By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
A couple of weeks ago on the Tennessee Valley Spotlight, I was discussing with my my co-hosts Tony Llewellyn and Rex Davis the fact that even though we are not “runnin’ with the Big Dogs” when it comes to being powerful members of the media, nonetheless we have what I feel is a sacred duty to do our best to be accurate and fair with all that we do, even when we are giving our opinion on the air, in print, or in social media. This is especially important when the lives of our brave warriors are on the line, as was the case during the Vietnam War. As is true with every other part of life, it is important to “let the story be the story,” even when there is good, bad, ugly or at the very least, controversial content.
February will mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, which historians agree was the point at which the war in Vietnam bogged down badly and began to be lost in the court of public opinion, especially on college campuses. Central to that shift away from supporting our troops was an op-ed which was aired by the venerable CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite himself. He had just made a trip to Vietnam to get the “boots on the ground” aspect of the Tet Offensive, as well as its aftermath. Ostensibly, his purpose as a veteran newsman was to get it right, and tell the truth.
However, that is not what happened; and I don’t think it’s irresponsible to say that Walter’s now irrefutably documented speaking-out-of-both-sides-of-his-mouth resulted in slaughtering the morale of our soldiers, and perhaps insured the torture and possible death of those who were really boots on the ground, our troops.
What in the world am I talking about? Well, 50 years after the fact, a dusty piece of footage has been found of the first statement which was filmed of Cronkite’s broadcast right after the U.S. victory during Tet. What was actually broadcast later though, was the complete opposite, and even President Lyndon Johnson reportedly reacted by saying, “If I have lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” The truth is that perhaps LBJ would not have “lost middle America,” and Jane Fonda would not have been able to do her worst, if the original clip had been shown.
What Cronkite said on February 28, 1968, after he got back to the States was, “Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout but neither did we.” He then advanced the narrative that now the war was at a stalemate, could not be won, that our soldiers would leave their post “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” What would be waiting for those “honorable people” when they got home were people like I used to be, people who thought they were not only not in any way honorable, but that they were “baby killers.”
Now contrast “Uncle Walter’s” previous statements with the following, which was filmed on February 13 while Cronkite was still in Vietnam, and which was recently found by accident: “First and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat,” he reported. “Its missions proved suicidal. If they had intended to stay in the cities as a negotiating point, they failed at that. The Vietnamese army reacted better than even its most ardent supporters had anticipated. There were no defections from its rank, as the Viet Cong apparently had expected. And the people did not rise to support the Viet Cong, as they were also believed to have expected.”
So, which was true, why was the second piece the one we all heard, and why does it matter?
Perhaps Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center can shed the most light on the subject: “Walter Cronkite’s partisanship in his ‘news’ coverage of the Vietnam war is not just a matter of speculation. It is not just a matter of fact. It is celebrated fact by those closest to the newsman. Leslie Midgley was Cronkite’s long-time producer and in his book, How Many Words Do You Want, he recounts how he turned ‘America’s Most Trusted Newsman’ against the war and concludes they were doing ‘the true work of the Lord.’ In journalism the only thing worse than bias is the false denial of bias. Cronkite and company were guilty of that until the bitter end.”
Clearly fake news is nothing new, and it is extraordinarily uncomfortable to face what can happen when it goes unchallenged, even if it’s 50 years later.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner