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What Makes A "Cronkite Moment"?

Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor & Publisher and author of seven books on politics and history, including "The Campaign of the Century" and "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady." Today, Mitchell takes a look at the media's comparison of Rep. John Murtha's call for a withdrawal from Iraq to CBS "Evening News" Anchor Walter Cronkite's February 1968 Vietnam epiphany.

When the hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) suddenly came out for a speedy U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last month it caused many media commentators to just-as-hastily call it a possible "Cronkite Moment." I was one of them; in fact, I was probably the first, in a column at the Editor & Publisher Web site. What we all meant was: This shot across the bow of the Bush war policy from a well-respected mainstream figure might one day be seen as a "turning point" in setting the U.S. on a different path in an unpopular war, similar to what happened, allegedly, following CBS anchor Walter Cronkite's legendary and equally unexpected soul-baring on February 27, 1968.

In one typical instant reaction, on Nov. 19, Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "Situation Room" told his colleague Bill Schneider:

"Bill, you'll remember what President Johnson said when he heard what Walter Cronkite had said at that point, after coming back from Vietnam. He said if he's lost Walter Cronkite, he's probably lost the country. And I suppose that some Republicans are saying now if they've lost John Murtha, a very moderate-conservative Democrat, a strong supporter of the military, they probably realize they've got some serious problems."
Indeed, many Republicans fired back at Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, causing current CBS anchor Bob Schieffer to observe, "Republicans accused him of wanting to cut and run, and all but challenged the patriotism of war critics."

Of course, this is not the first so-called "Cronkite Moment" since the original. Some even invoked Uncle Walter last summer after Cindy Sheehan, mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, galvanized antiwar protest. In any case, it's hard to guess what long-term effect the Murtha "Cronkite Moment" will have, but it did, for the first time, put pullout on the national agenda, provoked angry media and congressional debate, and forced the president to outline his own plan for withdrawal (i.e. "A Plan for Victory").

So it is possible that it will one day be seen as some kind of major or minor key "Cronkite Moment." But the analogy is strained. As many have pointed out, there is no mainstream figure quite like Cronkite today (even Johnny Carson is now gone). As CBS knows all too well, viewership of the nightly news on all networks has plunged and with hundreds of cable channels to choose from, no single media figure will ever come close to Cronkite's standing and influence. So, sorry Bob, Brian and whoever the hell is anchoring ABC right now.

But let me stop right here and raise the type of question that should always emerge at this point: Maybe this whole "Cronkite Moment" hype is overblown from its inception. Did the original moment really have the impact claimed for it, mainly by people too young to experience it at the time?

I happen to be old enough to have been involved in the Vietnam struggle as a potential draftee and (not coincidentally) your basic college protester. I can't say that I remember watching the Cronkite epiphany on that late-February 1968 evening, as I did not have easy access to a TV, or noticing any immediate upheaval. But I do recall the screaming front-page headlines, a few weeks earlier, about the American setbacks in the Tet offensive, which sparked Cronkite's trip to Vietnam, which in turn led to his broadcast "moment."

For those who have only heard about what he said, but never actually read it (no doubt that includes nearly all of you), here is a handy link to the transcript.

It climaxes with Cronkite declaring, "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion." His equivalent of calling for a pullout was to propose negotiating seriously with the enemy, "not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. This is Walter Cronkite. Good night."

Perhaps this column will inspire someone out there to conduct in-depth study of the lasting impact of those few sentences (if it hasn't already been done). I know this: 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."

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