W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Yellow journalism: A sneer is born

In 1897, Anniversaries, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 31, 2010 at 9:30 am

Erwin Wardman, New York Press

It’s a little-recognized, never-celebrated anniversary in American journalism, granted.

But today marks the 113th year since the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the New York Press, edited by the austere Ervin Wardman.

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the Press’ editorial page on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the Press’ editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.”

“Yellow journalism” caught on quickly, as a way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and of Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World.  By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the decades since then, “yellow journalism” has become a widely popular sneer, a derisive shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds, real and imagined. “It is,” as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”

Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on the phrase “yellow journalism” is not clear.

The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the origins was vague and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World.

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, a figure largely lost to New York newspaper history.

Wardman was tall and stern-looking. He once was described as showing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his disdain for Hearst and Hearst’s journalism.

His contempt was readily apparent in the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press is long defunct; it is not to be confused with the contemporary alternative weekly by the same name.)

Wardman’s Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. Hearst’s Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy.

The Press disparaged Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy, as “Billy” and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary.”

The Press also experimented with pithy if stilted turns of phrase to denounce “new journalism.”

“The ‘new journalism,’” the Press said in early January 1897 “continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies.”

Later in the month, the Press asked in a single-line editorial comment:

“Why not call it nude journalism?”

It clearly was a play on “new journalism” and meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”

Before long, Wardman and the Press seized upon the phrase “yellow-kid journalism,” which evoked the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry over a popular cartoon character known as the “Yellow Kid.” Both the Journal and the World at the time were publishing versions of the kid.

The Yellow Kid (Library of Congress)

At the end of January 1897, the phrase “yellow-kid journalism” was modified  to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

After landing on that sneering pejorative, Wardman turned to it often, invoking the term in brief editorial comments and asides such as: “The Yellow Journalism is now so overripe that the little insects which light upon it quickly turn yellow, too.”

The diffusion of “yellow journalism” was sealed when Hearst’s Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, it declared:

“… the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”

WJC

Murrow the brave? Not in McCarthy days

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on January 29, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow is given credit in a blog post today for having shown “great courage” during the days of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

In fact, Murrow was quite late to challenge Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, only doing so years after syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, among others, had taken on the demagogue.

Joe McCarthy, 1954

Even so, the notion that Murrow took down McCarthy in a television exposé in March 1954 lives on as an especially tenacious media-driven myth.

It’s a strange one, too, because the myth took hold despite the protestations of Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:

“Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.”

But a posting today at the Rutherford Institute‘s “Speak Truth to Power” blog indulges the media myth, stating:

“Amid the Red Scare of the 1950s and the Joseph McCarthy era, people were often afraid to speak out against the paranoia being propagated through the media and the government. Fear and paranoia had come to grip much of the American population, and there was a horrible chill in the air.

“But with great courage, Murrow spoke up” on March 9, 1954, on his television documentary television program, show See It Now.

Murrow certainly showed courage during his career in broadcasting. He became a household name in the United States for his coverage from London during Nazi air raids in World War II.

But in early 1954, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans … were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.

“By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known” and the senator had even “become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

I further write in the book, which is due out in summer 2010:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson first challenged McCarthy in 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy's nemesis, Drew Pearson

As I say, Murrow and Friendly, his collaborator on See It Now, acknowledged the program on McCarthy was neither decisive nor necessarily brave.

Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

And Murrow told Newsweek a few weeks after the program:

“It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous.”

WJC

The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 27, 2010 at 8:05 am

My recent post about the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate prompted a few blinkered, ahistoric observations.

Among was this comment, posted at Romenesko‘s feedback site:

“Who cares?” the comment reads. “Watergate was in the early 1970s. …  Arguing the point now about what role a paper played almost 40 years later in a presidency that a significant number of people have no recollections of? Ya gotta admire those authors willing to tackle cutting-edge topics.”

So why does it matter? Why is addressing and debunking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — still important?

Several reasons present themselves, not the least of which is the vigor that characterizes the Watergate myth: It lives on in textbooks, in classrooms, in newsrooms. It’s a very robust myth, little-restrained in its reach and infiltration.

A hint of its reach came yesterday, in an email from former master’s student of mine, who himself now teaches journalism. He described how he approaches the Watergate story:

“I usually start the class discussion by asking the students to write a sentence that begins with ‘Watergate is the story of…’

“Inevitably, several students write something like ‘Watergate is the story of two young reporters who brought down a corrupt president.’ We then spend the rest of the class period challenging that historical narrative.”

Not only is this a great pedagogic technique; the student responses suggest how ingrained the Watergate myth has become.

A further reason debunking matters is that the Watergate myth severely misinterprets the news media’s capacity to exert decisive influence.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, media “myths are neither trivial nor innocuous. … Notably, they tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society, conferring on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.

“Media myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due. The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example.”

Indeed, the Watergate myth points unequivocally to presumed power of the news media, that they can expose corruption at the highest levels and thus make a significant and lasting difference.

As Jay Rosen, blogger and media scholar, wrote quite eloquently a few years ago, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate stands as “the redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people.

“It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapons, journalists save the day.”

What’s more, to debunk myths is to be aligned with a fundamental objective of journalism—that of seeking to get it right. The task of debunking is to insist on a demarcation between fact and fiction, and to assert there is intrinsic value in setting the record straight.

And finally, it’s not as if journalism’s past is irrelevant. It’s unevenly taught and poorly understood, a lot of it. But it’s scarcely irrelevant. Not in the digital century, when the media landscape is being so dramatically redrawn.

WJC

‘Pharm parties’ and the tenacity of media myths

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths on January 26, 2010 at 6:25 am

Jack Shafer, editor-at-large at slate.com, recently revisited and re-debunked the media-driven myth of “pharm parties,” those purported gatherings at “which young people … dump the pills they’ve stolen from their parents’ medicine cabinets into a big bowl and then scoop out and swallow random handfuls.”

It’s a phenomenon, he says, that the news media “pretend [is] both real and ubiquitous.”

Shafer begins his take-down with a half-serious lament, writing:

“I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the ‘pharm party’ meme,” noting that he has written about this fanciful pastime on five other occasions.

Shafer appeals to common sense in deflating the myth, writing:

“There are at least two basic problems with the pharm-party scenario reported in the press. To begin with, if you were a young drug fiend and stole potent drugs, why would you deposit them in a communal bowl if there was a good chance that when your turn came to draw a drug at random, you might get an antihistamine? And second, I’ve yet to read a story in which a journalist actually attends such a gathering, interviews a participant, or cites a police report alleging such behavior.”

It’s an impressive debunking, but Shafer is under no illusions that his efforts will kill off the fantasy.

After all, he says, reports of “pharm parties” or their equivalent can be traced to the mid-1960s. “Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable,” Shafer writes.

And he’s probably right.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, some media-driven myths are so tenacious, so debunking-resistant, because they seem too good, too delicious, not to be true.

That’s certainly the case with the hoary tale of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. What story better captures Hearst the warmonger than that? What tale better signals the potential malignant effects of the news media, writ large?

The anecdote of the Hearstian vow lives on, shrugging off repeated efforts to uproot it.

Likewise, the notion of “pharm parties,” is too enticing, too delicious in a perverse way, not to be true.

Another factor explaining tenacity of media-driven myths is that they readily feed stereotypes. “Pharm parties” certainly do so, offering supposed evidence of the mindless, reckless ways of a younger generation.

One of the cases of stereotyping explored in Getting It Wrong is that of “crack babies,” a frightening and overstated phenomenon of the late 1970s and 1980s. Women who smoked crack cocaine during pregnancy were, it was feared, giving birth to a neurologically damaged “bio-underclass” that would forever be dependent on the state.

The “crack baby” phenomenon turned out to be a widely misreported pandemic. Even so, it seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people. That stereotype was one reason the “crack baby” meme lived on.

And lives on still.

