W. Joseph Campbell

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Absent in looking back: Katrina’s lessons for the press

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Watergate myth on August 31, 2010 at 6:06 am

The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall has prompted a fair amount of hand-wringing and knitted-brow discussions about lessons still to be absorbed, five years after the storm’s onslaught on the Gulf Coast.

The Washington Post, for example, carried a lengthy and rather preachy commentary the other day about “Katrina’s unlearned lessons.” The commentary included this warning:

“Barring urgent action, if the gulf region is hit by another big hurricane this fall, its communities will be knocked down–and this time, many will not be able to get back up.”

Possibly. But it’s highly speculative.

Largely absent in the retrospective assessments about the hurricane are discussions about lessons the news media should take, or should have taken, from their often-exaggerated reporting about the nightmarish violence Katrina supposedly brought to New Orleans.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated.

“On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

Little of it was true.

What’s more, I write, the exaggerated, over-the-top reporting about mayhem and unspeakable violence “was neither benign nor without consequences.

“It had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of evacuees at the [New Orleans] Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

In the weeks following Katrina’s landfall, leading news organizations produced a brief flurry of reports revisiting, and criticizing, the accounts of mayhem and anarchy in New Orleans.

“The media joined in playing whisper-down-the-lane,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said in late September 2005 about post-Katrina coverage from New Orleans, “and stories that defied common sense were treated as news.”

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “The news media’s contrition and introspection did not last for long, however. The self-critical articles tended to be one-off assessments that usually received little prominence. The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Washington Post all placed their retrospective articles on inside pages, for example.

“After the flurry of post-Katrina assessments in late September and early October 2005,” I add, “the news media demonstrated little interest in sustaining or revisiting the self-critique.”

Five years on, Katrina’s lessons and reminders for the news media remain relevant. Among them is the near-certainty that erroneous reports will proliferate in the immediate aftermath of any major disaster.

As Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder told a congressional panel investigating Katrina’s consequences, “misleading or completely false media reports should have been among the most foreseeable elements of Katrina.”

As her comment suggested, the news media’s susceptibility to reporting disaster-related falsehoods and rumors has long been recognized. I cite in Getting It Wrong a prescient article titled “Coping With the Media in Disasters: Some Predictable Problems” that was published in the mid-1980s in Public Administration Review.

The authors–in an observation that anticipated Katrina’s aftermath–noted that news organizations “can spread rumors, and so alter the reality of disaster, at least to those well away from it, that they can bias the nature of the response. They can and do create myths about disasters, myths which will persist even among those with contrary disaster experience.”

The near-complete breakdown of communication networks in Katrina’s aftermath certainly complicated matters for reporters. Telephone service was out across New Orleans after Katrina roared through. Cell phones did not function. Electricity was scarce.

Amid such conditions, stories that at first may have had some factual underpinning became “exaggerated and distorted as they were passed orally—often the only mode of communication—through extraordinarily frustrated and stressed multitudes of people, including refugees, cops, soldiers, public officials and, ultimately, the press,” wrote Brian Thevenot in “Mythmaking in New Orleans,” a fine article published at the end of 2005 in American Journalism Review.

While the communications breakdown helps explain why exaggerated reporting was rampant in New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath, it does not exonerate the flawed coverage or let journalists off the hook.

In varying degrees, communication disruptions are elements of all major disasters.

And as I write in Getting It Wrong, the collapse of communication networks should have given reporters pause, leaving them “more cautious and more wary about what they heard and reported, and thus less likely to traffic in wild and dubious claims.”

WJC

Related:

Unpacking errors in a ‘history lesson in media freedom’

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on August 29, 2010 at 11:11 am

Confirming anew that prominent myths of American journalism travel far and all too well, a columnist for a South African newspaper recently offered “a brief history lesson in media freedom” that thoroughly mangled the legendary encounter between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In offering her “lesson,” the columnist for the online Mail & Guardian wrote:

McCarthy in 1954

“You’ll remember Senator Joseph McCarthy as the one who made America scared of those nasty Communists ….

“He was so scary that the media, although not legally required to do so, practiced extreme self-censorship, and did not criticise McCarthy in an attempt to avoid accusations of trying to bring down the government.

“Thankfully,” she added, “a radio presenter called Edward Murrow, who famously ended his broadcasts with ‘goodnight, and good luck’, came along and said: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty … We are not descended from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.’ At which point everyone realised just how unpopular McCarthy was, and he didn’t last long after that.”

