War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War

By Matthew A. Baum; Tim J. Groeling | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
Back to the Future
FOREIGN POLICY IN THE SECOND
ERA OF THE PARTISAN PRESS

IN FEBRUARY 1968, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite gave what is often regarded as the most important commentary of his long and distinguished career. In his first broadcast since concluding a fact- finding tour of Vietnam following the shocking 1968 Tet Offensive, Cronkite somberly editorialized that, while not on the “edge of defeat,” the United States was “mired in stalemate,” and that “the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could” (Cronkite 1968).

In the halls of the White House, the reaction to Cronkite's apparent turn against the war was shock and dismay. According to one famous account, President Johnson himself was deeply shaken by Cronkite's editorial because it meant he had lost the center, as “Walter both was the center and reached the center” (Halberstam 2000, 514). Indeed, after watching Cronkite's declaration, Johnson reportedly commented to an aide, “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America” (PBS 2006). In his analysis of the event, Halberstam asserted that the editorial did “change the balance” in the debate over the war, concluding that “it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman” (514).

While no contemporary media figure holds the stature or wields the influence of Walter Cronkite, the news media clearly continue to play a vital role in the conduct of American foreign policy. We began this book by highlighting an apparent gap between what elites typically say about foreign policy and what the media say those elites are saying. Most of the current scholarly literature on the relationship between political elites and the mass media, as notably exemplified by the Media Indexing hypothesis, did not anticipate this gap. Its existence raised questions about the validity, or at least the general applicability, of one of the most widely accepted arguments concerning the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy, which we termed the Opinion Indexing hypothesis. We also sought to bridge the divide between scholars studying the im

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