WJC

New Pulitzer biography: An opportunity missed

In 1897, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on January 25, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I recently completed a review of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, & Power, a forthcoming biography of Joseph Pulitzer, who is routinely—but undeservedly—regarded as an iconic figure in American journalism.

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

The new biography, by James McGrath Morris, indulges in the cliché of Pulitzer the great innovator. The author calls him the “midwife to the birth of the modern mass media.”

My review, written for the peer-reviewed quarterly journal American Journalism, notes that the book contains ample material for what could have been a long-overdue reinterpretation of Pulitzer, one that would take him down several pegs.

“All the elements are there,” I write, “to depict Pulitzer not as innovator but as a cruel, ruthless, self-absorbed newspaper owner who became a millionaire championing the cause of the dispossessed while eager to rub elbows with the moneyed classes.”

Pulitzer was a hypocrite and an absentee publisher. But the opportunity for a much-needed reinterpretation was missed.

Pulitzer’s correspondence, which Morris tapped extensively, certainly encourages revisionist treatment. As I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Pulitzer’s mean-spirited letters to senior managers do little to support the reputation historians have accorded him, that of a heroic and innovative journalistic icon.”

The new biography also indulges in a media myth in describing William Randolph Hearst, Pulitzer’s rival in New York City journalism in mid- and late 1890s, as an imitator of Pulitzer’s flagship newspaper, the New York World.

It’s quite conventional to make such a claim.

And misleading, too.

Hearst’s significant model was a British journalist named William T. Stead, who in the mid-1880s offered a vision of “government by journalism.” Stead argued that the journalist was “the ultimate depository of power in modern democracy.”

Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead in developing his model of the “journalism of action,” which sought to do much more than gathering, printing, and commenting on the news. As Hearst’s New York Journal put it in 1897, the “journalism of action” obliged a newspaper to inject itself conspicuously and often into public life, to “fitly render any public service within its power.”

It was a breathtaking model of activism that went well beyond the stunt journalism of Pulitzer’s World.

Oddly, the new biography fails to acknowledge Pulitzer’s nod to Hearst’s success with the Journal.

As infirm and disagreeable as Pulitzer had become by 1897, he was not without moments of keen insight. In a letter late that year to his business manager, Pulitzer invoked “Geranium,” his code name for Hearst’s Journal, and declared:

“I personally think Geranium a wonderfully able & attractive and popular paper, perhaps the ablest in the one vital sense, of managing to be talked about; of attracting attention; of constantly furnishing something which will compel people wherever they meet, whether in the drawing room, or in the poor house, elevated car or dinner table, to talk about something in that paper. That is the sort of brains the World needs. Pardon me for saying also, that with all its faults, which I should not like to copy—though they have been exaggerated—it is a newspaper.”

WJC

The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Nixon after his resignation, 1974

The Washington Post has tried from time to time over the years to distance itself from the media myth that its coverage of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The newspaper’s publisher at the time of Watergate, Katharine Graham, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Still, the media myth that it was the Post – and, specifically, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — who exposed Nixon’s corrupt ways can be too tempting and too perfect to resist.

Such was the case in today’s edition of the Post, in a commentary by Dana Milbank, who declared that “in the mid-1970s,” the Post “took down a president.”

It was a passing reference in a commentary that challenged the dire assessment about the Post published in latest issue of New Republic.

Still, the “took down a president” passage hints at latent hubris and suggests how the Watergate meme can be used as a not-so-subtle reminder of greatness by Post loyalists and insiders.

But as I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, to argue that the Post took down Nixon is to “misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

It is, I further write, a misleading interpretation that “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

What I call the “heroic-journalist myth of Watergate” took hold for a number of reasons, among them the sheer complexity of the scandal. Not only was Nixon turned from office but  19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail.

The “heoric-journalist” myth has become, I also write in Getting It Wrong, “a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” That the Post and its reporters supposedly uncovered Watergate “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

Despite, that is, the periodic protestations from the Post.

Hearty thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post.

WJC

Another twist to the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on January 21, 2010 at 11:47 pm

The “Cronkite Moment” — that legendary occasion in February 1968 when a CBS News special report by Walter Cronkite supposedly altered the course of the Vietnam War — is one impressively dogged, tenacious media myth.