There’s just an astonishing amount of error to unpack in those paragraphs.

Prominent among them is the discussion of Murrow, who was more than just a “radio presenter.” His searing assessment of McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt was shown on television, on the CBS show See It Now that aired March 9, 1954.

By then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking media-driven myths, McCarthy’s “favorability ratings had been sliding for three months,” from a high of 53 percent in December 1953.

So Americans were turning against McCarthy well before Murrow’s show.

I note in Getting It Wrong, that “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 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 he had become a target of withering ridicule—a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

I further write:

“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.”

Hardly did Pearson (not to mention several other American journalists) practice “extreme self-censorship” as McCarthy pressed flimsy claims that communists had infiltrated high into the U.S. government, the military, and the Democratic party.

Pearson in the 1950s was Washington’s most-feared muckraking columnist and he challenged and criticized McCarthy years before Murrow’s program.

In February 1950, just after McCarthy began making extreme charges about communists in government, Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and wrote that his allegations were “way off base.”

Pearson also reported in 1950 about McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin, the senator’s questionable campaign contributions, and the suspicious payment he accepted from Lustron Corporation, a manufacturer of prefabricated housing that had received millions in federal  government support.

Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, who in typical fashion took to the Senate floor in mid-December 1950 to denounce  the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism.”

A few days before the speech, McCarthy had physically assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

I write in Getting It Wrong that accounts differed as to what happened at the Sulgrave, noting:

“Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

Richard Nixon, then a U.S. senator, intervened to break up McCarthy’s attack.

So as I note in Getting It Wrong, “the legendary status that came to be associated with the [Murrow] program obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky.”

And that is the real lesson here.

WJC

Related:

Mainstream media ‘fractured’ in covering Katrina

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

The Nation offered yesterday an incisive assessment of the news media’s coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans that was as thoughtful as any I’ve seen amid the indulgence in “anniversary journalism” in recent days.

The article was not entirely a critique of the media’s performance but sought to reconstruct what it called the “story of the storm.” At times it was predictably dogmatic (i.e., “The levees broke and so did the bulwarks that protected the president,” a reference to George W. Bush’s popularity).

But the article was pretty much spot-on in characterizing the media’s over-the-top reporting about the violence, mayhem, and anarchy that Katrina supposedly unleashed on New Orleans. It’s a topic discussed in the closing chapter of Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks prominent media-driven myths.

I write in Getting It Wrong that post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans represented “no high, heroic aftermath in American journalism.”  The coverage, I note, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

The Nation describes the U.S. mainstream media as having “fractured under the pressure of reporting such a huge and complex story. Journalists on the ground often wrote empathic and accurate stories and broke out of their ‘objective’ roles to advocate for the desperate and rail against systemic failures.

“Meanwhile … credulous television, online and print reporters spread lurid rumors about baby rapists and mass murders and treated minor and sometimes justified thefts as the end of civilization. They used words like ‘marauding’ and ‘looting’ as matches, struck over and over until they got a conflagration of opinion going.”

That’s well-put.

As is this passage:

“The stories of social breakdown were quietly retracted in September and October 2005, but the damage had been done. A great many found new confirmation of the old stereotypes that in times of crisis people—particularly poor and nonwhite people—revert to a Hobbesian war of each against each.”

So why does all this still matter, five years on?

The anniversary of Katrina’s onslaught presents an opportunity for journalists to revisit and reexamine the flawed reporting from New Orleans, with an eye toward taking lessons by which to improve coverage of adversity and disasters.

After all, the exaggerated, over-the-top reporting from New Orleans was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “neither benign nor without consequences. It had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

It’s also useful for journalists covering disasters to hone a pronounced measure of skepticism about pronouncements by senior public officials.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the mayor and the police commissioner “were sources for some of the most shocking and exaggerated reports about the disaster,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Mayor Ray Nagin said in a memorable appearance September 6, 2005, on Oprah Winfrey’s television show that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing storm-evacuees inside the Superdome.

The mayor also said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

The police commissioner, Eddie Compass, spoke of other horrors, saying “little babies [were] getting raped” inside the Superdome.

Their accounts were widely reported—and proved to be almost totally without foundation. In all, six people died in the Superdome in Katrina’s aftermath. None of those deaths was related to violent crime.

As the Nation‘s article notes, “Most ordinary people behave remarkably well when their city is ripped apart by disaster. They did in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake; in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake; in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11; and in most disasters in most times and places.

“Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok.”

And post-Katrina New Orleans was an object lesson for journalists.

WJC

Related:

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Give the press ‘D-minus’ on post-Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 26, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Harry Shearer, director of The Big Uneasy, a new film about why levees failed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught, offered a searing critique the other night about the news media and their coverage of the deadly storm.

Shearer was quoted by AOL’s DailyFinance site as saying the New York Times “did okay” in its post-Katrina coverage five years ago.

“I think the rest of the press gets a D, and probably a D-minus for their efforts at patting themselves on the back about how well they did speaking truth to power,” Shearer said in an interview Tuesday night with Jeff Bercovici, the media columnist for DailyFinance.

Shearer cited the encounter September 1, 2005, between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

Cooper on that occasion snapped at Landrieu, telling her: “And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.”

Shearer said of Cooper’s tongue-lashing the senator: “Like that’s the person you need to lecture.”

Shearer was further quoted as saying: “It was grandstanding and showboating in place of telling a story–partly because they left. They left. Water leaves, story over” in post-Katrina New Orleans.

He noted that the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina-related coverageTimes-Picayune reporters “couldn’t leave,” Shearer said. “They lived there. They had to stay.”

So, a “D” or “D-minus” overall for post-Katrina coverage? Harsh grades, those.

But certainly not undeserved.

News reporting in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s landfall represented “no high, heroic aftermath in American journalism,” I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the myth of superlative reporting in Katrina’s aftermath.

“The coverage,” I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I further write:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated, I note.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that no single news organization committed all those errors. And not all those lapses were committed at the same time, although they were largely concentrated during the first days of September 2005.

In any case, I write, the erroneous and over-the-top reporting “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Estimates of Katrina’s death toll in New Orleans also were wildly exaggerated.

U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said on September 2, 2005, that fatalities in the state could reach 10,000 or more.

Vitter described his estimate as “only a guess,” but it was nonetheless taken up by the then-New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and reported widely.

In all, the death toll in Louisiana from Katrina was around 1,500.

About the inaccurate estimates of fatalities, the Times of London said it had become clear by in mid-September 2005 “that 10,000 people could have died only if more than 90 per cent of them had locked themselves into their homes, chained themselves to heavy furniture and chosen to drown instead of going upstairs as the waters rose.”

But the Times rationalized the flawed reporting, suggesting that it was inevitable: When “nature and the 24-hour news industry collide, hyperbole results.”

A weak excuse, that. Besides, post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans was more than hyperbolic: It described apocalyptic horrors that the hurricane supposedly unleashed.

“D-minus” is none too generous.

WJC

Related:

H/T Jim Romenesko

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

The Washington Post ‘wrecked’ Nixon’s life? Sure it did

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I’m tough on the Washington Post in a couple of chapters in Getting It Wrong, my new book that addresses and debunks prominent media-driven myths.

I call out the newspaper for its singular role in publicizing the erroneous hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch who, because of botched reporting by the Post, unwittingly became the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

I also challenge the hero-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal, asserting in Getting It Wrong that (contrary to the dominant popular narrative) the Post and its reporters did not topple Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. (The Post, to its credit, also has challenged that narrative from time to time over the years.)

While I’m no apologist for the Post and consider it far weaker than its reputation,  I have no patience for such off-handed and outlandish characterizations as those appearing in a post yesterday at the Felsenthal Files, a blog of Chicago Magazine.

The blog post was titled “Blago: The View from Washington” and addressed the Post‘s editorial last week about retrying Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, on federal corruption charges. A jury in Chicago this month convicted Blagojevich on one charge of lying to federal investigators but failed to return verdicts on 23 other counts.

The Post in the editorial said Blagojevich’s prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, “took his shot and lost. He should stand down before crossing another fine line–the one that separates prosecution from persecution.”

The Felsenthal Files found towering irony in that view, stating:

“If Rod Blagojevich has one hero in life besides Elvis, it’s Richard Nixon, and if there’s one newspaper that wrecked Nixon’s life and legacy it’s the Washington Post. How ironic, then, that the Washington Post is trumpeting almost the same line as Blago himself.”

Putting aside the wisdom of retrying Blagojevich, the Felsenthal Files’ flippant passage, alluding to the Watergate scandal, cries out for comment: “… if there’s one newspaper that wrecked Nixon’s life and legacy it’s the Washington Post.”

