W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for 2012|Yearly archive page

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2012

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, New Yorker, Photographs, Television, Washington Post on December 30, 2012 at 6:25 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2012 on the appearance of many prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the year’s five top writeups, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3): The 40th anniversary of the famous “napalm girl” photograph — one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — fell in early June.

NapalmGirl photo_AP

Nick Ut/Associated Press

In an obituary a few weeks before, the New York Times had referred to the photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children and claimed, erroneously, that it showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the aerial napalm attack that gave rise to the photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. I pointed this out in an email to the Times, noting that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time had made clear.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied, and offered some baffling logic in doing so:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all relevant in the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted doing so until late August, when it issued a sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a begrudging and less-than-forthright acknowledgement of error. It hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller. He asserted in a column in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

hagiographic treatment of the “Cronkite Moment” (posted May 31): Few media-driven myths are as tenacious and desperately held as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

For years, journalists have sought to attach great significance to Cronkite’s assessment, even though it was thoroughly unoriginal and was, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, of little demonstrable impact. Even Cronkite, until late in his life, pooh-poohed its importance.

But all that scarcely deterred Douglas Brinkley from presenting in a hefty biography about Cronkite a decidedly hagiographic — and misleading — interpretation of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Brinkley offered little persuasive evidence in asserting that the “aftershock” of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, “was seismic” and “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”

In discussing the supposed “seismic” effects of Cronkite’s assessment, Brinkley wrote:

“Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.’”

But the Journal editorial that  said so was published four days before Cronkite’s broadcast. To cite the editorial as evidence of a “seismic” effect of the “Cronkite Moment” was certainly misleading.

What’s more, Cronkite’s characterization of stalemate in Vietnam hardly “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”  Public opinion polls indicated that the shift had begun several months earlier.

If anything, Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on Vietnam.

Uneven availability of WaPo’s online content about Jessica Lynch (posted April 27): On April 4, 2003, the Washington Post published a front-page report about an Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion the rescue from captivity of Jessica Lynch, a wounded, 19-year-old Army private.

That report ran to 1,500 words and is freely available at the Post’s online site.

The day before that article appeared, the Post published an electrifying but far more problematic story about Jessica Lynch — an account that claimed she had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner.

Lynch_headline_Post

That article was published on the Post’s front page beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

It was a stunning report that proved wrong in all important details: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed; she did not fire a shot in the attack in Iraq. She was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee in attempting to flee.

But try finding the “fighting to the death” story at the Post’s online site.

Unlike the far less embarrassing report of April 4, 2003, the “fighting to the death” story is not freely available online. Clicking on the story’s URL opens what essentially is an empty link.

Also unavailable online are the scathing reviews of the hero-warrior tale published by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman in April and June 2003.

Such inconsistencies suggest a digital scrubbing of embarrassing content. I asked the newspaper’s incumbent ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about this matter.

He took several weeks to reply, finally stating in an email in August that he had found “nothing nefarious about this.” He added that the Post since 2003 “has gone through several changes of content management systems,” by which articles are posted online.

He further noted that the “fighting to the death” story about Lynch and related content are available in the Post’s fee-based archive.

So why not make the “fighting to the death” story freely available? Why not remove the fee to access a singularly memorable article about the Iraq War, a mistaken report that made Jessica Lynch something of a celebrity and gave rise to misguided suspicions that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale and somehow fed it to the Post?

“Restoring the digital version of the article of April 3, 2003, would represent a contribution to the record about the case of Jessica Lynch, which the Post is solely responsible for having placed in the public domain,” I wrote in an email to Pexton in mid-August.

He has not replied.

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth lives on (posted September 30): The run-up to the televised presidential campaign debates in October prompted numerous references to the purported lesson of the first such encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in late September 1960.

That lesson is about the presumptive power of the televised image: Supposedly, television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate in 1960 while radio listeners felt Nixon got the better of it.

This notion of viewer-listener disagreement has become an enduring media myth, even though it was thoroughly dismantled 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Dismantling, though, hasn’t destroyed the myth. The notion of viewer-listener disagreement remains hardy and irresistible.

For example, in the runup to the debates in October between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, wrote a column that recalled the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

“Listeners,” Neuharth said, “generally gave Nixon the nod. But TV viewers strongly favored Kennedy.”