Cronkite in Vietnam

As I noted in a recent post, the “Cronkite Moment” knows few bounds. It supposedly “turned the tide of American public opinion” against the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and “influenced Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection” to the presidency.

And just the other day, the TVWeek online site claimed:

“President Lyndon Johnson once famously said about his support of the Vietnam War that once he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost America. Johnson was referring to a report Cronkite once did where he said the war could not be won.”

Where to start?

First, there is no evidence Johnson ever saw Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. At the close of the program, Cronkite claimed the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not in front of a television set but on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending a party marking the 51st birthday of Governor John Connally.

There is no evidence Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.

Second, Cronkite did not say in that special report that “the war could not be won.” What the anchorman did say was that the time might be approaching when the United States might seek a negotiated settlement to the war.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “a close reading of the transcript of Cronkite’s closing remarks reveals how hedged and cautious they really were.”

Cronkite in those remarks held open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam.

In addition, the TVWeek item represents a minor addition to the varied accounts of what Johnson supposedly said in response to Cronkite’s closing assessment.

The most common version has Johnson saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another version quotes him this way: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

And another has it this way: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

And: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

The TVWeek item indirectly quotes Johnson as saying that “once he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost America.”

Version variability of  such magnitude is a strong signal of implausibility.

And of a media-driven myth.

WJC

Cinema and the tenacity of media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Watergate myth on January 17, 2010 at 12:41 pm

What explains the tenacity of many are media-driven myths? Why are many of them so resistant to debunking?

One important factor, and one that I explore in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, is high-quality cinematic treatment of popular media-centered stories.

The notion that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and  Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was cemented by the 1976 motion picture, All the President’s Men. The movie was based on the reporters’ bestselling book by the same name, which appeared in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was nearing its dénouement with Nixon’s resignation.

The misguided, mediacentric view that Edward R. Murrow’s reporting in 1954 abruptly ended the communists-in-government witchhunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is another myth that the cinema has solidified.

McCarthy in 1954 (Library of Congress)

Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and how “he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

As I further write in Getting It Wrong, the Murrow-McCarthy myth “was sealed for another generation with the release in 2005 of Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie that offered a dramatic version of the back story to Murrow’s See It Now program on McCarthy.

See It Now was Murrow’s weekly, news-oriented documentary program on CBS; the 30-minute show on McCarthy and his tactics aired March 9, 1954. Supposedly, it was so compelling that it stopped the demagogic senator in his tracks.

While Good Night, and Good Luck never explicitly said as much, it lent just that impression—that Murrow courageously and single-handedly ended McCarthy’s reign of terror. That’s how many critics interpreted Good Night, and Good Luck, and that view was reiterated recently in a post at the “Irish Central” online site.

The post described Good Night and Good Luck as telling “the story of ace reporter Edward Murrow who brought down the great witch hunter Joe McCarthy” and praised the movie’s director-star, George Clooney. (Clooney played the role of a slightly pudgy, ever-earnest Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer.)

That post is an example of just how ingrained the Murrow-McCarthy myth has become — and how effectively high-quality cinematic treatments can be in hardening media myths against debunking.

The cinema is far from the only factor accounting for the tenacity of media myths.

But because movies can powerfully influence how historical events are collectively remembered, they lengthen the odds that some media-driven myths can ever be rolled back.

WJC

That awesome ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on January 13, 2010 at 11:44 am

The power of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” knows few bounds.

A column in a Florida newspaper the other day claims that the “Cronkite Moment” was “seminal” because “many say” it “marked the end of the media’s reputation for credibility.”

The occasion was February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite pronounced that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam had become mired in stalemate. Cronkite suggested that negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese should be considered, as a way to end the conflict.

Cronkite’s analysis was supposedly so powerful and insightful that President Lyndon Johnson purportedly told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or words to that effect.

Johnson in 1968

The column in the Hernando Today newspaper, a publication of the Tampa Tribune, doesn’t invoke Johnson’s purported remarks — which, as MediaMythAlert has noted several times, Johnson almost certainly did not say.

