How Much Is a 'Cronkite Moment' Worth?

Garrett Graff, one of the editors of fishbowlDC -- "a gossip blog about Washington, D.C. media" that’s part of the MediaBistro.com mini-empire – has joined those who’ve stated hopefully that something or other will prove to be a “Cronkite moment” regarding the Iraq war.

(Some background for the youngsters: The term derives from Walter Cronkite’s February 1968 on-air declaration that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate” – i.e., the U.S. and its ally, South Vietnam, could not win. Supposedly, President Lyndon Johnson’s response to that remark was to tell an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”)

Some have posited Cindy Sheehan’s Crawford sit-in or Rep. John Murtha’s gloom-mongering as Cronkite moments, and Cronkite himself has said that “we should get out [of Iraq] now.” For Graff, the CM may result from the serious wounding this past Sunday of ABC’s Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt. The first three graphs of Graff’s Monday post:

In all that has been and will be said in the coming days about the attack yesterday that injured ABC's Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, this sentence in the New York Times might be the most insightful: "Bob Woodruff was in Baghdad for ABC reporting the good news that the Bush administration complains is ignored by the news media, and he ended up as a glaring illustration of the bad news."

For the Bush administration, one wonders whether this moment will be seen in the future as the “Cronkite moment” of the Iraq War. The one where, despite all the big and little moments and grand statements like the "Plan for Victory" and tomorrow night's State of the Union address, the American people lost hope in the war. This serious attack on Woodruff's and Vogt's convoy is similar to one that happens hundreds of times a week in Iraq, but it rarely makes the wall-to-wall coverage that yesterday's attack garnered--and it will likely change how every American news organization covers the war.

The fact that it was too dangerous to travel unguarded (as Jill Carroll's situation shows) pushed U.S. correspondents into military embedded units. Now, though, that's looking like a higher risk than most correspondents--and news organizations--will want to cover. Once the reporters can't see or hear, they can't report any good news, just the bad.

And, yesterday, Graff's post -- which also quoted at length from Christiane Amanpour's lamentation on the "disaster" and "black hole" that she claims the war to be -- began:

This week is looking more and more like a “Cronkite moment.”

As President Bush prepares to address Congress and the nation tonight in his fifth State of the Union, the White House must be concerned that the news out of Iraq in the last week appears to have undermined what remaining support the media had for the ongoing war.

Yesterday the two biggest stories out of Iraq were both about journalists: the horrible attack on Bob Woodruff's convoy and kidnapped hostage Jill Carroll's tearful new video plea. The war is hitting too close to home.

But, as Editor & Publisher editor Greg Mitchell, no conservative, pointed out just before Christmas on CBS News’s own web site, discussions of the original Cronkite moment tend toward the hyperbolic:

Those who claim that [Cronkite’s comment] 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.

An indication of the leftist tilt on fishbowlDC: On the same page as Graff's posts, links are provided to the web sites of the left-liberal media-watchdog groups Media Matters for America and FAIR, but not to those of the MRC or Accuracy in Media.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters