W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and ‘the most trusted man’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on October 31, 2010 at 11:37 am

Jon Stewart, the TV satirist whom the Washington Post calls a founding father of “fake news,” drew tens of thousands of fans to Washington, D.C., yesterday in an enthusiastic rally on the National Mall.

Stewart, TV comedian

Stewart of late also has invited improbable parallels to Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman who died last year. The Guardian newspaper in London the other day suggested an unlikely Stewart-Cronkite linkage, saying of the star of Comedy Central’s Daily Show:

“To some Americans he is the most trusted man in the US since the iconic news anchor, Walter Cronkite, told the country that the Vietnam war was a lost cause.”

While impressed by the turnout yesterday on the Mall, Media Myth Alert was struck even more by the over-the-top, “most trusted” claim.

For starters, the reference to Cronkite and Vietnam is exaggerated.

Cronkite, TV anchor

Cronkite, in a special report broadcast February 27, 1968, asserted that the U.S. military effort against the communist North Vietnamese was “mired in stalemate“–not that the war was lost. And as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the “mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary” by that time.

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, the New York Times reported the war was “not going well” and that victory “may be beyond reach.” The report was published on the Times’ front page in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment hardly can be interpreted as an implicit claim that war had become “a lost cause.” Indeed, it’s striking just “how hedged and cautious” Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam really were, I note in Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite, I write, “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.”

But back to the Stewart-Cronkite comparisons.

The Guardian asserted that to “some Americans,” the often-sarcastic Stewart “is the most trusted man” in America since Cronkite.

Sounds impressive. But “most trusted” is  quite a dubious and slippery characterization.

Cronkite often was called the “most trusted man” in America. Supporting evidence for such a claim was very vague, however.

As the inestimable Jack Shafer pointed out in a column after Cronkite’s death, the “most trusted” epithet can be traced to an unrepresentative survey conducted in 18 states in 1972. The pollster was Oliver Quayle and Company, which sought to measure public trust among U.S. in politicians who were prominent at the time.

Cronkite was inexplicably included in the Quayle poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro Agnew.

It obviously was a shaky and imprecise measure on which to build the claim of “most trusted.”

Indeed, the following year, the pollster Sindlinger and Company reported survey results showing that John Chancellor, anchorman of NBC’s Nightly News, ran slightly ahead of Cronkite in “trust and accuracy.”

As for Stewart, what’s the evidence’s that he’s now the “most trusted” man in America?

It’s likewise pretty thin.

In August 2008, the New York Times profiled Stewart in an article that carried the headline, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?

The profile ran nearly 3,000 words–and nowhere after the headline does the phrase “most trusted” appear.

The Times article quoted Stewart as likening his job to ”throwing spitballs” from the rear of the room and as saying the mandate of his Daily Show program on cable television is to entertain, not inform.

Following Cronkite’s death in July 2009, Time magazine conducted an online poll that suggested Stewart was “trusted” more than any network anchor–easily outdistancing Katie Couric of CBS News, Charlie Gibson of ABC News, and Brian Williams of NBC News.

Time appended a disclaimer to the poll results, noting they were “not scientific and reflect the opinions of only those users who chose to participate.”

In other words, the results were useless for purposes of comparison.

But still, they attracted no small amount of attention.

Perhaps the Fresh Air program on National Public Radio has best taken the measure of Stewart and “trust.”  Fresh Air‘s characterization of the likable comedian?

The Most Trusted Name in Fake News.”

WJC

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Why ‘War of the Worlds’ show didn’t panic America

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2010 at 12:54 am

Today’s the 72nd anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization, a show that was so realistic and made such effective use of simulated news reports that it pitched America into panic and mass hysteria.

That The War of the Worlds program created fear beyond measure on that long ago October night is a delicious tale, one inevitably recalled and retold with gusto as Halloween approaches.

The radio dramatization–the work of 23-year-old Orson Welles–was aired over the CBS radio network on Sunday evening, October 30, 1938.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong: “So alarming was the show, so realistic were its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays, that listeners by the tens of thousands—or maybe the hundreds of thousands—were convulsed in panic.

“They fled their homes, jammed highways, overwhelmed telephone circuits, flocked to houses of worship, set about preparing defenses, and even contemplated suicide in the belief that the end of the world was at hand.

