W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘War reporting’

Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes on February 9, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Maureen Dowd marred an otherwise intriguing column in yesterday’s New York Times by mischaracterizing what is known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

Dowd_Twitter

Dowd (from Twitter)

The column considered the bizarre falsehoods that Brian Williams, the now-on-leave anchor of NBC Nightly News, has told about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: He wrongly claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while,” Dowd wrote, adding:

“NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.”

In any case, she wrote, network evening news programs have long been shells of their much-watched former selves.

“Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division,” Dowd noted before declaring:

“One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say we were losing.

Dowd did not specify when Cronkite supposedly “risked his career” as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she clearly was referring to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam that aired in February 1968, after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched an offensive across what then was South Vietnam. The attacks coincided with the lunar new year Tet, and their intensity surprised the U.S. public, which had been assured that significant progress was being made in the fight in Vietnam.

Cronkite said in his memoir that he went to Vietnam to offer “an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” He shared his findings upon his return, in a 30-minute report shown on CBS television on February 27, 1968. It was his most memorable if mythical contribution to reporting the war.

Cronkite concluded the report with an analysis that was unusual for him but striking only for its equivocation.

He declared:

“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 unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Equivocal though it was, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis rejected the notion the U.S. military was headed for defeat.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s observations that night were “neither notable nor extraordinary.”

Stalemate was hardly a novel characterization for the war in early 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report, for example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis that said the war in Vietnam “is not going well,” that victory “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from Vietnam and published August 7, 1967, further declared:

“‘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, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The analysis appeared beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

 So it was not at all courageous of Cronkite to have invoked “stalemate” when he did.

How, then, did such a tepid, belated assessment come to be so celebrated that it is known as the “Cronkite Moment”? How did it become associated with truth-telling about Vietnam, as Dowd claimed in her column?

In part because of the grandiloquent characterizations by the likes of David Halberstam, who praised Cronkite’s on-air analysis in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. He wrote that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Which hardly was the case. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, five years later. The war ended in 1975, when the North Vietnamese military conquered the South.

Another reason it’s called the “Cronkite Moment” is the effect that the anchorman’s analysis supposedly had on President Johnson. According to Halberstam and others, Johnson watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president is said to have snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But in fact, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

A cautionary note on early coverage of dramatic events

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

Amid yesterday’s jubilation about the slaying of terror leader Osama bin Laden, the media critic at slate.com, Jack Shafer, posted a timely and telling reminder that initial news reports of major events seldom are reliable.

This is especially so, I would add, in covering disasters: The early accounts almost always are erroneous.

Got it wrong in New Orleans

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is instructive: News reports about the surreal violence that the storm supposedly unleashed on New Orleans in late summer 2005 were highly exaggerated and wildly inaccurate.

“Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I write, adding, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. ”

In his column about the coverage of the killing of bin Laden, Shafer noted that “the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.”

He pointed out the wide variance in the early reports about bin Laden’s violent end, noting such discrepancies as these:

  • ABC News: “He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead.”
  • The Atlantic: “One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face.”
  • The London Sun: “Elite troops opened fire when the 9/11 terror chief refused to surrender, hitting him in the head and chest. …”
  • MSNBC.com: “[H]e was shot in the left eye.”

Shafer added: “At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we’ll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we’re reading and viewing today. Until then, it’s caveat emptor for news consumers.”

Journalists would do well to offer such reminders more frequently than they do.

Cautionary notes ought to be routine, as should specific reference to the challenges of reporting military operations from afar.

Such distance-reporting, after all, can give rise to errors that are both memorable and acutely embarrassingly. The Jessica Lynch case, which unfolded during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003 and which is discussed in Getting It Wrong, is memorable in that regard.

The Washington Post, drawing on sources it has never identified (but should), offered the world a sensational report about the battlefield heroics of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who never expected to see combat.

Elements of her units fell under ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

According to the Post’s front-page article — which was mostly reported by journalists based in Washington — Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world. But it was wrong, utterly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death before being rescued on April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

The Post report offers another reminder about covering combat — the passage of time is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting. The sensational account about Lynch appeared on the Post’s front page of April 3, 2003, 11 days after the ambush at Nasiriyah.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

%d bloggers like this: