W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Version variability’

Confused and illogical: WaPo commentary on effects of ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Washington Post on March 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

The Washington Post today offers one of the more baffling and illogical characterizations of the supposed effects of Walter Cronkite’s mythical report about Vietnam, which aired in February 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite’s assessment supposedly was so exceptional, so influential on American policy and politics, that it has come to be call the “Cronkite Moment.”

A commentary in today’s Post addresses that occasion in a broader discussion of hostility between the news media and the White House. In referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the commentary says:

“Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.”

How’s that? Johnson “did not see” the Cronkite report; even so, it packed such wallop that Johnson knew without watching that he had “lost Cronkite”?

Who’s editing this stuff?

Not only is that passage confused and illogical: It’s historically inaccurate.

Let’s unpack the passage:

  • Cronkite’s report was aired February 27, 1968, on CBS television. In closing, the anchorman offered the comparatively mild assessment that U.S. forces were “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — an assessment reflecting the conventional wisdom that had been circulating for months among the news media in Washington and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
  • Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report: When it aired, the president was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John B. Connally, a long-time political ally.
  • There’s no persuasive evidence or documentation that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement.  Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and such variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.
  • Nearly five weeks after Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war had nothing to do with Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection (see below).

In the days following Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war in Vietnam. In mid-March 1968, for example, he traveled Minnesota to deliver a rousing speech in which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

Johnson punctuated his remarks in Minnesota by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air. “We love nothing more than peace,” he declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” The president disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection stemmed from at least two sources: his health and his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.

There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967 or before, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency in part because of concerns about his health. “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, “I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Johnson’s announcement not to seek another term came after insurgent Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy had won more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary on March 12, 1968, and after had Johnson nemesis Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic nomination on March 16.

Johnson, moreover, was facing near-certain defeat in the Wisconsin primary, on April 2, 1968.

Those were considerations weighing on Johnson on March 31, 1968, when he said he would not seek reelection. Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, were not a factor.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the purported “Cronkite Moment,” when scrutinized, “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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If Obama loses AP: Rush Limbaugh embraces media myths two days running

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Rush Limbaugh attracts the largest talk-show audiences on radio. Which is why it’s troubling when he indulges in media myths, as he’s done the past two days.

THUMB_RushLimbaugh

Limbaugh

Program transcripts show that Limbaugh made clear if passing references to the “Cronkite Moment,” the 45th anniversary of which falls tomorrow, and to the hero-journalist myth that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Limbaugh on today’s program called attention to an Associated Press report that skeptically considered President Barack Obama’s claims of great disruption should federal government spending cuts, collectively known as the sequester, take effect beginning Friday.

Limbaugh, according to the program transcript, declared that “if Obama is losing AP on this, it’d be like Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite on the war in Vietnam.”

The reference was to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment, delivered February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite

Cronkite

Upon hearing Cronkite’s comment, Johnson supposedly understood that his war policy was in tatters and declared: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s program when it aired.

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. And at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president was making light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

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

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

The importance of the debunking the “Cronkite Moment” goes beyond whether Johnson saw the program; far more significant is the anecdote’s deceptive message that a prominent journalist can profoundly alter policy.

Altering war policy certainly wasn’t the effect of Cronkite’s program 45 years ago. Even Cronkite likened the program’s influence to that of a straw placed on the back of a crippled camel.

Johnson did announce at the end of March 1968 that he was not seeking reelection to the presidency. But that decision had far more to do with his health and the prospect that Democrats would not renominate him than with Cronkite’s fairly tame and unoriginal commentary about Vietnam.

Limbaugh invoked Watergate’s hero-journalist trope in discussing the sequester during his program yesterday, stating flatly:

“Woodward brought down Nixon.”

He was referring to the supposed effects of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

But that’s a myth not even Woodward embraces.

Woodward: 'Horseshit'

Woodward

In 2004, for example, Woodward told American Journalism Review, “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And on another occasion, in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

Other principals at the Post have over the years similarly dismissed such outsize claims.

If not Woodward and his reporting sidekick Carl Bernstein, then who, or what, brought down Richard Nixon?

The best answer is that unraveling a scandal of the reach and complexity of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings” in 1974, making inevitable an early end to his presidency.

In the end, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was of faint consequence to Watergate’s dramatic outcome.

It merits mentioning that there’s no small irony in Limbaugh’s giving voice to these media myths.

He is, after all, a prominent conservative commentator and the “Cronkite Moment” and the Watergate myth center around journalists and news organizations commonly associated with liberal views.