And the Chicago Tribune declared that “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. … Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, had conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners. The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners felt Nixon prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.

But Vancil and Pendell, in their article in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, noted that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents, of whom just 282 had listened to the debate on radio.

They noted that “a subordinate group of 282 interviews is below the threshold normally required for a national sample.” Not only that, but only 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.

Given the shortcomings of the unrepresentative Sindlinger sample, Nixon’s supposedly decisive margin among radio listeners dissolves as meaningless — and renders viewer-listener disagreement a media myth.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign done in by a memorably clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history. But as my research has found, the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

The gaffe was committed in late August 1967 by George Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In an interview with a Detroit television reporter, Romney referred to his visit to South Vietnam in 1965 and said:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested muddled thinking, gullibility, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His abbreviated presidential campaign never recovered from the self-inflicted wound; he ended his  run for the presidency at the end of February 1968.

Sealing the gaffe’s unforgettable quality was the supposed witty putdown by Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, a “light rinse” would have sufficed for Romney.

So telling was McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip that it “essentially finished Romney.”

But when, or even whether, McCarthy made the “light rinse” comment is unclear.

A database search of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward.

The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.

It seems improbable that journalists in 1967 or 1968 would have failed to report a retort as delicious as McCarthy’s.

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969 would have us believe.

American Melodrama described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say when McCarthy made the comment, where, or specifically to whom.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Other memorable posts of 2012:

Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage

In Error, New York Times on December 28, 2012 at 11:29 am

The news media are notorious for seldom looking back in any sustained way to understand and explain their missteps when coverage of a prominent story has been botched.

This tendency was quite apparent in the aftermath of the exaggerated reporting of the mayhem Hurricane Katrina supposedly unleashed in New Orleans in 2005.

No media_cropped

Newtown, Connecticut

It also has been apparent in the two weeks since the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

There can be little dispute that the news media stumbled badly in reporting Adam Lanza’s lethal attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, an assault in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first-grade pupils.

As Andrew Beaujon of Poynter Online noted in an impressively succinct summary of the news media’s most glaring reporting errors:

“Adam Lanza was not buzzed in to Sandy Hook Elementary School …. His mother, Nancy, did not work at the school. He didn’t have an altercation with school officials the day before. He used a Bushmaster rifle, not the Glock and SIG Sauer pistols he was carrying, to carry out his massacre. The children he killed were first-graders, not mostly kindergarteners.

“Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.”

Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother.

Mistaking the assailant’s name may well endure as the single most memorable of the media’s errors in reporting the Newtown shootings. Just as Brian Ross’ egregious lapse last summer in tying the Colorado-movie theater shooter to the Tea Party movement stands as the most-remembered error in the coverage of that massacre.

Two weeks after the shootings in Connecticut, just how and why the news media failed so often has not been adequately dissected or explained. Not in any sustained or granular way.

When journalists and media critics have paused to consider the flawed reporting, they’ve tended to cite competitive pressures or have shifted blame to anonymous sources, especially those vaguely identified as “law enforcement” officials who provided bum information.

Blaming sources isn’t exculpatory, however. It doesn’t let journalists off the hook, despite an inclination to do so.

In a blog post the day after the shootings, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post wrote:

“The media can do many things; one thing they cannot do is on-the-spot fact-checking of the cops.”

But of course they can. Reporters have an obligation to press the cops for details about how they developed the information they’re passing along.

Journalists aren’t stenographers for the authorities;  they need not be timid or credulous.

Reporters covering unfolding disasters would be well-served to remember Eddie Compass, formerly the police commissioner in New Orleans, who offered graphic accounts of lawlessness in his city following Katrina’s landfall.

Little of Compass’ extravagance proved true.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted New Orleans as swept by mayhem in Katrina’s aftermath. He offered a baffling reply. ‘I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,’ he said. ‘So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.'”

It sure did.

In the misreporting at Newtown, it’s not entirely clear that cops were the sources for the media’s most stunning error.

In the hours after the shootings on December 14, CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti went on the air and to say the shooter’s name was “Ryan” Lanza.

According to a transcript of CNN’s coverage available at the LexisNexis database, Candiotti said:

“The shooter has been identified to me by a source as Ryan Lanza, Ryan Lanza, in his 20s, apparently, we are told from the source, from this area.”

The identification, she said, was “by a source,” a most lazy and opaque sort of attribution. A “source” could be almost anyone, and not necessarily a “law enforcement” official.

In any case, the error about the shooter’s name soon was compounded.

The misidentification was reported by other news organizations in a revealing example of what Av Westin, formerly of ABC News, has called the “out there” syndrome. That is, if other news organizations are “out there” reporting what seems to be an important element of a disaster-related story, pressures mount on rival news outlets to match that information.

The New York Times repeated the misidentification in a report posted online — a report that said:

“Various news outlets identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza.”

The Times’ public editor (or in-house critic), Margaret Sullivan, noted that error in a blog post three days after the shootings.

But Sullivan did not consider the implications of the Times’ having joined in the “out there” syndrome. She offered neither criticism nor rebuke.

She wrote that “some mistakes may be inevitable on a major, fast-moving story, working against brutally demanding deadlines. That’s not an excuse, just a reality.”

Sullivan in a subsequent column seemed to modify that interpretation, writing that the Times “has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way.”

Fair enough.

Given that early disaster coverage does tend to be accompanied by missteps and error, journalists are well-advised to proceed cautiously. The challenges of filing on “brutally demanding deadlines” should give reporters, and their editors, pause: It should leave them more wary about what they are told and more cautious about what they report.

Greater restraint at such times — coupled with a broader inclination to study and learn from the missteps of disaster coverage — would leave journalists less likely to traffic in claims that prove exaggerated or unfounded.

WJC

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‘They even started wars': Nonsense in the Economist’s holiday double issue

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 22, 2012 at 6:19 am

One of the year-end delights in print media is the Economist’s holiday season double issue, a lode of offbeat features and whimsical takes on the news.

Economist double issue_2012This year’s edition is no exception. The “Christmas Specials” in the  Economist’s double issue consider such topics as Japan’s Citizen Kane and offer long ruminations about hell.

The “Christmas Specials” also include an account about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning — an account that serves up the hoary media myth of yellow journalism, declaring:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

Uh-uh.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer certainly reported closely about the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes their newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

But simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The convergence of forces that gave rise to the war — which lasted 114 days and ended with Spain’s utter defeat in the Caribbean and the Philippines — can be traced to the rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895.

The Cuban uprising challenged Spanish rule of the island and by early 1898 had settled into a vicious stalemate. The Spanish military occupied most Cuba’s urban centers; the Cuban rebels controlled the countryside.

In an ill-considered attempt to deprive the rebels of food and logistical support, Spanish had ordered Cuban non-combattants — women, children, old men — into garrison towns where, by the tens of thousands, they fell victim to disease and malnutrition.

The Spanish policy, known as reconcentración, or reconcentration, was, I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “emblematic of the severity of Spain’s efforts to quell the rebellion.”

Not only was the rebellion stalemated by early 1898; a human rights disaster had taken shape in Cuba. The horrors of reconcentración drew wide attention, and condemnation, in the United States.

Reconcentration images

Horrors of reconcentración

The reconcentración policy, along with Spain’s inability to quell the rebellion by negotiation or military force, were the proximate causes of the war that began in April 1898.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism:

“To indict the yellow press for instigating the Spanish-American War is fundamentally to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict. “

Alas, the holiday season number is not the first time the Economist has fallen for the media myth of yellow journalism.

In July 2011, the magazine declared, without attribution, that “William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

WJC

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‘Yes, Virginia’ special on CBS a sad distortion of a timeless newspaper reply

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes, Television on December 13, 2012 at 7:29 am

CBS will demonstrate anew tomorrow night that repeat performance is no measure of quality. Or accuracy.

The network will air for the fourth successive Christmas season its charmless, half-hour animated special, “Yes Virginia.”

The show is an unrelieved distortion of  the story behind the New York Sun’s classic editorial reply to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon who implored in a letter to the newspaper in 1897:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Church

The Sun’s reply, by a veteran editorial writer named Francis P. Church, declared in part:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The tiresome CBS show offers none of the charm of Church’s timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit.

Indeed, the program distorts all major elements of the back story of the “Yes, Virginia,” editorial.

Holiday Programming

CBS’ Church: Scowling, loud, irritable

It depicts Virginia is a waddling, round-headed girl annoyingly obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and irritable.

Neither portrayal is convincing, nor very accurate.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t the editor; he was an editorial writer who relished the anonymity the position allowed.

And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

Not only that, but the CBS show has Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

That’s far from accurate.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter not long after her birthday in July 1897.

The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

In first appearance, the editorial that has become the most famous in American journalism was inconspicuous and obscure. It was placed in the third of three columns of editorials. It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

The headline accompanying the Sun’s editorial posed the timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation, no immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial at Christmastime every year after 1897, as is commonly believed.

It took years for the newspaper to warm to and embrace “Is There A Santa Claus?”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the Sun began routinely publishing the essay at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers. They found it appealing and memorable. They found solace and inspiration in its passages.

In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the essay to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

The CBS program hints at none of that. It offers no indication that the editorial’s fame rests at least in part on generations of readers who collectively proved to be far more perceptive than editors in identifying and affirming the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the vapid CBS show demonstrates that history’s back story can be richer, and far more charming, than repeat holiday fare on television.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

Lessons unlearned: Indulging in the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on December 6, 2012 at 4:50 am
Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not at the White House

The wide applicability of the mythical “Cronkite Moment” — that occasion in 1968 when Walter Cronkite’s observations about the Vietnam War supposedly altered opinions of the president and the American public — is nothing less than astonishing.

The myth’s resistance to debunking is similarly impressive.

Just yesterday, for example, two media outlets in the American heartland invoked elements of the “Cronkite Moment” as if they were genuine, as if they were instructive.

The sports director of WHO TV in Des Moines, Iowa, asserted in a blog post that “Walter Cronkite didn’t oppose the Vietnam War initially, but when he started questioning what we were doing over there, public opinion turned – correctly – against the war.”

And an item posted yesterday at the online site of the Oklahoma Gazette  arts and entertainment weekly declared: “Lyndon Johnson once remarked that he knew he’d lost Middle America’s support for the Vietnam War when he lost the support of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite.”

Both are inaccurate elements of the larger, mythical interpretation of what Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, said about Vietnam and what President Lyndon Johnson said in reaction.

The “Cronkite Moment”  is the short-hand phrase for Cronkite’s editorial comment, offered February 27, 1968, at the end of a special report about the Vietnam War.

Cronkite said that the U.S. military had become “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations eventually might offer to be a way out.

At the White House, Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, suddenly realized his war policy had received a devastating blow. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president is said to have told an aide, or aides, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

In reality, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Nor is there any persuasive evidence that he watched the show on videotape at some later date.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson was not at the White House but in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie affair marking the 51st birthday of his longtime political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

At the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson wasn’t lamenting the loss of the anchorman’s support. He wasn’t wringing his hands or bemoaning that he had “lost Middle America.”

The president was making lighthearted comments about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for— a simple majority.”

As for Cronkite’s assessment being so powerful as to shift public opinion — that, too, is mistaken: Popular views about the war had begun shifting months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

By October 1967, 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, maintained that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys. The plurality climbed to 49 percent, according to a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

So not only that, but Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation was scarcely  remarkable.

Or novel. Journalists had been using the term “stalemate” for months in commentaries, analyses, and news reports about the war.

For example, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in August 1967:

“So long as the present ground rules obtain in Vietnam, this war will drag along its indecisive way. … [T]he condition is stalemate.”

Also in August 1967, the New York Times said in a news analysis that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

U.S. victory, the Times said, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline: “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

Not only did Cronkite’s views of the war lag public opinion, they trailed those offered by rival news organizations.

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of the mythical “Cronkite Moment”?

It’s an accessible tale, easily told and readily understood. It has broad applicability, as the myth’s appearance at WHO TV and in the Oklahoma Gazette suggest.

And it’s unreservedly media-centric: In a period of declining audience share and declining perceived influence, it’s reassuring to media practitioners that there were better, more powerful times when the likes of Cronkite supposedly told truth to power — and supposedly altered policy as a result.

WJC

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Media myth distorts Chicago Tribune timeline of newspaper history

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

The Chicago Tribune the other day published a timeline of American newspaper history over the past 50 years — a chronology tainted by the inclusion of a prominent media myth.

The Tribune declared “the daily paper remains vital to an informed citizenry” in presenting the timeline, which it said demonstrated “how newspapers expose — and occasionally commit — wrongdoing.”

The myth appears in the timeline entry for 1974, which says: “A corrupt U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is brought down by a newspaper, The Washington Post.”

Brought down by a newspaper.

Now, that may be the popular dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — that the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption that forced Nixon’s resignation.

But it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post embraces.

In fact, Woodward once dismissed such characterizations as “horseshit.” And for good reason.

As I discuss in a chapter in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate demanded the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term had it not been for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the telltale recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

It is interesting to note that the Post in its Watergate reporting did not disclose the existence of the Watergate tapes, nor did the newspaper identify or unravel the coverup of Watergate-related crimes.

To assert that the Post brought down Nixon is, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of this hoary media myth? Why does it persist, despite the evidence that can be arrayed against it?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

The Watergate myth, after all, offers a simplistic, easy-to-grasp interpretation of a scandal that was intimidating in its complexity: The web of misconduct that took down Nixon also landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

Media myths often spring from simplicity, from the desire for tidy and uncomplicated versions of history. Not only that, but the notion that the Post brought down Nixon fits neatly into a timeline.

A feel-good component buoys the Watergate myth, too: The myth affirms the notion that newspapers, beleaguered though they are, really can make a difference in American politics and in American democracy.

Which, itself, is something of a media myth.

WJC

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The subtlety of media myths: A ‘New Yorker’ brief and the napalm-attack myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New Yorker, Photographs on November 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Media myths can emerge in blithe and subtle ways, as a brief item in the November 19 issue of the New Yorker testifies.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The myth the New Yorker insinuates is especially pernicious: It suggests U.S. forces dropped the napalm that wounded and terrified a group of Vietnamese children — a moment captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut in one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

In a brief retrospective review of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, the New Yorker said a scene in that movie of “screaming schoolkids fleeing down a lonely road disturbingly presage[d] the iconic news image of Vietnamese children escaping from American napalm attacks.”

The reference to “iconic news image of Vietnamese children” running from “napalm attacks” points unmistakably to Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, which was taken June 8, 1972, not far from the village of Trang Bang, in what was then South Vietnam.

The centerpiece of Ut’s photograph shows a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming in pain and terror as she fled the attack.

The media myth associated with the image is that U.S. forces carried out the aerial napalm attack that terrorized and injured the children near Trang Bang.

But that interpretation — or, perhaps, the reflexive inclination to blame the American military — is in error: The napalm was dropped in a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports of the time made clear.

In the 40 years since, however, the erroneous interpretation has emerged not infrequently.

A notable example came six months ago, in an obituary published in the New York Times that referred to Ut’s photograph and said it depicted “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

For weeks, the Times resisted correcting its error about “American planes” having carried out the attack, torturing logic as it defended its phrasing.

In reply to my email pointing out the error, the correction expert on the Times obituary staff, Peter Keepnews, wrote:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the plane’s manufacturer were of crucial importance to the napalm attack. Which it wasn’t. The Times clearly had meant that American forces were responsible. Which they weren’t.

Finally, in late August, the Times published what I called “a sort-of correction,” invoking Keepnews’ baffling logic in stating:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was a begrudging, less-than-sincere acknowledgement of error.

Independently of my efforts, two senior former journalists for the Associated Press also had pressed the Times to correct the error about the napalm attack. They were Richard Pyle, a veteran AP correspondent who was the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the agency’s photo service. (Pyle directed my attention to the New Yorker brief that alludes to the napalm-attack myth.)

In July, Pyle and Buell sent a joint letter by email to the Times, noting that the error, if left uncorrected, could solidify into wide popular acceptance.

Their fears were hardly unfounded — as the New Yorker’s movie brief suggests, in its blithe, almost casual invoking of the napalm-attack myth.

WJC

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

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Newspaper endorsements don’t much matter — except maybe at the margins

In 1897, Newspapers on November 5, 2012 at 6:54 am

Romney endorsed by New York Daily News

It’s long been apparent that newspaper endorsements for high political office are rarely decisive.

Back in 1897, when print made up the mass media, newspapers were shocked when their endorsements had little impact on the outcome of the New York City mayoral election.

The Tammany Hall candidate, an obscure judge named Robert A. Van Wyck, won the election decisively — without giving a speech and without receiving the editorial support of the city’s leading newspapers.

