W. Joseph Campbell

The debunking of the year, 2011

In Debunking, Media myths on December 29, 2011 at 5:15 am

Freeman (Middle East Policy Council)

The nod for the most notable debunking of 2011 goes to retired U.S. diplomat Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr. for puncturing the popular tale about Zhou Enlai’s remark in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be of the French Revolution.

Freeman told a panel in Washington, D.C., in June that the Chinese premier was referring to the turmoil in France in 1968, not the years of revolutionary upheaval that began in 1789.

His remarks debunking the Zhou misinterpretation were first published by London’s Financial Times.

Zhou’s “too early” comment was made during President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. Freeman, then 28-years-old, was the president’s interpreter on the trip and heard Zhou’s remark.

Freeman said during the panel discussion in June that the misinterpretation “was too delightful to set straight” at the time.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the conversation that Zhou’s comment was a reference to the turmoil of 1968.

Freeman described Zhou’s remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

(In an oral history interview in 1995, Freeman said Zhou possessed  “enormous grace and charm.”)

The conventional interpretation of Zhou’s “too early” comment lives on because it suggests that Chinese leaders are inclined to a long and patient view of history.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Indeed, it did. The misinterpretation persists — and even has been invoked when it’s acknowledged as apocryphal.

The puncturing of the Zhou misinterpretation rates as the “debunking of the year” not only because of its significance but because of its relevance to busting media myths, those delicious but dubious tales that masquerade as factual and offer distorted views of historical events.

In designating Freeman’s disclosure as the “debunking of the year,” I’m reminded of high-minded observations offered in 1998 by Max Frankel, formerly the executive editor of the New York Times.

In observations that go to the heart of the importance of busting media myths, Frankel wrote:

“What’s wrong with a little mendacity — so goes the theory — to give a tale velocity? It is unforgivably wrong to give fanciful stories the luster of fact, or to use facts to let fictions parade as truths.”

Puncturing the Zhou misinterpretation seems in keeping with that objective. The debunking, moreover, offers us a more accurate, more telling, and more realistic view of history and historical figures.

Media Myth Alert‘s first “debunking of the year” went in 2009 to the Spanish researchers who challenged the authenticity of Robert Capa’s iconic “Falling Soldier” image, taken in September 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa’s photograph purports to show a charging loyalist militiaman at the instant he is fatally death.

No “debunking of the year” was designated in 2010, the year of publication of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which punctures 10 prominent media-driven myths.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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