WJC

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Recalling George Romney’s ‘brainwashing’ — and Gene McCarthy’s ‘light rinse’ retort

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on September 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm

It’s been 45 years since George Romney committed one of the greatest gaffes in American political history — a misstep that supposedly inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history.

Interestingly, though, crucial details about the devastating putdown remain rather murky.

Romney’s gaffe, which effectively destroyed his run for the presidency before it officially began, came in an interview taped on August 31, 1967, and aired September 4, 1967, on a Detroit television station.

In the interview, Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive Republican candidate for president, referred to his visit to South Vietnam in 1965 and declared:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

The assertion that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam revealed Romney’s muddled thinking and an uncertain command of foreign policy. (“Could the country afford a President who was so easily deceived?” the New York Times wondered.)

Forty-five years on, Romney’s comment remains striking both for clumsiness and self-destructiveness. And it’s been recalled not infrequently in recent months as Romney’s son, Mitt, has campaigned for the presidency.

When it is recalled, the “brainwashing” gaffe often is coupled with the stiletto-like rejoinder attributed to Eugene McCarthy, then a second-term U.S. senator from Minnesota.

McCarthy supposedly said that rather than brainwashing, “a light rinse” would have sufficed in Romney’s case.

There is no question about Romney’s having made the “brainwashing” claim; this YouTube video cuts to the money quote:

The anecdote’s memorable quality lies not only in Romney’s befuddled claim but also in McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip. Indeed, McCarthy’s retort is said to have been so powerful that it “essentially finished Romney.”

But the precise context of McCarthy’s “light rinse” zinger is at best unclear. My research has turned up no unambiguous documentation about when McCarthy made the comment, where, and specifically to whom.

(And why does this matter? Getting it right matters a lot, especially about an insult so piercing and effective that it lives on like few others in American political lore.)

A database search of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to McCarthy’s “light rinse” remark in 1967 or 1968, or for many years afterward.

The nearest contemporaneous hint to a “light rinse” came in a commentary published in mid-September 1967 in the Los Angeles Times, in which conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick said of Romney:

“Brainwashed, was he? It couldn’t have been much of a laundry bill.”

Kilpatrick’s column did not mention McCarthy, who wasn’t prominently in the news in September 1967. McCarthy did not announce his candidacy for president until November that year.

The first reference found in the database search to the “light rinse” comment  was in a commentary written by Fred Barnes and published in Baltimore Sun in April 1983. Barnes’ commentary, however, did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the “light rinse” line.

The “light rinse” anecdote notably has been afflicted with version variability — my term for the shifting of important details as a story is retold over the years. As I point out in my 2010 book,  Getting It Wrong, version variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

Here are a few examples of the shifting versions of the “light rinse” remark:

  • Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, writing in her column in January 2012, quoted McCarthy as having said: “All that was needed in the case of George Romney was a light rinse.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jules Witcover wrote in 2007 that McCarthy “quipped that he ‘would have thought a light rinse would have done it.'”
  • Mark Shields, writing in the Washington Post in 1988, quoted McCarthy’s one-liner this way: “I don’t know why Romney was brainwashed; in his case, a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

And as further evidence of version variability, the “light rinse” quip has even been attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Such imprecision invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. (It also sounds almost too perfect to be true — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”)

Among the first accounts  — if not the first account — of McCarthy’s quip appeared in An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969.

American Melodrama, which was written by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said his aides persuaded journalists to hush it up.

According to American Melodrama, McCarthy was asked “by reporters whether he thought Romney’s ‘brainwashed’ gaffe had dealt the death blow to his chances.”

McCarthy was quoted as saying in reply:

“Well . . . er no, not really. Anyway, I think in that case a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

The book further stated:

“McCarthy’s press aides, appalled at the possible effects of this remark on Republicans, who, bereft of a dove candidate in their own party, might write-in McCarthy’s name, pleaded with reporters not to use it. They dutifully complied; though few would have done the same for Romney.”

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say when McCarthy made the comment, where, or specifically to whom.

Although self-censorship could account for the absence of contemporaneous references to McCarthy’s quip in leading U.S. newspapers, it seems implausible that an insult so delicious and devastating would have remained hushed up, even by compliant reporters, for very long.

Another version was offered by British journalist David Frost in an interview the aired on C-SPAN in 2007. Frost recalled having heard McCarthy’s comment, and said it was made in New Hampshire not long after Romney’s “brainwashing” statement.

