'Cronkite's Moment' revisited

To avoid becoming as bogged down in this post as we are in Iraq, I will make my own words as succinct as possible, then offer an article from a trusted source, which I feel is worthy of your time,

Today’s thoughts are in reference to yesterday’s post, “Those were the days, my friend.”

Briefly, that post – off the top of my head and from the bottom of my heart – concerned my agreement with retired CNN anchor Bernard Shaw’s critique of today’s media.

Shaw spoke nostalgically of the days of more ethical and ressponsible journalism, particularly the days of his hero Walter Cronkite at the helm of CBS Evening News.

Neither Shaw nor I approve of the subjectivity, the editorializing which has found its way into today’s straight, or hard, news reporting.

A regular reader left this comment:

“Frodo, for the sake of perspective, notes that it was the sainted Mr.Cronkite who uttered an on-air opinion about the Vietnam War, in the midst of his evening newscast, which Lyndon Johnson later admitted demonstrated the futility of his own policy in the determination of public opinion. It is easy to remember what we want to remember and forget that which doesn't add to our arguments. Journalism has changed, technology has changed the way we all get information, and Frodo thinks change is good. He is also glad that today's talking heads wear short skirts.”

It is, indeed, easy to remember that which we want to remember.

In 1968 when Mr. Cronkite made the cited remarks about Vietnam, television news programs delineated “opinion” from “news” in special “editorial” segments, just as newspapers continue to do today. There is no such delineation in today’s broadcast news. The remarks that Mr. Cronkite made came at the end of his newscast, and he labeled them, up front, as both “opinion” and “subjective.”

Anyone who plays chess knows a “stalemate” is declared when none of the remaining moves on the board will result in checkmate. Mr. Cronkite, contrary to popular belief, never really had a “Cronkite Moment” where he declared all was lost in Vietnam. Rather, he stated the U.S. and North Vietnam were “mired in stalemate.”

President Johnson did state that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country. But, there were many other forces at play which affected Johnson, including public opinion.

So, Mr. Cronkite did not utter opinion “in the midst of his evening newscast.” Nor did his remarks bring about an end to the Vietnam war, as some define the myth of “The Cronkite Moment.” That would come five years later, or as long as we’ve been in Iraq.

Here is the transcript of Walter Cronkite’s “editorial,” which closed his newscast on the evening of 27 February 1968: LINK

Editor and Publisher – the bible of print journalists – is and has always been a trusted source. Here is an article (LINK) on the subject of this post witten by its editor for CBS’ “Public Eye:”

CBS “PUBLIC EYE” NOTE: Each week CBS’ Public Eye invites someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor & Publisher and author of seven books on politics and history, including "The Campaign of the Century" and "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady." Today, Mitchell takes a look at the media's comparison of Rep. John Murtha's call for a withdrawal from Iraq to CBS "Evening News" Anchor Walter Cronkite's February 1968 Vietnam epiphany.

What Makes A "Cronkite Moment"?

By Greg Mitchell, editor, Editor & Publisher, December 23, 2005

When the hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) suddenly came out for a speedy U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last month it caused many media commentators to just-as-hastily call it a possible “Cronkite Moment.” I was one of them; in fact, I was probably the first, in a column at the Editor & Publisher Web site. What we all meant was: This shot across the bow of the Bush war policy from a well-respected mainstream figure might one day be seen as a “turning point” in setting the U.S. on a different path in an unpopular war, similar to what happened, allegedly, following CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s legendary and equally unexpected soul-baring on February 27, 1968.

In one typical instant reaction, on Nov. 19, Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “Situation Room” told his colleague Bill Schneider:
“Bill, you'll remember what President Johnson said when he heard what Walter Cronkite had said at that point, after coming back from Vietnam. He said if he's lost Walter Cronkite, he's probably lost the country. And I suppose that some Republicans are saying now if they've lost John Murtha, a very moderate-conservative Democrat, a strong supporter of the military, they probably realize they've got some serious problems."

Indeed, many Republicans fired back at Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, causing current CBS anchor Bob Schieffer to observe, "Republicans accused him of wanting to cut and run, and all but challenged the patriotism of war critics."

Of course, this is not the first so-called “Cronkite Moment” since the original. Some even invoked Uncle Walter last summer after Cindy Sheehan, mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, galvanized antiwar protest. In any case, it’s hard to guess what long-term effect the Murtha “Cronkite Moment” will have, but it did, for the first time, put pullout on the national agenda, provoked angry media and congressional debate, and forced the president to outline his own plan for withdrawal (i.e. “A Plan for Victory”).

So, it is possible that it will one day be seen as some kind of major or minor key “Cronkite Moment.” But, the analogy is strained. As many have pointed out, there is no mainstream figure quite like Cronkite today (even Johnny Carson is now gone). As CBS knows all too well, viewership of the nightly news on all networks has plunged and with hundreds of cable channels to choose from, no single media figure will ever come close to Cronkite’s standing and influence. So, sorry Bob, Brian and whoever the hell is anchoring ABC right now.

But, let me stop right here and raise the type of question that should always emerge at this point: Maybe this whole “Cronkite Moment” hype is overblown from its inception. Did the original moment really have the impact claimed for it, mainly by people too young to experience it at the time?

I happen to be old enough to have been involved in the Vietnam struggle as a potential draftee and (not coincidentally) your basic college protester. I can’t say that I remember watching the Cronkite epiphany on that late-February 1968 evening, as I did not have easy access to a TV, or noticing any immediate upheaval. But, I do recall the screaming front-page headlines, a few weeks earlier, about the American setbacks in the Tet offensive, which sparked Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam, which in turn led to his broadcast “moment.”

