During World War II, much of American Journalism was fawning over a common noble theme: the great war was about “good people fighting a necessary war for a just cause” (Stepp). Now that is a far cry from the world we know and live in today- a world where trust in government is at an all-time low, where journalism can be overshadowed by 24-hour agenda-filled mass media parading around as credible news. My generation, the Millennials, don’t know what trust in government and honest reporting look or feel like. The trust deficit occurred well before we were born, after all.
The Vietnam War was a pivotal moment in American journalism. A turning point in the relation between journalism and government and government and its people. As outlined by Carl Sessions Stepp in The Powerful, Painful Journalism of the Vietnam War, skepticism and doubt flooded the minds and airways of journalism during Vietnam. Gone were the days of Murrow’s groundbreaking live radio report during the London Blitz, riddled with sounds of citizens on the streets, bombing raids in the background, and Murrow’s light banter and humor throughout the broadcast. Now, that’s not to say the London Blitz was cheery; rather, the reporting, the tone and language of Murrow himself was stern and concerning, but also lucid and metaphorical. Other war-time broadcasts seemed optimistic of the progress Allied forces were making. The moral support that rallied our country in WWII was noticeably absent in Vietnam. Be it the assassination of an American president two years’ prior, the fear of entering into yet another war, the politicization of the Vietnam War over communism, etc. American journalism had become cynical.
Americans call it the Vietnam War. Vietnamese call it the American War. From 1965 to 1973, The U.S. conducted aerial and ground missions in Vietnam in an effort to halt the expansion of communism. The U.S. participated in chemical warfare which contributed to the tremendous loss of life: nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers, 1.3 million Vietnamese troops, and 4 million Vietnamese citizens were killed. Journalist David Halberstam’s reporting from Vietnam marked a separate turning point in American journalism that came to be known as “the credibility gap.” (Daly 323) The new approach to American Journalism was more skeptical, more creative in its’ reporting and investigation, and often times more honest. Which could have influenced the Cronkite Moment (the myth).
CBS News broadcasted a special report on February 27, 1968 titled “Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite.” The report detailed in full the effects of the War on the country and on U.S. troops. “We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” Cronkite broadcasted the realities of the War in such a dark and sinister manner that, according to the legend, it brought President Lyndon Johnson to snap off the television set and yell, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Campbell 85) According to the myth, Cronkite’s program was so impactful that public opinion swayed almost immediately after its’ airing in opposition of the war. However, W. Joseph Campbell details in Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism that multiple news outlets had already declared Vietnam a stalemate months prior to the Cronkite report, public opinion had already begun to shift toward opposition, and, in fact, there would have been no way for President Johnson to have seen the live report as he was speaking at a birthday party for the Governor of Texas. It is possible Johnson saw the report later on, but not one of his advisers can confirm the “If I’ve lost Cronkite” reaction.
Despite the real possibility of the Cronkite Moment being totally fabricated, it served as a gold standard in American Journalism. And maybe it still serves as one, albeit an idea or folk legend rather than fact. It is an interesting contradiction we have taken with this story: an industry built on accuracy, information, and objectivity has largely adopted a fabricated story as its crowning achievement. Can this myth coexist with truth and reporting atop the pillars of journalism?
Perhaps the effects the Cronkite Moment had on American journalism can’t be seen in numbers or data points. Consensus’ collected months before the program’s airing showed a shift in American support into opposition of the war. Multiple news outlets began declaring the war a failure, with the New York Times calling it a ‘stalemate’ months before Cronkite even ventured to the war-torn region. Perhaps this Cronkite moment necessarily boosted the morale of journalists and journalism reflecting on a time when cynicism and doubt riddled the industry: Special Report from Vietnam provided the industry proof that journalism could influence the world. Even if it never actually happened.
BBC, News. Special Reports: Vietnam War: History. November 2015 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/asia_pac/05/vietnam_war/html/build_up.stm>.
Campbell, W. Joseph. “Debunking the “Cronkite Moment”.” Campbell, W. Joseph. Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatests Misreported Stories in American Journalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 85-100.
Daly, Christopher. “Rocking the Establishment, 1962-1972.” Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism. Boston: University of Massachussetts Press, 2012. 322-351.
Stepp, Carl Sessions. The Powerful, Painful Journalism of the Vietnam War. October 1998. November 2015 <http://ajrarchive.org/Article.asp?id=3404>.