Losing Walter Cronkite

One of the most enduring myths of the Viet Nam era is the role CBS newsman Walter Cronkite played in bringing about America’s disillusionment regarding the nature of the war. His February 1968 special report on conditions in South Viet Nam following the Tet Offensive questioned our ability to win the war, stating that we were “mired in a stalemate.” In response President Johnson supposedly told an aide that if he lost Walter Cronkite, then he would lose the support of Middle America.

W. Joseph Campbell, American University professor in the School of Communications, debunked the myth of Cronkite’s clout and the impact he had on both the nation and the president in his 2010 book Getting it Wrong: ten of the greatest misreported stories in American journalism. (If you don’t have time to read the book then do an internet search for “Q&A: W. Joseph Campbell” to see his C-SPAN interview with host Brian Lamb. He makes his case quite succinctly about the phenomena of the Cronkite Moment).

I was an avid watcher of the evening news with Walter Cronkite. I still hold a grudge against Dan Rather for forcing the most trusted man in America into early retirement. But I would not be surprised if Campbell wrote a sequel to Getting it Wrong, which would debunk the Rather myth of sending Cronkite packing. Still, my point here is to be very candid with anyone reading this message about my own investment of trust in Walter Cronkite as a source for all the news fit to broadcast. There is a corollary here that I must also acknowledge for the sake of full disclosure. I believe we were better served when news was limited to 30 – 60 minutes each evening instead of the current litany of opinions plaguing us 24/7/365.

I do have my own opinion, though, about what it means to lose Walter Cronkite. It concerns trust and over reporting over an extended period of time. Once it became known that America had “advisors” in Viet Nam, the Gallup folks annually asked people if they thought our intervention was a mistake. Survey results showed the nation strongly behind the Johnson administration in 1964. But the level of support gradually diminished until the nation was shown to be evenly divided (much as it is now) by the fall of 1967.

Cronkite’s special report in February 1968 was a latecomer to the growth of dissention concerning our involvement in Viet Nam. His influence was no doubt bolstered, however, by Johnson’s announcement one month later that he would not seek reelection to the presidency. Johnson’s decision was triggered by other events and other people. And what we tend to forget in our interpretation of those events all these years later is that we were well into the Nixon administration before the war was brought to an end.

With all due respect to Professor Campbell I think there is a place for accepting the thought of losing Walter Cronkite as a symbol of the change that takes place in public sentiment, which is often referred to as a paradigm shift (rightly or wrongly). We don’t handle depth and breadth too well. We need a defining moment, which can be expressed in a sound bite such as, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, then I’ve lost Middle America.”  The Cronkite Moment, then, is not a matter of a single sentence in a television broadcast. Its significance must be seen as the culmination of a much longer process involving many more people, who never want or warrant an on-air interview, yet still have a role in forging policy and performance. We just need a certain someone, of hopefully indisputable trustworthiness, to tell us it is so. The Cronkites of the world serve that purpose, likely unintentionally.

I bring this up now as an uninformed but bemused observer of the current political scene. For the damage the Democrats are attempting to do to the current president’s political future, it seems to me that more attention should be paid to what is taking place at FOX News. From time to time one of their own makes a statement exposing a gaff, an exaggeration, a misrepresentation, a lie or a clearly defaming rant coming from the President for what it is, inexcusable.

As these pronouncements continue to take place I am wondering if Chris Wallace, Judge Napolitano or even Brett Baier is about the have a Cronkite Moment of their own and get credit for achieving what the Democrats can only contentiously dream of. There is plenty of time, after all, for the President to shock the nation, as LBJ did in 1968, by announcing his decision not to seek reelection in 2020. The true motivation behind just such a turn of events will likely take place because of the legal proceedings taking place in New York and not Washington, DC.

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