W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Daily Beast’

Kurtz invokes ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in reviewing new Cronkite biography

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Media critic Howard Kurtz invokes one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths in a review today about the forthcoming biography of Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman from 1962-81.

Out soon

Kurtz writes in the review, which is posted at the Daily Beast:

“As everyone from presidents to astronauts catered to him, Cronkite used that access to drive unflinching coverage of civil rights, corruption, and especially the morass of Vietnam — when his own reporting led him to declare that ill-fated conflict a stalemate. When LBJ said that ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,’ he was acknowledging that a single newsman had the power to change a national narrative.”

It’s highly arguable whether Cronkite “had the power to change a national narrative.”

But first, that mythical “I’ve lost Cronkite” quotation.

As I discuss in my latest my book, Getting It Wrong, there is no compelling, first-hand evidence that LBJ — President Lyndon B. Johnson — ever uttered the comment about losing Cronkite.  (Douglas Brinkley, author of the Cronkite biography, writes in the latest issue of American Heritage magazine that Johnson “probably didn’t” make such a statement. The evidence is far more persuasive than “probably didn’t,” though.)

Legend has it that Johnson said something of the sort in reacting to Cronkite’s special televised report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. At the close of the broadcast, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

Johnson, supposedly, watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s assessment, the president snapped off the television set and declared to an aide or aides:

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

Or, as Kurtz writes, the president said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or something to that effect. Versions vary (and version variability of such magnitude is a signal of a media myth).

The power of that broadcast stems from the immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s critique supposedly had on the president.

It is, though, exceedingly unlikely that Johnson had any reaction of the sort. After all, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the president wasn’t in front of a television set that night.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time the anchorman intoned his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t lamenting any loss of support from Cronkite. 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.”

So it’s difficult to fathom how Johnson could have had much moved by a television program he didn’t see. Or ever discussed with Cronkite.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that Johnson’s supposedly “self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply” with his contemporaneous characterizations of the war.

“Hours before the Cronkite program,” I write, “Johnson delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms. It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”

In that speech, Johnson declared:

“Persevere in Vietnam we will, and we must.” The militancy of the president’s remarks render the purported despairing comment about having “lost Cronkite” all the more improbable.

Even if Johnson later heard — or heard about— Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment, it would have come as no epiphany. “Stalemate,” after all, had been bruited for months in Washington policy circles and in South Vietnam.

Indeed, less than three weeks before Cronkite’s televised commentary, the New York Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The phrasing seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s on-air assessment, in which he declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

In any case, Johnson didn’t turn dovish in the days following Cronkite’s report. Not long after the program, the president delivered a lectern-thumping speech in Minnesota in which he urged a “total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace,” Johnson said on that occasion, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So publicly, at least, Johnson remained hawkish in the immediate aftermath of the Cronkite program.

And as for Kurtz’s claim that Cronkite possessed singular power “to change a national narrative”? Cronkite, himself, didn’t much buy into that notion, not in the context of his 1968 report on Vietnam.

For example, Cronkite said in 1997 in promoting his memoir that the program’s effect on Johnson was akin to “a very small straw on a very heavy load he was already carrying.” Hardly narrative-changing.

(In the years just before his death in 2009, Cronkite did begin to embrace the purported impact of his 1968 program.)

In any event, public opinion polls indicated that Americans were turning against the Vietnam War by autumn 1967, well before the Cronkite report.

As Daniel C. Hallin memorably wrote in the former Media Studies Journal in 1998:

“Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”


Recent and related:

A media myth eruption: WaPo, Watergate, and Nixon’s fall

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 30, 2011 at 4:55 am

Bimbo eruptions” was the memorably colorful term invoked during the 1992 presidential campaign by Betsey Wright, an aide to presidential candidate Bill Clinton, to describe the suspicions and potential allegations about Clinton’s womanizing.

Sure, he did

The past couple of days have brought an eruption of media myth — notably, the rich and appealing tale that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Not even the Post buys into that simplistic and media-centric interpretation. As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman correctly noted in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

(More coarsely, Woodward himself has declared: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Even so, the media myth about Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post — the heroic-journalist myth, as I describe it in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — is so delicious and compelling that it lives on and on, as this recent eruption attests.

Figuring in the media myth eruption have been:

  • The Daily Beast, which rhetorically asked in a commentary yesterday about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media in Britain: “Did Woodward and Bernstein need [phone-hackers and private investigators] to bring down Richard Nixon?”
  • The Daily Mirror  tabloid in Britain declared in an article posted online today that “Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.”
  • Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, which declared passage in an editorial about Murdoch’s troubles in Britain: “The Washington Post toppled President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.”
  • The publisher of the North Platte Telegraph in Nebraska, who in a column the other day referred to the “early 1970s when the Post brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon using primarily an unnamed source.” That was a reference to Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The appearance of the heroic-journalist myth in such diverse outlets and contexts is testifies to how deeply embedded the tale has become in the popular consciousness.

And why is that?

The heroic-journalist myth, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, is “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Rather that attempting to keep straight the dimensions of a scandal that began to break nearly 40 years ago, it is fair easier to embrace the proxy version — the simplified narrative that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon, with help from the “Deep Throat” source.

The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret — and the subject of much speculation and many guessing games — until 2005 when W. Mark Felt and his family announced that Felt, a former FBI official, had been Woodward’s mysterious source.

The heroic-journalist myth lives on because it’s such a reassuring narrative for the news media — a tale that describes the news media at their supposed best, a time when their reporting made a powerful difference in national life.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the Post and its reporters exposed the Watergate scandal “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a comforting trope about a purported triumph for a profession that’s more accustomed to scorn and condemnation than applause and approbation.

But it’s no less a media myth.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

%d bloggers like this: