Hey Chris Matthews: Can You Stop Talking About Nonexistent "Cronkite Moments" Already?

Hat tip: Instapundit.

One of the most persistent - and thoroughly debunked - myths in American journalism is the notion that CBS anchor Walter Cronkite possessed the ability to change the course of human history with every night's newscast.

The ultimate sign of Cronkite's power relates to a 1968 special report he did from Vietnam. Cronkite pronounced the war a "stalemate" and supposedly Lyndon Johnson uttered something along the lines of "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country" and realized his presidency was officially finished.

Here's MSNBC host and John Kennedy biographer Chris Matthews reviewing in the New York Times Douglas Brinkley's recent biography of Cronkite:

Cronkite never shied away from telling hard truths. Recall his half-hour “Report From Vietnam” on Feb. 27, 1968, in which he declared the Vietnam War a “stalemate.” It was a verdict the veteran war correspondent didn’t relish delivering, but Cronkite, who had recently returned from reporting on the Tet offensive, now believed that the war was unwinnable and indefensible. He felt “conned” by Lyndon Johnson, Brinkley writes, and “sickened” that his network had swallowed the Pentagon’s spin.

“The aftershock of Cronkite’s reports was seismic,” Brinkley adds. President Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

How did Cronkite get the credentials to be taken at his word that an American war could not be won?

Yeah, well, as American University professor and Getting It Wrong author Joseph Campbell notes on his great Media Myth Alert blog, the Cronkite story is totally bushwah. Campbell notes that Johnson did not watch the original broadcast and there's no indication he ever watched a taped version of the program either. Cronkite's invocation of "stalemate" was not original or memorable - that phrase had been used for a long time by then. And for all the talk of a "Cronkite moment," asks Campbell, why did U.S. troops stick around in Vietnam for another five years?

This is not a tendentious point, Campbell argues persuasively:

Why bother calling out Matthews for casually invoking the central component of themythical “Cronkite Moment”?

Doing so serves to highlight how insidious the myth has become, how blithely it is marshalled to support the notion that courageous and motivated journalists can do marvelous things.

Doing so also demonstrates anew that not even prominent and presumably fact-checkednews organizations such as the Times are resistant to the intrusion of hoary media myths.

And doing so indicates that at least some high-profile contemporary journalists possess a shaky command of the history of their field.

I'd go a bit further: The Cronkite story plays into the romance of supposedly objective journalists having profound effects on the world. It's a self-flattering myth that pumps up the ego of newshounds everywhere, which can only lead them into more and bigger mistakes. Filled with true tales of massive falsehoods, Campbell's Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism is essential reading not just for journalists but all consumers of the news.

ReasonTV just interviewed Campbell a couple of weeks back. As he points out, not only is the "Cronkite moment" stuff malarkey, but so is the hoary cliche that Cronkite was the "most trusted" man in America.

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  • Caleb Turberville||

    If I heard from Hardball that it was cloudy outside, I wouldn't think twice about checking The Weather Channel to confirm.

  • Ted S.||

    I would. The Weather Channel is part of the NBC/Universal/Comcast empire.

    I'd check something like Weather Underground instead.

  • Bill||

    Weather Channel just bought Wunderground out.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Cronkite's comments on Tet weren't even wrong. He could have said "well, we had a spectacular victory at the Battle of Tet, but that won't be enough to win, and anyway we shouldn't be in Vietnam anyway," etc.

    But that's not what he said, isn't it? He implied that Tet was some kind of defeat or draw for the U.S.

    We could do with less of that kind of "integrity."

  • Rasilio||

    Yeah, by every traditional measure of victory/defeat the Tet offensive on 1968 was the most lopsided victory in recorded history until the first Gulf War, and the US won. Somehow however everyone remembers it as a US defeat thanks to Cronkite and Rather.

  • ||


    It is like saying British troops had an outstanding victory in India after they flogged to death 1000 passive protestors.

    The ability to throw tens of 1000s of Vietcong fanatics into American machine gun fire probably was a turning point...

    But yeah Cronkite missed that as well.

    Didn't he also claim plutonium was the most toxic substance on the planet?

  • Rasilio||

    Little known fact, that the eradication of the Viet Cong was actually the one goal of the Tet Offensive that worked for North Vietnam.

    See to Hanoi the Viet Cong were considered politically unreliable and they never intended to share power with them. So in Tet of 68 they used them as cannon fodder and somewhere around 90% of them were either killed or captured. Following that the Viet Cong ceased to exist with what few of them remained being absorbed into regular NVA army units.

