely remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared in February 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was stalemated. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president supposedly uttered in response to Cronkite’s televised comment, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong:

“Bogus quotations share many of the defining features of media-driven myths: They tend to be concise and simplistic, easy to remember, fun to retell, tenacious, and often thinly sourced.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Even in a pandemic, media myths play on

In 'Napalm girl', Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth on April 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

The U.S. news media have scarcely distinguished themselves in reporting the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 54,000 Americans since spreading from Wuhan, China, early this year. Criticism abounds about the substance and tone of the media’s reporting.

Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll late last month ranked the media last among American leaders and institutions in their response to the coronavirus.

Watergate myth will never die

Even amid a pandemic, peddling media myths — those prominent stories about and/or by the media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal — has proven irresistible to some news outlets.

Familiar media myths about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, the exaggerated influence of the “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972, and the hero-journalist trope of the Watergate scandal all have circulated in recent weeks.

Their appearance signals not only how ingrained these myths become in American media; it also suggests an eagerness among journalists to believe their field can project decisive influence.

Take, for example, a lengthy recent article in USA Today about staggering death tolls the country has endured before the coronavirus, in wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks.

The article mentioned the Vietnam War, which claimed 58,000 American lives, and said the conflict “had a notable turning point in the court of public opinion. It happened when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said in a 1968 broadcast that he believed the war was, at best, a ‘stalemate.’ Weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.”

No evidence was offered for the “turning point” claim; no evidence was presented for the presumptive link to Johnson’s not running for another term.

On both counts, in fact, the evidence runs the other way.

Cronkite’s editorial statement, delivered in late February 1968, that the Vietnam War was stalemated was hardly a novel interpretation. “Stalemate” had been in circulation for months to characterize the conflict.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, polling by Gallup indicated that the turning point in public opinion came in Fall 1967, about 4 1/2 months before Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment. By then, and for the first time, a plurality of Americans said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam.

Other appraisals similarly indicated the turning point came in the second half of 1967.

At the end of that year, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, described what he called “a time of switching” in Summer and Fall 1967, “when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

In a very real sense, then, Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation was a matter of his following, rather than leading, American public opinion as it turned against the war.

Additionally, the USA Today article suggested that in Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment about the war, President Johnson “sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.” But Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired; the President at the time was at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Governor John Connally, in Austin, Texas.

And there’s no certain evidence about when or whether he saw the Cronkite program on videotape at some later date.

Factors other than Cronkite’s program weighed more powerfully in discouraging Johnson from seeking reelection. Notably, he faced a serious internal challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. The latter entered the race for president after McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating defeats in primary elections after New Hampshire’s, Johnson quit the race.

The war Vietnam gave rise to other tenacious media myths, especially those associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph taken in June 1972. The image showed a clutch of children fleeing a napalm strike on Trang Bang, their village in what then was South Vietnam.

Near the center of the photograph was a naked 9-year-old girl, screaming from her wounds.

It is said the photograph was so powerful that it swung U.S. public opinion against the war (in fact, as we’ve seen, it turned years before June 1972) and hastened an end to the conflict (in fact, the war went on till April 1975). Another myth of the “Napalm Girl” image was that it showed the effects of a U.S. aerial attack (also false: a warplane of the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped the napalm).

To that lineup of myth, the National Interest introduced another powerful effect — namely, that  the “Napalm Girl” image “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The post, however, offered no evidence of a linkage between the photograph and views about flamethrowers — which did not figure in the aerial attack at Trang Bang.

By email, I asked the editor of the National Interest for elaboration about the claim, saying: “I am interested in evidence such as public opinion polling that demonstrates or points to a linkage.”

I further wrote:

“I ask because I have addressed and disputed other claims about the photograph’s presumed impact — notably that it hastened an end to the Vietnam War, that it turned public opinion against the conflict, and that it showed the effects of a U.S. napalm attack on South Vietnam.”

The email was sent nearly three weeks ago. The editor has never replied.

Then there’s the dominant narrative of Watergate, the ever-enticing notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post uncovered evidence that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. It’s a myth that has survived scoffing and rejection by principals at the Post — Woodward among them.

As he told an interviewer in 2004:

To say that the press brought Nixon, that’s horseshit.

In less earthier terms, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate scandal, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Against that tableau, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

And yet, the hero-journalist myth lives on — as suggested the other day in a column by the entertainment critic for the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. The column presented a rundown about the top films with a journalism theme. Atop the critic’s list was All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous, best-selling book.

It’s the “best newspaper picture ever,” the Journal Star critic wrote, declaring that movie showed how Woodward and Bernstein “ferreted out the Watergate scandal and brought down a president.”

And brought down a president.

Right.

The hero-journalist trope of Watergate knows few bounds. It’s surely one of those media myths that’s never going to die.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

‘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

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2018

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Reviews, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2018 to the not-infrequent appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October 2019, will mark its 10th anniversary:

WaPo’s hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’ (posted May 27): The year brought more than a few credulous references to the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” which is derived from Walter Cronkite’s peroration in a special report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. war effort was stalemated and suggested negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Cronkite in Vietnam

In a page-long look back at the “Cronkite Moment,” the Washington Post in late May praised the anchorman’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam” and asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson “was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That purported quotation, I noted in discussing the Post’s hagiographic retrospective, “is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.”

We know that Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, Johnson may have watched the program at some later date on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s remarks (if he even heard of them). In a series of public events in the first three weeks of March 1968, the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy and endeavored to rally popular support for the war.

So even if he did see Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson gave no indication of having been moved by the anchorman’s “stalemate” message — which was a rather tepid assessment for the time. Just 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.”

The “bitter taste of defeat”: No dithering there about “stalemate.”

A media myth convergence and the ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph (posted May 20): Sometimes, media myths converge.

Sometimes a number of media outlets, separately and independently, invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at roughly the same time.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It’s an occurrence that confirms the wide reach of prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

The famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by a photographer for the Associated Press, was the  subject of a myth convergence in May: Within a few days, the National newspaper in Scotland, the online economic news site Quartz, the left-wing news site Truthdig, and the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa all invoked aspects of the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph; the image shows a cluster of children, screaming as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam.

As I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the myths surrounding the famous photograph are tenacious and include the erroneous notions that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, that it hastened an end to the conflict, and that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

The National claimed that the photograph “dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War.” Quartz made a somewhat similar claim, saying the image “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig was more vague, saying the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.” Sunday Times invoked the pernicious claim that the photograph depicted results of a “US napalm strike.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972. And the claim of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack has been invoked so often and blithely as to become insidious. But it was no “US napalm strike.” The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop, I wrote in another post in 2018, has “served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.”

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie (posted January 2): Steven Spielberg’s The Post featured the talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, was cheered by many critics, but won no major cinematic awards.

That may have been due to its incongruous story line: The movie centered around the disclosures in 1971 about the U.S. government’s classified history of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers. But the focus was not on the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for first reporting about the secret archive. The movie instead was about the newspaper that didn’t break the story, the newspaper that followed the disclosures of the New York Times.

The Post was a fawning look at the Washington Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor. The movie suggested they risked jail time for publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers after the Times had been temporarily blocked from continuing its disclosures.

The movie makes “a heroic statement,” I noted in writing about The Post, “but the emphasis is misplaced.

“To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect.”

It was the Times, after all, that took greatest risks in reporting on the Pentagon Papers; the prospect of Graham and Bradlee’s going to jail for following up on the Timesdisclosures was remote at best.

Not only was The Post’s story line a hard sell, the acting wasn’t stellar. Hanks was mediocre in playing a rumpled Bradlee; the character spoke in a strange and distracting accent that seemed vaguely Southern.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham was cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham was depicted as weak, confused, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being publisher. But then abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham found backbone and gave the order to publish.

It was all quite melodramatic, and not very convincing.

Journalism review in need of journalism history lesson (posted November 16): Columbia Journalism Review seeks to present itself as “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

It didn’t demonstrate much intellectual leadership in publishing an essay that invoked the hoary myth of Edward R. Murrow’s having “exposed” the lies and exaggerations of the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, in a half-hour television program in March 1954.

Red-baiting senator

As I pointed out in addressing the CJR essay, Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist, “took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.”

Those other journalists included the muckraking syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, who challenged McCarthy beginning in February 1950, or more than four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy became so perturbed by Pearson’s persistent questioning and probing that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. (Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.)

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate soon after the confrontation to condemn Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

So by the time Murrow devoted his “See It Now” program to McCarthy, the senator’s claims about communists having infiltrated the federal government were well-known, as were his bullying tactics. His popularity was on the skids by then, too.