“Fright beyond measure seized America that night more than seventy years ago. … Or so the media myth has it.”

Getting It Wrong presents a compelling case that the panic and hysteria so commonly associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension. That it did can be called Halloween’s greatest media myth.

Some Americans may have been frightened by what they heard on Welles’ show, but most listeners, in overwhelming numbers, were not.

“They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I write, citing data from surveys taken shortly after the program.

But newspaper reports appearing the day after the program advanced the thesis of mass panic had indeed swept the country. From coast to coast, front-page newspaper headlines  told of the fright, terror, and panic that the program supposedly caused.

Welles, the day after

“U.S. Terrorized By Radio’s ‘Men From Mars,’” said the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” declared the New York Times.

“Attack From Mars In Radio Play Puts Thousands in Fear,” said the New York Herald Tribune.

“Radio Fake Scares Nation,” cried the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

These reports, however, were highly anecdotal and the reactions they reported simply did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

Newspapers, I point out, “had no reliable way of ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they offered in their columns the day after the program.”

Here’s why.

The broadcast aired late on Sunday evening in the Eastern time zone, a time when newsrooms of most daily newspapers were thinly staffed.

As such, collecting the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast represented no small challenge, especially for morning newspapers having late-night deadlines, I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Given the constraints of time and staffing, relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential.

“This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches. They had little choice.”

The wire service reports were roundups that emphasized breadth rather than depth. Reliance on the roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that The War of the Worlds program had caused mass panic.

It also helps explains the striking similarity that characterized newspaper coverage of the broadcast. Many anecdotes transmitted by the wire services found their way into  newspapers across the country.

One widely recounted anecdote told of a woman in Pittsburgh whose husband prevented her from poisoning herself. “I’d rather die like this,” she exclaimed, than fall victim to a Martian heat ray.

Also widely reported was the story of a woman who told the Boston Globe she could “see the fire” caused by the alien attack and that she and her neighbors were preparing to flee.

Newspapers in their coverage also tended to place considerable importance on the unusually large volume of calls placed that October night to their switchboards and to those of police and fire departments and local radio stations.

“The surge in call volume was routinely but mistakenly characterized by newspapers as evidence of widespread fright and hysteria,” I write, noting that call volume was a misleading marker of fear and alarm.

The increased call volume is in fact best understood as signaling an altogether rational response by people who neither panicked nor became hysterical. Instead, they sought confirmation or clarification from external sources–newspapers, ironically, as well as police and fire departments–known to be usually reliable.

“Moreover, the call volume surely included people who telephoned friends and relatives to talk about the unusual and clever program they had just heard,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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Discussing ‘Getting It Wrong’ at a special place

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

There was a fine turnout today for my book talk at the Library of Congress, the splendid institution where I have done a great deal of research over the past 12 years or so.

The Library is a special place, and more than 120 people were there as I reviewed three of the 10 media-driven myths that are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Two of the myths discussed possess a strong Washington, D.C., connections; the third was timely in a seasonal, late-October sort of way. Specifically, I discussed:

  • The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: That is, the notion that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
  • The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968: The belief President Lyndon Johnson realized the Vietnam Was was unwinnable following a dire, on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Southeast Asia.
  • The War of the Worlds radio dramatization: The widely held view that Orson Welles’ clever adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a science fiction thriller about a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, touched widespread panic and mass hysteria on Halloween Even 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

The anniversary of Welles’ War of Worlds broadcast is Saturday.

In my talk at the Library of Congress, I pointed out how improbable it was that a radio show–even one as inspired as Welles’ adaptation–could have had the effect of sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of listeners into the streets in panic and hysteria.

There were many internal clues for listeners signaling that the show was just that–a radio show.

It aired Sundays, from 8-9 p.m., Eastern time, on CBS–in the usual time slot for Welles’ program, which he called the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles was the show’s star and director, and his distinctive voice would have been familiar to many listeners that long ago October night.

What’s more, events described in the show moved far too rapidly to be plausible or believable. In less than 30 minutes, for example, the Martians blasted off from their planet, traveled millions of miles to Earth, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, and began a destructive march on New York City.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Claims that the broadcast fomented mass panic and hysteria were dramatically overstated” by daily newspapers the following day.

Close reading of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts made it clear that they based their characterizations of widespread turmoil on relatively small numbers of anecdotal cases of people who were frightened or upset. These anecdotes, I write, “typically were not of broad scale but were small-bore. They described agitation and odd behavior among individuals, their families, or neighbors.”

But by no means did these accounts suggest fright that night reached the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

For newspapers, however, the notion that The War of the Worlds show had caused great panic and alarm represented an irresistible opportunity to bash radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy upstart medium. And newspapers did so in overwhelmingly negative editorial commentary.

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” the New York Times declared about the show. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”

Such criticism was more than mildly self-serving. After all, radio by 1938 had become an increasingly important rival source for news, information, and advertising.

And that negative commentary helped to lock into place the mistaken notion that the radio show about Martian invaders had sown panic and hysteria across the country.

My talk was sponsored by the Library’s Center for the Book, which is directed by John Y. Cole. Library stalwarts in attendance today included Terri Sierra, Mark  Sweeney, Georgia Higley, and G. Travis Westly.

WJC

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Getting it right about Hearst, his newspapers, and war

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 27, 2010 at 7:30 am

It’s rather remarkable how William Randolph Hearst, the timeless bogeyman of American journalism, serves so readily as an exemplar of how awful the news media can be.

Hearst

Hearst and his newspapers, for example, are often blamed for having fomented the war with Spain over Cuba in 1898. They didn’t.

He’s also accused of having vowed to “furnish the war,” in an incendiary telegram to the artist Frederic Remington in 1897. I debunk that popular but thinly documented tale  in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

A column yesterday in the Philadelphia Inquirer offered another charge against Hearst’s character and journalism. He was accused of having played on anti-Catholic sentiment to whip up popular sentiment against Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Here’s what the column said:

“Fox News and [Fox talk show host Bill] O’Reilly have been the leading TV gathering point for anti-Muslim sentiment following the attack on New York’s World Trade Center, most recently providing viewers with a rallying point against the so-called ground zero mosque.

“This sort of journalism is even older than what some people characterize as political correctness and others call public respect for minorities. In 1890, William Randolph Hearst helped boost profits for his New York Journal newspaper, stirring public sentiment to start the Spanish-American War, by exploiting antipathy for the Roman Catholic Spanish Empire.”

Let’s see: In 1890 Hearst wasn’t even in New York; he was in San Francisco, running the Examiner newspaper. He didn’t take control of the New York Journal until 1895.

And war was not profitable for Hearst’s newspapers .

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the Spanish-American War in 1898 generally boosted newspaper circulation. But advertising revenues fell, as advertisers feared the conflict would undercut a halting recovery from hard economic times of the 1890s.

Moreover, newsprint costs soared, as did news-gathering expenditures.

In 1899, the trade journal Fourth Estate estimated that Hearst’s New York Journal had spent $50,000 a week—the equivalent these days of more than $1 million—on cable tolls, reporters’ salaries, and dispatch boats that ferried correspondents’ reports from the war’s principal theater in Cuba to Jamaica and elsewhere for transmission to New York.

Hearst’s Journal scoffed at claims that it helped bring on the war as part of a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits.

Hearst's Evening Journal

“Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal said, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000—the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

Close reading of the Journal in the run-up to the Spanish-American War makes it clear that Catholicism wasn’t much of a preoccupation for the newspaper. The Cubans, after all, were overwhelmingly Catholic, too, and the Journal sided unequivocally with their bid for political self-rule.

The human rights disaster that took hold in Cuba by 1898 was far more important to the Journal and to other newspapers in New York than “antipathy” to Spain’s Catholicism.

Spain, in a clumsy attempt to put down an island-wide rebellion against its colonial governance, forced thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the rebels, who controlled much of the countryside.

This policy was called “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to widespread malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from starvation and illness.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism . And conditions on Cuba were a frequent topic of reporting in the Journal and other newspapers.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has quite correctly observed that the reconcentration policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

Hearst’s newspapers reported about, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.

WJC

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Halloween’s greatest media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

My Q-and-A with Big Think blog was posted today. In it I discuss Halloween’s greatest media myth–Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds dramatization, which aired on CBS radio 72 years ago this week.

The War of the Worlds program was so clever, and made such effective use of simulated news bulletins reporting a Martian invasion of Earth, that tens of thousands–or even hundreds of thousands–of Americans were pitched into mass panic and hysteria.

Or so the media myth has it.

As I discuss in my new mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” on that long ago night in 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or upset by Welles’ program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

I discuss in the Q-and-A with Big Think just how improbable and unlikely it was that tens of thousands of people were panic-stricken by the radio show.

Think about it, I say: “Tens of thousands? Even hundreds of thousands? That sounded to me quite unlikely and highly improbable. Especially given that mass panic is such a rare phenomenon.”

I added that anecdotal news reports about reactions to the broadcast “simply did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.”

I also pointed out that had there indeed been widespread panic and hysteria that night, “newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have been expected to have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. But as it was, newspapers dropped the story after only a day or two.”

No deaths, serious injuries, or even suicides were associated with the program. “Had there been widespread panic and hysteria,” I noted, “surely many people would have been badly injured and even killed in the resulting tumult.”

I discussed in some detail at Big Think what I call “the would-be Paul Revere effect,” which emerged as the The War of the Worlds show unfolded.

This effect occurred when well-intentioned people who had an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast set out to warn others of the sudden and terrible threat.

“These would-be Paul Reveres,” I noted, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near. …

“The unsuspecting recipients of what were typically jumbled, second- and third-hand accounts had no immediate way of verifying the troubling news they had just received so unexpectedly. Unlike listeners of the radio show, they could not spin a dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion. This second- and third-hand fright didn’t last long. It was evanescent.

“But it is interesting that the show caused some level of apprehension among many people who had not heard one word of the program.”

The “would-be Paul Revere effect” is a little-recognized subsidiary phenomenon of The War of the Worlds broadcast, a show that always is remembered at Halloween time.

WJC

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Suspicious Murrow quote reemerges

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers on October 25, 2010 at 10:06 am

A comment of uncertain authenticity but attributed to legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow resurfaced the other day, in an item posted at the online site of the Salem-News a news service in Oregon.

Witch-hunting senator

The item included this passage:

“As Edward R. Murrow noted, ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.’”

The first portion of the quote–”We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”–is genuine. Murrow uttered the line during the closing portion of his myth-enveloped television report in March 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (above) and his witch-hunting ways.

The second part– “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it”–is highly suspect.

Murrow didn’t say it during his program about McCarthy, the mythical elements of which I address in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

Here’s what Murrow said on that occasion, immediately after his remark about not confusing “dissent with disloyalty”:

“We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”

That’s not  even remotely suggestive of “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

So it’s pretty certain that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” was not followed by “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

This dubious Murrow quotation has been the topic of a previous discussion at Media Myth Alert. I noted then that if the quotation were genuine–if Murrow really said it–then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

But its derivation remains unknown.

I’ve searched the “historical newspapers” database for the suspect quote. The database includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times; no articles quoting “the loyal opposition” passage were returned.

As I’ve noted previously, a search of the LexisNexis database produced a few returns–and none dated before 2001. And none stated when and where Murrow supposedly made the comment.

Among the LexisNexis returns was a book review published in 2003 in the Washington Post. The review invoked “the loyal opposition” passage and said Murrow made the remark “half a century ago, at the height of the McCarthy era.” But exactly when and where was left unsaid.

I couldn’t find “the loyal opposition” passage in A.M. Sperber’s hefty biography of Murrow; nor could I locate it in Bob Edwards’ more recent and much thinner treatment.

The 2005 movie Good Night and Good Luck, which revisited the Murrow-McCarthy encounter, didn’t invoke the quote, either. The line is not to be found in the film’s script.

So why bother running this down? What’s the point?

Several reasons offer themselves.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, there is intrinsic value in correcting the historical record, in insisting on “a demarcation between fact and fiction.” As is the case with many media-driven myths, the suspect quotation seems too neat, too tidy to be authentic.

Falsely attributing quotations is unsavory, off-putting, and distorts the historical record. The Murrow-McCarthy encounter is myth-choked as it is, in that it’s widely believed that the Murrow show in 1954 stopped the senator’s witch-hunt in its tracks.