Wrecked?

Oh, c’mon.

The Washington Post didn’t wreck Richard Nixon.

It was Nixon’s criminal misconduct that defined the Watergate scandal and ultimately led to his resigning the presidency in disgrace in August 1974.

It wasn’t the Post‘s doing.

To regard Nixon’s fall as an effect of the Post‘s investigative reporting is, I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

I further write that the “heroic-journalist interpretation [of Watergate] minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office”–the special prosecutors, the federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have served out his term–if as a wounded and weakened chief executive–had it not been for the existence of the audiotapes he made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court in July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the crimes of Watergate and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

The wreckage of Watergate undeniably was of Nixon’s own doing.

WJC

Related:

Jessica Lynch returns to spotlight in unedifying Bio interview

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on August 24, 2010 at 12:41 am

Jessica Lynch returned to the national spotlight last night in a tedious and unedifying television interview that not once mentioned the Washington Post and its erroneous report that thrust her into unsought and largely undeserved fame early in the Iraq War.

Lynch, an Army supply clerk taken prisoner after her unit was ambushed at Nasiriyah in March 2003, was said by the Post in a sensational front-page account that to have fiercely battled her Iraqi attackers.

That Post‘s report–published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline “‘She Was Fighting to the Death'”–made her the single best-known Army private of the war.

Lynch, then 19, was rescued by U.S. special forces after nine days in captivity at an Iraqi hospital.

She was interviewed by William Shatner, the actor of Star Trek fame, on the Bio channel’s Aftermath show, which  seeks to catch up on people who once had been famous, or notorious.

Probing, Shatner proved not to be.

He was sappy, patronizing, and wholly uninterested in the derivation of the erroneous but electrifying story of Lynch’s battlefield heroics.

Shatner referred vaguely to the “machinery of publicity” and the “stage-managed media frenzy,” clearly suggesting–but not explicitly stating–that the Pentagon had concocted the hero-warrior story.

Astonishingly, neither Shatner nor Lynch spoke specifically about the Washington Post report that was solely responsible for placing her name and supposed heroics into the public domain.

The Post said in its hero-warrior story that Lynch had been shot and stabbed by attacking Iraqis, but had kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

It was stunning detail, but none of it was true.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. She suffered severe injuries not from gunfire, but from the crash of the Humvee in which she tried to flee the ambush.

The Aftermath interview made no mention of the account offered by Vernon Loeb, a reporter who shared a byline on the hero-warrior story about Lynch. Loeb, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air program late in late 2003, made clear the Pentagon was not the source for the erroneous story about Lynch.

In the Fresh Air interview–which I cite in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths–Loeb said of U.S. military officials:

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He added:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted in the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

While he did not identify the Post’s sources for the hero-warrior story about Lynch, Loeb characterized them as “U.S. officials” who were “really good intelligence sources” in Washington, where he was based.

But more than seven years later, the identity of the Post‘s sources on the hero-warrior story remain unclear.

Lynch, who remained fairly poised throughout the hour-long Aftermath interview, said at one point “it would have been easy for me” to have adopted the hero’s mantle and embraced the Post‘s report about her supposed derring-do.

But in reality, doing so would have been untenable.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the colonel commanding the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, where Lynch was treated after her rescue, told journalists the day after the Post published its hero-warrior story that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed.

He thus undercut a crucial element of the hero-warrior narrative.

And as I write in Getting It Wrong:

“If the military was complicit in fabricating the Lynch saga, it defies logic to believe that it would permit one of its own, an Army colonel, to impugn that narrative just as it had begun circulating around the world.”

WJC

Related:

NBC’s Katrina retrospective sidesteps media failings

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I watched this evening’s NBC Dateline retrospective  about Hurricane Katrina, and couldn’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

The hour-long program lacked a news peg, other than it aired in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the storm’s landfall on the Gulf Coast.

Recollections of NBC anchorman Brian Williams, who covered Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, were the centerpiece of the show, which went strong on the images of suffering throngs of people at the New Orleans Superdome and the Convention Center in the days following the hurricane.

But beyond vague references to government incompetence, there was little explanation as to why the suffering there was so intense. Without analysis, such images seemed gratuitous, and voyeuristic.

