W. Joseph Campbell corrects the record on 10 important misreported stories

Historians in the News

Toting big guns and an itchy trigger-finger is American University professor W. Joseph Campbell, whose new book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism flattens established myths that you were brought up to believe were true: that Orson Welles sparked a national panic with his 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast; that the New York Times suppressed news of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba at the request of the White House; that Edward R. Murrow destroyed Sen. Joseph McCarthy; that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst told an illustrator, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," before the Spanish-American war started; and more.

It has long been an article of faith that President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America," or something like that, after watching the February 1968 CBS News special about the Vietnam War in which well-respected broadcaster and host Walter Cronkite described the conflict as "mired in stalemate." Indeed, a month after the special, Johnson told the nation he would not be running for re-election.

"The program supposedly was so singularly potent that it has come to be remembered as the 'Cronkite moment,' " Campbell writes.

But when and where did Johnson make his Cronkite statement? The earliest mention of the Johnson anecdote Campbell could find is in David Halberstam's 1979 book about the press, The Powers That Be, which was published more than a decade after the alleged utterance. Halberstam doesn't put the apocryphal Johnson statement in quotations....

There are a half-dozen problems with Halberstam's reporting. Johnson doesn't appear to have seen the program when it aired, as Campbell documents. The program was recorded, according to Johnson Presidential Library records, but there is no evidence he watched the tape. Nor does Johnson mention the program in his memoirs, The Vantage Point. Arguing against the view that the program made a big impact on Johnson are the strident pro-war speeches Johnson gave after it aired. In one hell-raiser, he demanded a "total national effort" to win in Vietnam....

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