For those who have only heard about what he said, but never actually read it (no doubt that includes nearly all of you), here is a handy LINK to the transcript.

It climaxes with Cronkite declaring, “To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.” His equivalent of calling for a pullout was to propose negotiating seriously with the enemy, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”

Perhaps this column will inspire someone out there to conduct in-depth study of the lasting impact of those few sentences (if it hasn’t already been done). I know this: Those who claim that it created a seismic shift on the war overlook the fact that there was much opposition to the conflict already. In fact, the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy was about to drive President Lyndon Johnson into retirement.

In the meantime, I’ve done a quick and dirty search of Gallup poll results, producing some interesting hints.

They show that the percentage of those who felt the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops to Vietnam jumped from 41% to 47% in October 1967, four months before Cronkite’s moment. That climbed a bit to 49% in a poll completed just before his TV talk in February. It then dipped one point in the next poll (early April), then shot up to 53% in August. But in April 1970, the number stood at 51% -- only two points higher than the last pre-Cronkite epiphany poll.

Another question from Gallup yielded a more dramatic result. Asked in early 1968 if they viewed themselves as hawks or doves, the number of hawks dropped from 58% in February (pre-Cronkite Moment) to 41% in April. Proof at last! But hold on. In the same period, those who said they “approved” LBJ’s handling of the war jumped from 32% to 42%.

So perhaps Cronkite’s effect on Main Street has been wildly overstated -- but that doesn’t mean he didn’t cause tremors in newsrooms, in the military, in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Perhaps someday, the same will be said of Rep. Jack Murtha’s “Cronkite Moment.”


Anonymous said...

The people who question authority knew it was a war of deceit. The poll percentages show them to be in the minority. The Politicians knew it was a war of opportunity. They didn't think the majority of the masses would wake up until another authority figure spilled the beans. Cronkite’s candor didn't lead the people but it led the leaders who could no longer maintain plausible deniability.

In today’s world of mind control, population control, crowd control, discussion re-direction, talking points, and useful confusion the groundwork is complete for Stepford Humanity modification. It will take a miracle much greater than a skilled honest Journalist to fix what’s ailing us in these modern days.

Frodo Arrogantus said...

Frodo watches "Fox News," then he goes into the bathroom and he pukes. That does not change the statistical facts; a significant percentage of people in our land get their news from people who flash their underwear at the cameras. Frodo watches "Fox News" for the same reasons that he gets campaign literature from McBush. It is important to know why people pay attention to those with whom he happens to disagree. Frodo does no service to himself or to those who happen to read what he writes if he questions their motivations, without questioning his own.
Remember that these people see themselves as "fair and balanced." Why do you think that is? They are not complaining about Keith or Rachel, per se. They are complaining about an inference, perceived. When we defend, or reminisce, all we do is turn a blind eye to the times that are a'changin'. Frodo will bet any reader here that if you ask 100people, Who was known as the 'Scud Stud'? that you could not obtain more than 5 correct responses. It is no longer a cult of individuals, it is a cult of personality. That, dear reader, is the point.

B.J. said...

But, what you don’t see, Frodo, is that MSNBC is as biased as Fox News ever was. You don’t see it, because that channel has been in the tank for Obama from the onset of the presidential campaign. You don’t see it, because you support (worship) Obama, so the bias is great as far as you are concerned. You like Keith, Chris and Rachel because they ARE biased toward your guy. Granted theirs are opinion shows, but haven’t you noticed that on MSNBC’s dayside, the news is as biased as the opinion shows? Maybe not as you are at Mount Doom all day. You don’t, therefore, want news so much as you want validation. It was an eye-opener for me that I recognized the propaganda MSNBC was regurgitating against Hillary and Bill Clinton. Lies and spin to put Fox News to shame. That made that network, in my opinion, no better than Rppert Murdoch’s minions, and you know how I’ve always felt about that propaganda arm of the Bush administration. There’s a lot of “puking” to go around. These days best to know how to recongnize bias when you see or hear it! BJ P.S. On Election Day, I will vote. I will vote against McCain and Senator Lindsey O. Graham. I have no choice.

airth10 said...

Read your post. I also remember the editorializing on the news about Clinton's affair with Monica L. I remember getting particularly upset with a CBS anchorman, Ed Bradley, and his comments. But generally I like opinion. I always gravitate to the opinion page first. The thing is that for someone like me, who can discern things, opinion can be benign. But, for somebody who hasn't got a clue about what's really going on it can be dangerous because sometimes it doesn't speak the truth, as we have seen with Fox News. (However, Fox can't spin or lie about the economy.)

I can understand how you feel about opinion being blended into the news. I have a journalist friend in London who gets really bothered by that blending, which is becoming more predominant.

Have you posted any articles on the economy and the 'bailout'. I wish they would stop calling it a bailout, because it really isn't. It is more meant to lubricate the money markets which have seized up and are endangering all economic activity. I think it is good that the legislation got passed.

I am fascinated with the whole affair - the economic crisis, because it reflects badly on Bush and conservative ideology, that the Market is the be-all and end-all. Bush thought that as his legacy he would at least have a strong economy. But, for years economists were saying that things were not so great and an economic train wreck could develop. I think it is fitting that this crisis has happened before Bush departs, because it is the crowning failure to his abysmal presidency. Thank God for America that he didn't manage to privatize Social Security. America would probably be in a greater pickle than it is now. This crisis also had to happen on the magnitude it has because there were a lot of people still not listening or paying attention. The way this crisis unfolded really got people's attention, including Bush's, who had his head in the sand. Have you noticed how shell-shocked he has looked lately? Lately, he hasn't been the cocksure person he was in the past. This crisis could also get the Democrats elected since it also makes McCain look bad.