Is 'Cronkite Moment' Just a Media Myth?

Amid all of the media excitement of NBC’s choice to grandly pronounce the ongoing violence in Iraq a “civil war,” some (like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann) are gleefully touting NBC’s editorializing as a “Walter Cronkite moment,” referring to the then-CBS Evening News anchor’s 1968 editorial declaring that the U.S. had become “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

In their desire for a U.S. retreat in Iraq, journalists had previously pronounced Cindy Sheehan’s protesting in Crawford, Texas and Democratic Congressman John Murtha’s calling for a withdrawal of troops to be “Cronkite moments” of the Iraq war, each time apparently hoping that the weight of the media's pessimism finally forces a change in U.S. policy.

This morning I stumbled across a piece written about a year ago by Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell for CBS’s Public Eye, theorizing about whether Murtha’s anti-war declarations would be the “Cronkite moment” of Iraq. Mitchell gently suggested that the idea that Cronkite’s editorial was a key turning point in public opinion on Vietnam might actually be a myth:

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.”

As for NBC, they could have just begun to introduce the phrase “civil war” in their Iraq reporting — although there’s still a strong case there is no “civil war” so long as Iraq’s unity government continues to include major Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions, and the phrase misleadingly buries the ongoing attacks directed at U.S. forces, attacks fomented by outside terrorist forces, and the random gangsterism that also continues in Iraq.

Instead, NBC and MSNBC went all out yesterday to tout their change in terminology as a major moment in Iraq, plainly hoping to get the attention of others in the media as well as the public. Sounds more like activism than journalism.

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