But Frost’s recollection is faulty in a crucial respect: He said in the interview that “within a week or so” after making the “brainwashing” comment, Romney “was out of the race.”

Not so. Romney’s ended his campaign for the presidency on February 28, 1968 — six months after uttering the “brainwashing” remark and 3½ months after officially entering the race.

During the week Romney dropped out, Frost said in the C-SPAN interview, “I was interviewing Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, and, as we came out, there were three or four people who … wanted a sound bite. And one of them said, ‘What do you think about George Romney being brainwashed?’

“And McCarthy said, ‘I would have thought a light rinse would have been sufficient.’ Killer line. Fantastic line, I thought.”

But left unclear in Frost’s version is why journalists would have been asking McCarthy in late February or early March 1968 about a claim that Romney had made months before. Why would it have been newsworthy then?

Puzzling.

Not only that, but Frost did not say whether, or when, he reported McCarthy’s “killer line.” Or whether McCarthy’s “press aides” pleaded with him not to use it.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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Gorging on the mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2011 at 1:55 am

Cronkite in Vietnam

The phenomenon of version variability runs rampant across the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” the mythical broadcast in 1968 when Walter Cronkite’s editorial comment supposedly altered U.S. war policy in Vietnam.

Version variability is the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling, and it’s a marker of a media-driven myth.

The “Cronkite Moment” supposedly was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, prompting him to declare:

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

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

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

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

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

To that dubious roster, the Irish Independent the other day offered this version:

“It’s said that Lyndon Johnson knew his presidency had imploded when he sat down one evening after a gargantuan Texan dinner to watch Walter Cronkite denounce his Vietnam policy straight to camera.

“Johnson knew that … it was time to start planning the presidential library.”

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set the night Cronkite offered what really was an unremarkable assessment of the Vietnam War.

The CBS News anchorman said at the close of an hour-long special report about Vietnam that the war effort there had become “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually be the way out for the United States.

Other commentators and news outlets had been turning for months to stalemate” to describe the U.S. war effort. So Cronkite’s assessment was hardly striking, hardly very original. Indeed, it was quite tame compared to other commentaries at the time.

But Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired February 27, 1968 (and there’s no evidence he saw it later, on videotape). The president most certainly didn’t gorge on “a gargantuan Texan dinner” before sitting down to watch Cronkite’s program.

As the show aired, Johnson was en route to the University of Texas at Austin, to attend the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

Johnson spoke for a few minutes at the party. He didn’t bemoan the loss of Cronkite’s support. Rather, he offered light-hearted comments about Connally’s age.

About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” closing assessment, Johnson was saying:

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

I further note in Getting It Wrong that even if Johnson saw the Cronkite’s program on videotape, the president “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

“Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would ‘not cut and run’ from Vietnam. ‘We’re not going to be Quislings,’ the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. ‘And we’re not going to be appeasers….'”

So under scrutiny, the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” dissolves as illusory— a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence. So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

WJC

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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.”

WJC

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The ‘Cronkite Moment’ was fictive

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on July 8, 2011 at 8:01 am

Cronkite in Vietnam

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 offers supposedly timeless and irresistible lessons for journalists about the importance of telling truth to power and about the media’s potential to wield decisive influence.

Trouble is, the “Cronkite Moment” is fictive: It had little of the impact so often ascribed to it — impact of the kind described yesterday by Paul Fanlund, editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.

He wrote at a Capital Times blog:

“One has to be of a certain age, or a student of history, to know Walter Cronkite’s impact on Vietnam. In 1968, the famed broadcaster, who had been privately pro-war, pronounced on air that the war was no longer winnable, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to remark, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

Unpacking that paragraph reveals that it’s exaggerated in three ways.

One is that Cronkite (as he himself claimed for many years) had little if any “impact” on the war in Vietnam.

Two, Cronkite did not say on air that “the war was no longer winnable.” He said, in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might offer America a way out.

Three, Cronkite’s on-air assessment about Vietnam did not prompt President Lyndon Johnson to declare, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Or anything akin to such a remark.

As I discuss in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. And there is no evidence the president watched the show later, on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson was not in front of a television set when the Cronkite report about Vietnam was broadcast.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted remarks at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning his failed Vietnam policy; he wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support.

He was jesting about Connally’s age.

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

Even if he had watched the Cronkite report, it’s unlikely Johnson would have been much moved by the “mired in stalemate” assessment. It was hardly an original observation.

Leading U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” periodically in the months before the Cronkite program.

For example, 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.”

In a report from Saigon that was published August 7, 1967, the Times 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. They use the word for many reasons ….”

