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.
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.