What’s more, the dubious Murrow quote seems to possess particular relevance and resonance today. But to invoke without knowing its derivation is an abuse of history.

WJC

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Didn’t: A Watergate primer

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

“Didn’t” can be a fairly effective way of understanding contributions of the Washington Post in the Watergate scandal, to which I devote a chapter in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. Even principals of the Post have dismissed that notion, as note in Getting It Wrong.

They didn’t break open the cover-up that Nixon and his close aides plotted in June 1972, soon after the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.

And they certainly didn’t expose the Watergate burglary, the scandal’s signal crime.

“Didn’t” as a way to consider Watergate occurred to me in reading an article posted online yesterday by the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram and Gazette; the article mistakenly asserted that Woodward “exposed the 1972 Watergate break-in with colleague Carl Bernstein.”

The Watergate break-in was thwarted by Washington, D.C., police and the story began circulating within hours.

In fact, the names of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t appear in the byline of the story the Post published June 18, 1972, about the foiled break-in. Woodward and Bernstein were listed among the eight reporters who contributed the report, which carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter for the Post.

“Didn’t” also characterizes another element of Watergate and the Post.

The secret, high-level source called “Deep Throat,” to whom Woodward periodically turned as the scandal unfolded, didn’t advise him to “follow the money”– or, in other words, to scrutinize the contributions to Nixon’s reelection campaign as a roadmap for understanding the scandal.

“Follow the money” is one of the most memorable phrases of Watergate-era American journalism, and it was uttered by the “Deep Throat” character in the cinema version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men.

But the “follow the money” didn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book.

According to an item posted today at the online site of National Public Radio, the phrase was “kind of made up for the movie.”

The item discussed the variety of research conducted over the years by NPR’s research librarian, Kee Malesky. It noted that NPR reporters “have asked Malesky to look up some fairly obscure, though fascinating pieces of information.”

Malesky, who discusses her research in a new book titled All Facts Considered, recalled that Daniel Schorr once asked her “to find the phrase ‘follow the money’ in the book All The President’s Men.

She was quoted as saying that “because my policy was to go to any length to get Dan Schorr what he needed, I went through the book page by page, and that phrase does not appear there.

“And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie.”

It’s a great anecdote, nicely retold.

Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire offered a somewhat more detailed version of the anecdote in 1997, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that Woodward and Goldman blamed each other for having made up the line.

“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire wrote. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.”’

Safire wrote that Schorr “then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”

This thin slice of Watergate arcana certainly is intriguing. And it testifies to how movies can propel media-driven myths.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men is, I write in Getting It Wrong, an important reason why the heroic-journalist interpretation has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal.

The movie version placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of the unraveling of Watergate while downplaying or dismissing the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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If not for Edward R. Murrow

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers on October 22, 2010 at 10:11 am

One of the especially savory myths in American journalism centers around Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman, and his takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, legend has it that Murrow “single-handedly confronted and took down the most feared and loathsome American political figure of the Cold War, Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin.

Murrow in 1954

“Murrow, it is often said, stood up to McCarthy when no one else would, or dared,” and did so March 9, 1954, on the half-hour CBS television program, See It Now.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth was repeated the other day in a commentary posted the other day at the online site of the News-Press of Falls Church, Virginia.

The commentary deceased that “the thuggery of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s would not have ceased but for a determined effort by Murrow and CBS news to reveal the extent of the excess.”

Not only is the claim undocumented; it just isn’t true.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the evidence is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no such decisive effect” as putting an abrupt end to McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt. Murrow, in fact, “was very late in confronting McCarthy,” I write, doing so “after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

What’s more, McCarthy’s favorability ratings had begun to slide months before the Murrow program.

I note in Getting It Wrong that “Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. McCarthy’s favorable rating had slipped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably.”

Interestingly, the Murrow-McCarthy media myth took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program, Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy. Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt ‘almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.’”

Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the See It Now program on McCarthy was pivotal in the senator’s decline. Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“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.”

McCarthy had no more persistent or implacable media foe than Drew Pearson, the muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist who wrote critically about the senator as early as February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s columns criticizing McCarthy began appearing soon after the senator launched his witch-hunt, in which he claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the military, and the Democratic party.

