An Associated Press story provides us with a very recent example of the fallibility of oral tradition, and the distortions that can be perpetuated by wishful thinking:
Turns out, the anchorman who prided himself on accuracy helped perpetuate an unfounded claim that newscasters in Sweden and Holland had been nicknamed "cronkiters."
Cronkite wasn't alone in this mistaken report. Apparently, the first journalist to publish it was Pulitzer-prize-winning author David Halberstam. In a magazine piece in 1976, Halberstam wrote that Cronkite's international stature was such that, "in Sweden, anchormen came to be known as Cronkiters." It was a tidbit Halberstam repeated in his classic 1979 chronicle of the modern media world, "The Powers That Be."
When Cronkite died last month, The Associated Press published it in his obituary.
Turns out, no evidence nor accounts uncovered thus far confirm its truth. Not Cronkiters. Not cronkiters. Not with a "k" instead of a "c." Not in Holland (which was added to the mix along the way) any more than in Sweden.
That's really the way it is.
But why the myth of "cronkiter" took hold is a no-brainer. Maybe literally.
- The story was not only delightful but seemed plausible enough.
- It served the narrative of Cronkite and the national respect accorded him, especially in tributes appearing at his death.
- Darned important people vouched for it.
- Most of all, it had been around long enough to seem like unassailable fact to those who had already "known" it for years.
(Emphasis and bullets added.)
The 'cronkiter' episode illustrates that this sort of distortion happens regularly, even among people who spend their lives trying to winnow fact from fiction.
By and large, such distortions are harmless — if, that is, people don't lean on them too heavily in making life bets.
What's not so harmless is when those who fall prey to this kind of distortion insist that their wishful thinking is the only legitimate, the only plausible view.