Airing a critical report about McCarthy in March 1954 was more belated than courageous.

Columbia Journalism Review touted Murrow’s mythical role on other occasions — notably in an essay in July 2016 that invoked the broadcaster’s program on McCarthy as a precedent for journalists seeking to suspend professional detachment in reporting on Donald Trump and his campaign for president.

The fading of a media myth? Not so fast (posted October 30): The run-up to Halloween this year was marked by noticeably few media references to mass panic and hysteria that supposedly swept the United States during and right after the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel that told of a deadly invasion of Earth by Mars.

It’s become pretty clear that Americans weren’t pitched into panic by the hour-long program that aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, some listeners may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program as clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the myth of radio-induced panic usually emerges predictably in the run-up to Halloween.

Except for this year, when credulous media references to the “panic broadcast” seemed fewer, and seemed overwhelmed by searching commentary that rejected the notion the show created panic and hysteria. All of which prompted a Media Myth Alert post that asked, optimistically:

“Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?”

Such optimism was dashed not long after the anniversary when the New York Times published a commentary asserting that the “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

Clearly, the media myth of the “panic broadcast” hadn’t been interred.

Interestingly, the Times’ reference to “widespread panic” hinted at confusion within the newspaper’s op-ed section: At the anniversary of the broadcast, the Times had posted an online commentary that declared the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

In any event, the dashed optimism about the “panic broadcast” offered fresh confirmation that no media myth ever completely dies away.

Myths after all tend to be too delicious to be completely discredited.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2018:

 

Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Hagiographic WaPo and the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post on May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

At one point in a long and credulous look back at Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War, the Washington Post this weekend likens the former CBS News anchorman to “an intercontinental ballistic missile of objectivity.”

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That’s a sample of the hagiographic tone of the Post’s retrospective, which centers around the media myth of Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 about the Vietnam War, in which he described the U.S. military as “mired in stalemate” there.

The Post presents a number of dubious claims about the effects of what it says were Cronkite’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s words were hardly that.

His description about the war as a “stalemate” was neither daring nor novel. As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, American journalists for months before Cronkite’s program had invoked “stalemate” to characterize the war. In early August 1967, or more than six months before Cronkite’s report, the New York Times published a front-page analysis from Vietnam about the war, beneath the headline, “Signs of Stalemate.”

“The analysis said:

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

A month before that, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times 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 “stalemate” then was a very undramatic, and even conventional, way of characterizing the war.

In invoking “stalemate,” Cronkite certainly was not as “daring” or pointed as the Wall Street Journal had been on its editorial page a few days before. The newspaper declared 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.”

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book-length year-study of 1968, Cronkite’s “stalemate” critique was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

The Post’s takeout further claims that “President Johnson was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That claim is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

So why is the notion that Johnson was deflated, or worse, an erroneous interpretation?

For starters, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, the president may  have seen the show at some later date on videotape.

Rather than treating Cronkite’s remarks as some sort of epiphany, Johnson in effect shrugged them off and, in a succession of public events in the days and weeks afterward, endeavored to rally popular support for the war in Vietnam.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the president in the aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” gave several speeches in which he stoutly defended his war policy.

In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told 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.”

Two days after that, Johnson traveled to Minneapolis to deliver a rousing speech to the National Farmers Union convention, during which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Punctuating his remarks in Minneapolis by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air, Johnson declared, “We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” He disparaged critics of the war as inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

And a day after that, Johnson declared in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

So even if he had seen Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment” gave no indication of having embraced the anchorman’s message. The president certainly wasn’t taking a policy lead from Cronkite’s unoriginal characterization of the war.

The Post’s writeup quotes Douglas Brinkley, author of a glowing, hagiographic treatment of the Cronkite, as saying the broadcast journalist on his trip to Vietnam in early 1968 “was just doing the gumshoe reporting all over Vietnam and the print reporters all swooned over Cronkite for doing it.”

All swooned?

No way.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam was not remembered fondly by all war correspondents then in Vietnam. George McArthur, a veteran journalist for the Associated Press, years later recalled Cronkite’s visit to the imperial city, Hue, the scene fierce fighting during the Tet offensive” in early 1968.