New Orleans, post-Katrina

In his recollections, which were recorded in 2005, Williams veered close to embracing what I call the myth of superlative reporting–the notion that news coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was little short of heroic, that journalists stood tall in telling truth to power.

“People say, on this crisis, the media found their voice,” Williams said on Dateline, adding, “We owed it to these people [suffering in New Orleans] to ride herd of these officials.”

I write about the myth of superlative reporting in my new book, Getting It Wrong, and note:

“Journalists did confront incompetent government officials who seemed to dither in the face of the disaster. Journalists did let their emotions show. Many of them took great risks in New Orleans to report a demanding, multidimensional story in a city that was 80 percent under water. Some journalists there went days without much of a break, sleeping little and toiling amid despairing conditions.”

But I also write that “Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

The Dateline show addressed none of that–none of the exaggerated descriptions of Mad Max-like violence and mayhem that many news reports said gripped post-Katrina New Orleans.

The exaggerated reporting, I write, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror.” And little of it was true.

I also write in Getting It Wrong that reports of “nightmarish violence and wanton criminality in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall … defamed a battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.”

Moreover, the over-the-top reporting “had the very real and serious effects,” I write, “of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center.”

I cite in Getting It Wrong a 600-page report about Katrina’s aftermath, prepared by a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives. The report, titled “Failure of Initiative,” stated that  “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted, it was the media.”

The House report also declared:

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false. And that’s too bad because this storm needed no exaggeration.”

I suspect in the days ahead, as the news media indulge in “anniversary journalism” about Hurricane Katrina, that we’ll read and hear little about their failings five years ago in covering the deadly storm.

WJC

Related:

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

Mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’ invoked in ‘USA Today’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

In his column this week, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, invokes the dubious “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and suggests an outspoken television journalist today could help end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Neuharth’s column refers to Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. Near the end of the report, the CBS anchorman declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite suggested that negotiations might represent a “rational” way out of Vietnam.

Neuharth then invokes the mythical component of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that President Lyndon Johnson, upon hearing “the CBS shocker,” declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other prominent media-driven myths, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Nor is there evidence he watched the program later, on videotape.

Johnson on the night of the program was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

Johnson at Connally's party

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

It represented no epiphany for him.

Indeed, in the days and weeks immediately following Cronkite’s program, Johnson’s rhetoric on the war remained hawkish. On March 18, 1968, for example, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

He also declared in that speech:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Moreover, it’s clear that by early 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment about the war was unremarkable. Mark Kurlansky said as much in his well-received year-study about 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, the New York Times published a front-page news analysis that said victory in southeast Asia “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis was published in August 1967 and carried the headline, “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

And as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, former NBC newsman Frank McGee offered an analysis about Vietnam in March 1968 that was more forceful and direct Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization.

“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

“Being lost,” McGee said: No hedging there.

But almost no one remembers Frank McGee’s blunt assessment.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the purported “Cronkite Moment” has become for many American journalists “an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in wartime reporting. It is an objective that contemporary practitioners at times seem desperate to recapture or recreate.”

Neuharth’s column makes  just that point, stating:

“The TV man—or woman—who suggests a ‘rational’ way out of Afghanistan could become today’s Cronkite.”

Not likely, not in today’s diverse and splintered media landscape in which audiences for network television have been in sustained decline.

In any case, it’s interesting to note that until late in his life, Cronkite disputed the notion that his 1968 report on Vietnam had much of an effect.

In his 1997 memoir, for example, Cronkite characterized his “mired in stalemate” assessment in decidedly modest terms, stating that it represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

He reiterated the “just one more straw” analogy in interviews promoting the book.

But by 2007, two years before his death, Cronkite had embraced the purported power of the “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with the Gazette of Martha’s Vineyard:

“There are a lot of journalists out there today who if they chose to take that strong stand and course [in opposing the Iraq War] would probably enjoy a similar result.”

WJC

Related:

Getting it right about ‘yellow journalism’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on August 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

“Yellow journalism” is an evocative sneer that has morphed over the decades.

Hearst's New York Evening Journal, April 1898

The term these days is sometimes invoked as an off-hand description for sensational treatment of the news. Or, more broadly, it’s used to describe egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind.

Or, as AlterNet blog noted in a post yesterday, “sometimes, yellow journalism is seen as synonymous with [William Randolph] Hearst, himself.”

But that’s really an imprecise characterization of a robust genre practiced by Hearst and others in the late 19th century.