The column does, though, say that Cronkite’s remarks “turned the tide of American public opinion and influenced Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection.”

Nope. Not so.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong,  “there is scant evidence that the Cronkite program had much influence at all on American popular opinion about the war.” As I further write in the book, which is to be published in the summer by University of California Press:

“Polling data clearly show that American sentiment had begun shifting months before the Cronkite program.”

Indeed, those data indicate that Americans’ views about the war had begun to shift months before the Cronkite program.

Journalists at the time also detected a softening in support of the war.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, noted that “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters—along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials—appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

As for Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, the Cronkite program had little or no effect.

Critical to Johnson’s decision, which he announced at the end of March 1968, was the advice and counsel of his advisers, and the implications of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for president.

The surprising potency of McCarthy’s antiwar campaign was demonstrated in the Democratic primary election in New Hampshire on March 12, 1968. McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote, a far greater portion than expected. Johnson won 49 percent.

Not only that, there is evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection in 1968.

In any event, Cronkite  used to scoff at the notion that his report of February 27, 1968, had a powerful influence on Johnson. Rather, he would say, the effect was like that of “a very small straw.”

Near the end of his life, however, Cronkite (who died in July 2009) came to embrace the supposed power of the broadcast.

“To be honest,” he told Esquire magazine in 2006: “I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

But it didn’t, though. Not really.

WJC

The poverty-causes-crime link: A myth?

In Debunking, Media myths on January 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

The Wall Street Journal published recently an intriguing op-ed commentary disputing the notion of a strong link between poverty and crime.

The commentary, written by Heather Mac Donald, a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, asserts:

“The recession of 2008-09 has undercut one of the most destructive social theories that came out of the 1960s: the idea that the root cause of crime lies in income inequality and social injustice.

“As the economy started shedding jobs in 2008, criminologists and pundits predicted that crime would shoot up, since poverty, as the ‘root causes’ theory holds, begets criminals. Instead, the opposite happened.”

“Over seven million lost jobs later, crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s. The consequences of this drop for how we think about social order are significant.”

Mac Donald further asserts that “by the end of 2009, the purported association between economic hardship and crime was in shambles.

“According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, homicide dropped 10% nationwide in the first six months of 2009; violent crime dropped 4.4% and property crime dropped 6.1%. Car thefts are down nearly 19%. The crime plunge is sharpest in many areas that have been hit the hardest by the housing collapse. Unemployment in California is 12.3%, but homicides in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported recently, dropped 25% over the course of 2009. Car thefts there are down nearly 20%.”

[In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, Robert Samuelson cites the latest edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States in noting:  "From 1993 to 2007, murders dropped from 25,000 to 17,000 and robberies from 660,000 to 445,000. Crime rates per 100,000 declined more, because the population rose 16 percent over the same period. There is no consensus as to why. Possibilities include better policing techniques and tougher sentencing (the incarcerated population doubled from 1.15 million in 1990 to 2.29 million in 2007).]

Mac Donald in her op-ed says the “increase in the number of people incarcerated had a large effect on crime in the last decade and continues to affect crime rates today, however much anti-incarceration activists deny it.”

She also says that “data-driven policing” techniques also have contributed to the drop in crime.

It’s all intriguing material, evocative in some respects of the research of Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger on what makes a terrorist.

As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Krueger disputes “the popular notion that poverty breeds terrorism. Such a linkage seems intuitive, and has been invoked by politicians, scholars, analysts, and journalists. Krueger’s research showed persuasively, however, that the poverty-terrorism symbiosis is illusory.”

Mac Donald’s op-ed certainly suggests that the poverty-breeds-crime nexus is a myth — or at very least, conventional wisdom that the news media have routinely embraced.

She notes that the recession “could still affect crime rates if cities cut their police forces and states start releasing prisoners early. Both forms of cost-saving would be self-defeating.”

Her op-ed raises intriguing issues that surely merit fuller attention by the news media.

WJC

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