By the end of February 1968, “stalemate” had been often used, and had become a rather tame assessment.

Far more assertive was the Wall Street Journal, which, in an editorial published four days before Cronkite’s report, said 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.”

Interestingly, Cronkite disputed the notion his report about Vietnam had much impact.

He said in his 1997 memoir that his “mired in stalemate” assessment represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” It was an analogy Cronkite repeatedly made.

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel,” he said in an interview on CNN in 1999.

But late in his life, Cronkite began to embrace the purported power of the “Cronkite Moment.” He said in 2006, in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

A case of believing one’s own clippings.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Under scrutiny, the ‘Cronkite moment’ dissolves as illusory — a chimera, a media-driven myth.

“That it does is not so surprising. Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.

“So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ at ‘Reader’s Corner’ tonight

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

I’ll be discussing my latest book, Getting It Wrong, in a half-hour interview that airs tonight at 7:30 (Eastern) on “Reader’s Corner,” a program of Boise State University public radio, KBSX 91.5 FM.

The host is the university’s president, Bob Kustra, an engaging interviewer who taped the show with me last week.

We discussed a number of the media-driven myths debunked in Getting It Wrong, including, in some detail, the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly swung U.S. policy in Vietnam with his on-air assessment that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were a prospective way out of Southeast Asia.

The assessment, I write in Getting It Wrong, “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect. Versions vary. Markedly.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House, either.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of the president’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was saying this, about Connally’s age:

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

It’s difficult to imagine how Johnson was much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Even if the president did watch the Cronkite report at some later date on videotape — and there’s no evidence he did — it’s clear that Johnson did not take the anchorman’s assessment to heart. “Mired in stalemate” was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, just three days after the Cronkite program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”

I noted in the interview with Kustra, that Cronkite until late in his life pooh-poohed the notion his assessment about Vietnam represented a pivotal moment.

In his memoir published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that his “mired in stalemate” assessment posed for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

But by 2006, three years before his death, Cronkite had come to embrace the conventional interpretation of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Among other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency) and the woefully exaggerated reporting that characterized coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.

I also noted during the interview that Getting It Wrong is best regarded as aligned with the fundamental imperative of newsgathering — that of getting it right, of seeking to obtain the most accurate version of events as possible.

WJC

‘Too early to say’: Zhou was speaking about 1968, not 1789

In Debunking, Media myths on June 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

Nixon and Zhou, 1972

When Chinese premier Zhou Enlai famously said it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French revolution, he was referring to turmoil in France in 1968 and not — as is commonly thought — to the more distant political upheaval of 1789.

So says a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, made the disclosure last week during a panel discussion in Washington about On China, the latest book by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The discussion was moderated by Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In an interview yesterday, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, the conventional interpretation of which is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. Foreign Policy magazine, for example, referred last month to that interpretation, saying the comment was “a cautionary warning of the perils of judgments made in real time.”

The Washington Post’s recent review of Kissinger’s book likewise referred to the conventional understanding of Zhou’s remark.

Freeman described Zhou’s misconstrued comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected.”

He said Zhou’s remark probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. They included, Freeman said, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

He said it was clear from the context and content of Zhou’s comment that in saying it was “too early to say” the Chinese leader was speaking about the events in France in May 1968, not the years of upheaval that began in 1789.

Freeman acknowledged that the conventional interpretation makes for a better story but added that it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said in a follow-up email. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

He described Zhou’s misinterpreted remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

The Zhou comment also represents a reminder about the often-irresistible quality of pithy and apparently telling quotations — a topic discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. (An expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong came out in late 2016.)

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in discussing such media myths as William Randolph Hearst’s reputed vow — supposedly made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington — to “furnish the war” with Spain in the 1890s.

“Like many media-driven myths,” I write, the purported Hearstian vow “is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.” As is the conventional interpretation of Zhou’s “too early to say” remark.

I note in Getting It Wrong that among the many reasons for doubting the anecdote is that 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 reading U.S. newspapers in January 1897, when Remington was in Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal, “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war.”

What I call version variability — the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling — has afflicted Zhou’s “too early to say” comment. Some accounts, for example, have attributed the remark to Chinese dictator Mao Zedong.

Another account has it that Zhou, who died in 1976, made the comment in Geneva in 1953, in response to a French journalist’s question.

Freeman said he doubted that version was accurate.

Zhou, he said, “was a man with a graceful wit but not given to facetious remarks.”

WJC

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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.”

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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