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Remembering Walter Cronkite

CBS News' Walter Cronkite. (courtesy photo)

CBS News' Walter Cronkite. (courtesy photo)

In the wake of veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite’s death, two American University journalism professors reflect on the journalist many called the ‘most trusted man in America.’  

Cronkite was noted as one of the best in the business, but according to associate professor W. Joseph Campbell, Cronkite, surprisingly, was also at the center of one of American journalism’s most widespread media myths.   

The myth stems from Cronkite’s 30-minute special report on Vietnam, televised in late February 1968. As the program neared its end, Cronkite declared that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Drawing on his recent visit to Vietnam in the aftermath of the communists’ surprise Tet offensive, Cronkite said military victory seemed out of reach for U.S. forces.

Supposedly, President Lyndon Johnson was at the White House watching Cronkite's program and, upon hearing the call for negotiations, snapped off the television set and said, in effect, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

According to Campbell, Johnson wasn't at the White House when Cronkite's report aired. The president was in Texas, at a birthday party in Austin for Gov. John Connally and did not see the program when it originally aired.

Over the years, the special report and Johnson’s despairing response have become the stuff of legend—ranking among the most unforgettable moments in American journalism. The Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is a chapter in Campbell's forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, about media-driven myths.

Associate professor Jane Hall was a young budding journalist herself when she received the dream assignment to interview a recently retired Cronkite for a People magazine article in the early 1980s. Her task was to interview Cronkite about his new book on sailing, but the new journalist who had grown up in the era of the big three took her line of questioning beyond sailing and delved into his thoughts on the changing nature of the news business.

From the interview Hall learned that Cronkite was not in favor of the glitzy features that the newscasts were producing in lieu of the Washington-based, wire-service segments he preferred and although enjoying retirement, he was upset that he was not asked to be part of more on-air programming and specials.

In an opinion piece for FoxNews.com, she writes, “I teach aspiring journalists as a college professor, and I am not one of those who says that everything in the past in journalism was great -- and everything today and ahead of us in journalism is bad. It's not true -- and the current news environment also offers great reporting --and innovations, across media, as yet unseen. But -- at a time when the nightly news was called "our national seance," Walter Cronkite stood for the best traditions of straightforward reporting and journalism.”

American University’s School of Communication also is connected to Cronkite through late professor Ed Bliss, who founded AU's journalism program. Bliss was the first news editor for CBS News with Walter Cronkite and a writer for Edward R. Murrow.