    As far as the plutonium claim, Cronkite may have parrotted that at some point but I highly doubt it originated with him. If I had to guess it came from someplace like the Union of Concerned Scientists but I don't know for certain.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You're wrong. Cronkite did change history all the time, because he was a member of the Freemason/Zionist/Illuminati/Lizard People axis that SACRIFICED Whitney Houston for the Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth!

  • John||

    I hear Bieber is on tap if the old broad makes it to a diamond jubilee.

  • mr simple||

    Actually this was her Diamond Jubilee. It was decreed that 60 years shall be diamond for a queen. Monarchs don't pay retail even for anniversaries.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Well according to the Brits, she has.

    Yet another example of how they are wrong, and we are right.

  • John117||

    I don't know about all that. But listen to his own words.
    The man was a One World Government, New World Order (NWO) Globalist. Let's call this a Conspiracy FACT, cause seeing is believing.

  • DJF||

    Chris Mathews gets a tingly leg at the thought that anything he has said will be important or even remembered.

  • Libertarius||

    Or viewed, for that matter. Who the hell even watches MSNBC?

  • John||

    I happened to see Michelle Bachman on Mathews' show right around the 2010 mid terms Bachman ended the interview with actually asking Mathews "still have the thrill up your leg". Mathews responded "that is not what I said, idiot." He sounded like a sad school boy being abused by the prom queen. It was so sad it almost wasn't funny. Almost.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Mathews responded "that is not what I said, idiot."

    Oh, but he did.

    I felt this thrill going up my leg!

    Matthews should always be asked about "The Thrill." Anytime anyone goes on his show, people should inquire as to the current status of "The Thrill."

  • Stelio Kontos||

    Cronkite spoke for the people, not like the insane corporate driven media we have today with Fox News.

  • DJF||

    Yep he did not speak for Fox News, he spoke for CBS News a totally different corporation

  • Citizen Nothing||

    And he smoked a pipe! A pipe! So you know he was truthy.

  • Drake||

    "for the people", not the truth.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Um...It's called CBS "Corporation", dude.

  • John||

    But they are a special corporation.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    That's an intended reply to Stelio Kontos.

  • ||

    Why are you replying to the troll? Don't be a moron.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Why are you responding to Mary? It is a troll. You will not change its mind. Arguments are pointless when the person you would be arguing with is arguing in bad faith.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Or what Warty said.

  • Fluffy||

    The funny thing about this is that the press had real influence when it was at its least objective.

    The two postwar American news media myths - "dispassionate objectivity" and "social influence for good (or ill)" - can't actually exist at the same time.

    William Randolph Hearst took shits that were more influential than Cronkite.

  • John||

    I thought Yellow Journalism was blamed for the Spanish American War.

  • Fluffy||

    Yeah. Exactly.

    Hearst wasn't objective, and as a result had a lot of influence.

  • Knoss||

    That's way it was the Washington Post and not CBS that brought down Nixon.

  • Knoss||

    How dare you! They didn't have junk stories like today's news. Oh wait http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTKCPwEmi-4

  • Loki||

    The Cronkite story plays into the romance of supposedly objective journalists having profound effects on the world. It's a self-flattering myth that pumps up the ego of newshounds everywhere...

    But how else are they supposed to justify their holier than thou smugness? They have to believe they're than everyone else or else they might realize how useless and pathetic they actually are.

  • Franklin Harris||

    Never mind Cronkite. I remember when Howard K. Smith kept us informed during the dark days of the Visitor invasion.

  • ||

    Hey! My commie alma mater gets a mention on H y R!

  • tarran||

    Did these google guys tell you to follow the steps on this page?


  • tarran||

    Wups, wrong thread!

  • wef||

    Matthews is just one of many chega de saudade – some psycho-sexual nostalgic yearning for the mythical days of comforting daddy figures of caring authority.

  • ant1sthenes||

    If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country

    Well, he may have said something like that. I mean, if MSNBC starts tearing apart some key Obama policies and he says "If I've lost MSNBC, I've lost the country", I don't think he's referring to how influential they are.

  • ||

    I'd go a bit further: The Cronkite story plays into the romance of supposedly objective journalists having profound effects on the world. It's a self-flattering myth that pumps up the ego of newshounds everywhere, which can only lead them into more and bigger mistakes.

    This does not even skim the surface. What this leads to is the HBO series "Newsroom" which last night had Jane Fonda telling a Golf joke involving Jesus and Moses.

    Horror beyond horror.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I was tempted to watch that for long enough to be disgusted by it. Glad I opted out.

  • Lisa||

    Simply doing one's job is never good enough for a liberal. I'm reminded of a quote from Chesterton's 'The Man who was Thursday'
    "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”


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