Nowadays, in a world of myriad digital options, many U.S. daily newspapers are but shells of their former selves. Few of them really presume to set an agenda for their communities and their endorsements for high political office are all but irrelevant. More than a handful of newspapers no longer endorse candidates for president.

Still, it is conceivable that newspaper endorsements could make a difference in close elections in a few places in tomorrow’s presidential election. Enough readers could take cues from newspaper endorsements to tip the outcome in very tight races — as perhaps in Iowa and Florida.

It’s speculative, but not implausible.

In Iowa and Florida, prominent newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 are backing Republican Mitt Romney this year. And the Obama-Romney race is close in both states. Polling data compiled and aggregated at RealClearPolitics indicate that Obama leads by three percentage points in Iowa and that Romney is narrowly ahead in Florida.

The largest-circulation newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, has endorsed Romney, citing his “strong record of achievement in both the private and public sectors.”

In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel have come out for Romney.

The Sentinel asserted in its editorial endorsement: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.”

And the Sun-Sentinel said: “When President Obama came into office in 2009, the economy was in freefall and though untested, he inspired us with his promise of hope and change. Now, four years later, we have little reason to believe he can turn things around.

“So while we endorsed Obama in 2008, we recommend voters choose Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.”

That those newspapers have turned away from Obama probably matters much only to a few readers. But editorial endorsements that sway even a few readers could make a difference if the statewide race is very close.

This point was made the other day by a leading political analyst and numbers-cruncher, Michael Barone. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Barone said the Des Moines Register’s endorsement “could make a significant difference” in the outcome in Iowa.

Some indirect evidence suggests that newspaper endorsements can signal the outcomes of close races.

Greg Mitchell, formerly editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in a recent commentary at the Nation that just before the presidential election in 2008,  he “went out on a limb and predicted which candidates would win in the thirteen key ‘toss-up’ states based purely on newspaper endorsements in those states — not polls or common sense or anything else.”

Mitchell said he “got them right, except for one.”

Based on newspaper endorsements in swing states this year, Mitchell has predicted that Obama will narrowly defeat Romney. Mitchell’s breakdown has five swing states for Obama, five for Romney, and one (Virginia) undecided, which seems more like a toss-up.

In any case, data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, show that 12 newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 are supporting Romney this year. They include the New York Daily News, the country’s fifth-largest newspaper, and Newsday of Long Island, the 13th largest daily.

Those endorsements aren’t likely to matter much, though, given that Obama is a sure bet to carry New York State.

WJC

Social-media triumphalism and its myth-busting limits

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Social media’s capacity to demolish media myths soon after they emerge was impressively on display this week as megastorm Sandy swept ashore in New Jersey and disrupted life throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Got it notably wrong

Erroneous reports were many as the storm reached the East Coast on Monday. As the Guardian of London noted today, “the spread of such misinformation was abetted by journalists, who were once taught the importance of verifying every source.”

Notably wrong was the report on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” news program Monday that Sandy had breached the heart of American capitalism and covered the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan with three feet of water.

But that account and a similar report on the hype-prone Weather Channel were promptly disputed, and soon repudiated, in a barrage of posts on Twitter.

In demolishing the bogus reports, Twitter demonstrated a capacity for “savage self-correction,” as John Herrman declared in a post yesterday at the BuzzFeed online site.

Herrman wrote:

“In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with ‘three feet’ of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.”

And the misreporting soon was corrected.

Herrman hailed Twitter as “a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

His point is well-taken. On more than a few occasions, Twitter has demonstrated a striking capacity to debunk embryonic media myths — including those myths it helped set loose.

The bogus quotation attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King after the slaying last year of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden comes to mind. The made-up passage — “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter before their corrective forces effectively demolished it.

But limits to social-media triumphalism must be noted.  The corrective power of platforms such as Twitter reaches only so far.

Once established, media myths are exceedingly difficult to uproot. These myths have amply demonstrated that they can withstand the power of social media.

Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’

Take, for example, Halloween’s most famous media myth — the notion that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria. It’s a hoary media myth that’s just too embedded — and too delicious — to be destroyed.

No amount of Tweeting is likely to dismantle this myth, one of 10 that I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. It’s too engrained in popular culture — and in the news media — to go the way of CNN’s botched report about the flooded stock exchange floor.