As I wrote in my 2001  book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, yellow journalism was defined by these features and characteristics:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Given those defining features, I wrote in Yellow Journalism that the genre “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

Moreover, yellow journalism of a century or more ago was often criticized–but its salient features, including its bold typography, were often emulated. As such, it exerted a powerful influence in American journalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So it was much more than merely sensational.

But largely due to its association with Hearst–a toxic personality who ran the New York Journal and later turned the newspaper into a platform for a succession of failed campaigns for high public office–“yellow journalism” has mutated into the caricature that’s commonplace today.

The AlterNet post, which assails Rupert Murdoch and his recent $1 million donation to the Republicans, also says “yellow journalism” was “originally coined to describe the journalistic practices of Joseph Pulitzer….”

Not so.

As I discuss in Yellow Journalism, the epithet was devised in early 1897 to impugn the journalism of both Pulitzer and Hearst.

Yellow journalism” first appeared in print in the New York Press, which was edited by the austere Ervin Wardman, who once was described as revealing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.”

The term appeared in Wardman’s newspaper on January 31, 1897, and quickly caught on, as a way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of Hearst’s Journal and of 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.

A sneer thus had been born.

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

As I note in Yellow Journalism, the newspaper’s own brief discussion of the term’s 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, who plainly despised Hearst and Pulitzer, and editorially supported an ill-fated boycott of their newspapers in New York City in 1897.

Related:

Lynch heroics ‘ginned up by Bush-era Pentagon’?

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on August 17, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Private Lynch

The Huffington Post today reviews the new movie about Pat Tillman, the pro football player turned Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The review also takes a swipe at the Pentagon for supposedly concocting a hero-warrior story around 19-year-old Army private Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War.

The review says that Lynch’s “combat actions, as ginned up by the Bush-era Pentagon, did not square with reality.”

Well, frankly, that observation doesn’t quite “square with reality.”

I discuss the myths that have been spun off from the Lynch case in my new book Getting It Wrong, noting that the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the erroneous account of Lynch’s battlefield heroics.

The Washington Post thrust that account into the public domain in a sensational, front-page report on April 3, 2003.

The Post‘s story described how Lynch, despite being shot and stabbed, fiercely fought Iraqi attackers in an ambush at Nasiriyah. The electrifying report appeared beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

And the story was picked up around the world. But it was wrong, badly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot in the fighting at Nasiriyah. She suffered neither gunshot nor stab wounds; her injuries were severe, and came in the crash of a Humvee fleeing the ambush.

The Post‘s article was based on sources identified only as “U.S. officials.” The article said that “Pentagon officials … had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation” to offer.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, one of the Post reporters on the story said on at least two occasions that the Pentagon was not the source for the Lynch story.

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, who has since moved on to the Philadelphia Inquirer, told the NPR Fresh Air program in December 2003 that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports [of Lynch's supposed heroics] at all.”

He added that the Pentagon “was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

As denials and knock-downs go, that one is pretty solid. And unequivocal.

A few months earlier, Loeb was quoted in an op-ed article in the New York Times as saying: “Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

As I also note in Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon’s then-spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, told the Associated Press in June 2003: “We were downplaying [the Lynch story]. We weren’t hyping it.”

Even in the face of such denials, the notion the Pentagon concocted a phony hero-warrior story about Lynch has become the dominant narrative–one repeated blithely and often.

Interestingly, those pushing the Pentagon-made-it-up meme never seem to explain just how the veteran Post reporters on the Lynch story were so easily and thoroughly duped.

Loeb shared the byline on the story with Susan Schmidt, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Among those contributing to the story was Dana Priest, who also has won a Pulitzer.

And if the Pentagon had “ginned up” the hero-warrior story about Lynch, “it failed miserably in keeping the ruse from unraveling, ” I write in Getting It Wrong.

The day after the Post‘s “‘fighting to the death'” article appeared, the head of the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, told reporters that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed–undercutting crucial elements of the hero-warrior tale.

WJC

Related:

<!–[if !mso]> the article that their information about Lynch and her heroics was from “U.S. officials” with access to what the reporters called “battlefield intelligence” compiled from “monitored communications and from Iraqi sources in Nasiriyah whose reliability has yet to be assessed.” The article said that “Pentagon officials … had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation” to offer.[i]


[i] Schmidt and Loeb, “‘She Was Fighting to the Death,’” Washington Post.

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