“’Cronkite is not one of my heroes,” McArthur said. “When Cronkite broadcast in Hue during the Tet offensive, he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This was his famous trip when he supposedly changed his mind [about the war]. Baloney. He’d made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon, and he was up on top of our [diplomatic] mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a … bulletproof vest and a tin pot [helmet]. And I was up there doing my laundry.”

McArthur’s incisive recollections were included in George W. Smith’s 1999 book, The Siege at Hue, and posted online in 2012.

The Post‘s essay also claims “something did pivot when Cronkite crossed the line into opinion. Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment.” But what pivoted? And how do we know that “Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment”? The Post really doesn’t say. It’s assertion, without evidence.

The mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment took more, of course, than the on-air declarations of a 50-something anchorman. Indeed, the antiwar movement was “a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed,” as an essay posted last year at the New York Times’ online opinion site argued. The movement, the essay added, was defined by four overlapping stages — none of which featured or centered around  the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Convergence encore: Now the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on May 22, 2018 at 2:05 pm

Wasn’t I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the same time?

Well, here we are again.

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

This time the Federalist online magazine, in a roundup posted today about memorable cases of media misreporting, invoked what is known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, which centers around a prime-time special report by CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

The broadcast, which Cronkite based on a reporting trip to Vietnam, aired February 27, 1968. At the program’s close, Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

The Federalist essay says “the proclamations he made on his broadcast that night — to which President Johnson is said to have reacted with ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ — were dubious at best, and not at all based on fact.”

“Dubious at best”? That’s arguable, especially as the war was widely regarded as having lapsed into a stalemate in 1967.

But what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s visceral purported reaction — “‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!'”

It’s the stuff of a tenacious media myth.

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, that night, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” assessment (which was decidedly unoriginal), Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The show was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat analysis while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort.

The Federalist had company in invoking the mythical Cronkite-Johnson claim. The CBS outlet in Boston, WBZ, also turned to the myth today, stating in a post by the station’s political analyst:

“There’s a famous story from the Vietnam War era about the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, known back then as ‘the most respected man in America,’ as hard as that might be for today’s news consumers to imagine. When President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite deliver a scathing report about the progress of the war, he reportedly turned to an aide and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

Actually, the report wasn’t so “scathing.” Cronkite’s assessments were, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “somewhat muddled and far less emphatic than those offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. ‘The war,’ McGee declared on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, ‘is being lost by the administration’s definition.'”

Not “mired in stalemate.” “Being lost.”

It is impossible, moreover, to know whether Cronkite was “the most respected man in America” in 1968. He was sometimes called “the most trusted man in America” — but was so anointed in 1972, in Election Day advertisements CBS placed in major U.S. newspapers.

Media myths can converge in another fashion — as when a single article or essay offers up more than one tall tale about media power or media failings. And that takes us back to the Federalist essay, which also invokes the hoary myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain 120 years ago.

The essay declares that “Hearst sent famed American artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to check on the progress of a rumored rebellion against the Spanish government there.

Hearst: Denied sending message

“Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that read ‘Everything quiet here. There is no trouble. There will be no war. Wish to return.’ Hearst famously replied ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Less than a month later, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana.”

Let’s unpack the errors in those few sentences.

First, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule was hardly a “rumored” conflict. It was very real, having begun in early 1895. By the time Remington arrived in Havana in early 1897, the rebellion had reached islandwide proportions, prompting Spain to send about 200,000 troops to Cuba.

Additionally, the essay’s sequencing is off: Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897; the USS Maine blew up in February 1898, more than a year later.

Moreover, that telegrams were exchanged has never been proven. Hearst denied having sent such a message to Remington, and Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which gained wide circulation beginning in the mid-1930s, long after the artist’s death.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst 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.

It lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

It is highly likely that Hearst’s purported telegram (had it been sent) would have been intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their surveillance, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

An incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been seized upon and called out by Spanish authorities as an example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

But they made no such outcry.

So what does the latest published convergence of media myths tell us?

It certainly testifies to the hardiness of media myths, and to their enduring accessibility. It reminds us that media myths, which fundamentally are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity, can be too apt and too tempting to be checked out.

They can seem almost too good not to be true.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment” — a fitting occasion to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is but a hoary if tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s 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.

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as 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 seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. 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.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, 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 he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like 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 shifting 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 the now-defunct Media Studies Journal 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 Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely 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.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

%d bloggers like this: