Walter Cronkite in 1968 broadcast

What happens when the media gets it really wrong

Updated 1:56 PM ET, Tue November 28, 2017

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W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of six books including Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism (University of California Press, 2017). He also has written 1995: The Year the Future Began (University of California Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @wjosephcampbell. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)The persistent whiff of scandal surrounding Donald Trump's presidency has, perhaps inevitably, encouraged speculation about which journalists might be considered the next Woodward and Bernstein.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were reporters for the Washington Post, celebrated for their coverage of Watergate -- the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon's presidency in 1974.
What forced Nixon's resignation was evidence he obstructed justice by conspiring to divert the FBI's investigation away from Watergate's seminal crime -- the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972. Unearthing proof of Nixon's misconduct required the combined efforts of federal prosecutors, FBI agents, committees of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.
The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein toppled Nixon is one of the most popular narratives in American journalism. It is, in fact, a tenacious myth -- one of many often-told stories about the news media that are widely believed but which, under scrutiny, prove to be dubious or highly exaggerated.
Media myths have masqueraded as fact for years, even decades. And there are more than a few of them.
Another prominent media myth is the "Cronkite Moment" of late February 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared in an on-air editorial comment that the US military was "mired in stalemate" in Vietnam and that negotiations might offer a way out.
    Cronkite's assessment purportedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have snapped off the television in the Oval Office and muttered to an aide or aides:
    "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
    Or something to that effect. Versions vary.
    But Johnson did not see Cronkite's program when it aired that evening.
    He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Gov. John Connally. About the time Cronkite was pronouncing the war a "stalemate" -- a characterization that was hardly novel in early 1968 -- Johnson was poking fun about Connally's advancing age, saying: "Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for -- a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard -- and I might say late -- trying to maintain it, too."
    In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson was adamant in defending his administration's war policy, repeatedly making clear in effect that he had not been swayed by the anchorman's talk of "stalemate."
    In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting in Washington, D.C.: "We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. ... I don't want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise -- we are going to win."
    Not long after that, Johnson spoke to the National Farmers Union convention, in Minneapolis, where he called for "a total national effort to win the war." A day later, Johnson said in a talk at the State Department: "We have set our course" in Vietnam. "And we will prevail."
    Ban the term 'fake news'