So why was Murrow so late in confronting McCarthy? Why did Murrow wait until Pearson and other journalists had challenged McCarthy? Why did Murrow move only after McCarthy’s ratings had hit the skids?

Those are questions I pose in Getting It Wrong.

Among the explanations I offer is “the well-recognized tendency of television to follow the lead of print media.”

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate and his career had fallen into terminal decline.

WJC

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IBD invokes Hearst myth of ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 21, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Remington, Davis in Cuba

In Getting It Wrong, my new mythbusting book, I point out that the most resilient media-driven myths often are those that are distilled “to a catchy, pithy phrase.”

A telling case in point is the line often attributed to William Randolph Hearst: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” He supposedly was referring to war with Spain in the late 19th century.

Testimony to the tenacity of Hearst’s reputed comment–which I address and debunk in Getting It Wrong–appeared the other day in a commentary in Investor’s Business Daily. The commentary asserted:

“The media have a history of offering more heat than light on many issues. Recall publisher William Randolph Hearst’s telegram to a photographer on assignment to document the supposed conflict in Cuba in 1897: ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’”

Let’s unpack that error-fraught paragraph.

For starters, the story goes that Hearst purportedly sent the telegram to Frederic Remington, a prominent artist (not a photographer), who arrived in Cuba in January 1897 on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal (see image, above).

Remington was sent there to illustrate the island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The artist later recalled that at the time of his brief visit, the Cuban countryside “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Davis

Remington traveled to Cuba with Richard Harding Davis, a prominent writer and correspondent. Davis’ correspondence from that time stated flatly: “There is war here and no mistake.”

So a “supposed conflict” the rebellion was not. In fact, the Cuban rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

As I also point out in Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on,” I write, “even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

“It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

Moreover, I write, the myth “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

A further reason for doubting that Hearst sent such a message is that Spanish authorities closely controlled cable traffic into and out of Cuba. They surely would have intercepted–and would have called attention to–such an inflammatory message, had it been sent.

Despite those and other factors, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is a media myth that refuses to die. One reason for its tenacity, I point out in Getting It Wrong, is that the tale “has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.

“It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Like many media-driven myths, the “furnish the war” anecdote is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is indeed “a catchy, pithy phrase,” one almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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Check out new ‘War of Worlds’ mythbusting trailer

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 21, 2010 at 9:17 am

No single program in American broadcasting has inspired more fear, controversy, and endless fascination than the radio dramatization of the War of The Worlds that aired on Halloween eve in 1938.

The program, which told of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays, was the work of Orson Welles, a 23-year-old prodigy who directed and starred in the show.

As I write in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Welles’ show supposedly was so alarming and made such effective use of simulated news bulletins that listeners by the tens of thousands—or even the hundreds of thousands—were convulsed in fear, panic, and mass hysteria, believing the Earth was under alien attack.

Fright beyond measure seized America that night more than 70 years ago.

Or so the media-driven myth has it.

Getting It Wrong offers compelling evidence that the fear, panic, and mass hysteria so readily associated with the War of The Worlds radio dramatization did not occur that night on anything approaching nationwide dimension.

I write that while some Americans may have been frightened by the program, the overwhelming number of listeners were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining radio show.

However, newspapers the day after Welles’ show suggested that mass panic had indeed swept the country.

Their reports were almost entirely anecdotal and based mostly on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over depth. Newspapers, I write, “simply had no reliable way of ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims” they made about the radio program.

“Inaccurate reporting,” I write, “gave rise to a misleading historical narrative and produced a savory and resilient media-driven myth.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the War of the Worlds show also offered American newspapers an “irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio—which in 1938 was an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising.”

Newspapers took delight in assailing radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy source of information. And this overwhelmingly negative commentary, I write, helped solidify the notion that the radio broadcast had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans.

In short, the idea that the War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in fear and panic, is a media-driven myth—one that offers a deceptive message about the influence of radio and about the media’s potential to cause panic and alarm.

I also note in Getting It Wrong that there can be “no disputing that the War of the Worlds dramatization was great entertainment”–worthy of distinction as perhaps the most famous radio show ever.

WJC

Recent and related:

Many thanks to Kathy Shaidle of fivefeetoffury for linking to this post.

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