The 74th anniversary of the original broadcast of The War of the Worlds was yesterday and Twitter percolated with reminders about the program and references to the panic it supposedly created. Tweets challenging the narrative of panic and hysteria were in a distinct minority.

Linked to more than a few Tweets yesterday was a tip sheet describing seven lessons that The War of the Worlds dramatization holds for social media.

The tip sheet seems more than a little convoluted, though. Among its observations was this:

“If you are lucky, the publicity often exceeds the actual event  …. The panic [of The War of the Worlds program] has become legendary, even though there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest it wasn’t nearly as widespread as reported at the time. But, it put the program on the map, and launched a relatively unknown 23-year old name[d] Orson Welles into the public eye.”

Even that’s not quite true. Although he was 23 at the time of the broadcast, Welles’ had already made the cover of Time magazine.

WJC

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Debates are over, media myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths on October 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

The runup to the three presidential debates this month inevitably was accompanied by references to the 1960 encounter between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — and to references to the media myth distorts understanding of the historic confrontation 52 years ago.

Debates are over, myth lives on

Even days after the final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the 1960 debate myth still swirls.

The myth has it that television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate of that campaign while radio listeners believed Nixon prevailed.

It’s a dubious bit of political lore that long ago became a defining feature of that debate. And it lives on as a reminder about how appearances supposedly trump substance in American presidential politics.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is implausible for several reasons, including the absence of representative polling data that confirmed such a disparity.

What likely was more decisive than appearance in that debate was Nixon’s willingness to be conciliatory, to concur with Kennedy. In his opening statement, Nixon seemed to second the points raised by Kennedy, who had spoken first.

Nixon said:

“The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. … There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We’re ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you’re in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead. And I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”

But in discussing the debate more than 50 years later, it’s far easier to reach for the myth of viewer-listener disagreement than it is to recall Nixon’s ill-advised tactics.

This was suggested in a lengthy commentary about the Obama-Romney debates, posted the other day at the online site of the liberal American Prospect political magazine.

The commentary invoked the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in stating:

“As for wishing these suckers were serious policy discussions, I can’t think of a single presidential debate that’s ever been decided on those grounds. Even in 1960, when the jousting between Kennedy and Nixon was relatively substantive, JFK triumphed purely on image, one proof being that people who only heard their confrontations on radio famously thought Nixon had cleaned his clock.”

The commentary offered no evidence to support the claim of clock-cleaning-on-the-radio.

That’s because there is no persuasive, contemporaneous evidence to that effect.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished in a journal article published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Their article, published in Central States Speech Journal, noted that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the Kennedy-Nixon debate invariably were anecdotal and impressionistic — and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

The polling organization Sindlinger & Co. did report that its survey respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But as  Vancil and Pendell pointed out, Sindlinger’s sample of radio listeners included just 282 respondents — of whom 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner. The numbers were far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Like many media myths, the notion of listener-viewer disagreement is so delicious that it must have been true.

The New Republic hinted at such sentiment on Monday, the day of the final Obama-Romney debate, in an essay that stated: “[P]erhaps it’s safe to say that 1960 was the year we learned that looks and demeanor, as seen on TV, were just as important as speech when it came to winning over voters.”

In making the claim, the New Republic essay cited an intriguing experiment, reported in 2003, in which 171 summer students at the University of Minnesota either viewed a video of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate or listened to an audio recording of the encounter.

None of the participants had prior knowledge about the Kennedy-Nixon debate, according to the researcher, James Druckman.

He reported finding that television viewers in his experiment “were significantly more likely to believe Kennedy won the debate than audio listeners.”

This, he declared, represented “the first clear empirical evidence consistent with the widespread assertion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

But in a footnote, Druckman reported that 81 percent of the viewers in his experiment thought Kennedy won; so did 60 percent of listeners.

That finding is inconsistent with the central element of alleged viewer-listener disagreement — that Kennedy won among television viewers while Nixon won among radio listeners.

What’s more, participants in Druckman’s experiment skewed Democratic: The “sample did underrepresent Republicans,” he wrote in another footnote. As such, participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the Republican.

Druckman also acknowledged that “younger people”  in the early 21st century may have processed “televised information differently” from viewers in 1960. To be sure, applying the experiment’s results to viewers and listeners of the presidential debate in 1960 is impossible.

WJC

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