W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Media myths’ Category

Jessica Lynch, the Fin Times, and ‘big propaganda stories’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 am

It is well-understood that the tale of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003 was bogus.

Much less well-understood is how the story of her purported derring-do entered the public domain.

Many accounts of the exaggerated hero-warrior tale blame the U.S. government or the U.S. military — or simply the U.S. — for cynically attempting to turn Lynch, then-19-year-old Army supply clerk, into a wartime hero.

Far fewer accounts identify the real source of error — a botched report published 11 years ago today in the Washington Post.

Lynch_headline_Post

Page one 11 years ago: The Post’s botched story

Most recently to err in describing the derivation of the Lynch saga is London’s Financial Times, a sophisticated newspaper printed on distinctive salmon-colored newsprint.

The Financial Times ruminated in a commentary the other day about “the power of peace” and included this vague yet pointed accusation:

“During the Iraq war, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false.”

How so, “the US”? The commentary doesn’t say.

In the case of Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger and former professional football player, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command said that he had been killed by enemy gunfire in 2004, in Afghanistan. A subsequent Defense Department investigation determined his death was caused by friendly fire.

But in the Lynch case, it was the Washington Post — not “the US,” and certainly not the U.S. military — that was the source of the bogus report.

In a front-page article published April 3, 2003, the Post claimed that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition” and was captured.

The Post declared that Lynch suffered “multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in fighting in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Post cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” as sources for the electrifying account of the young woman’s heroism.

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — was wrong in almost every major respect. The ambush did occur, on March 23, 2003, in the first days of the Iraq War. But Lynch did not fire her weapon in the attack. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the escape. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Lynch in 2003

Lynch in 2003

The Post has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its erroneous report. But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb did make clear that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

In an interview with NPR in December 2003, Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

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

Over the years, though, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon made it all up.

What accounts for this transformation? Why has the Post’s singular role in the Lynch case been so thoroughly eclipsed?

One reason is that it’s perversely delicious and sinister to assert that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch and somehow fed it to gullible news outlets. That’s a far more engaging story than that of mangled newspaper reporting.

Another reason is that the Post, on occasion, has been complicit in muddying its decisive contribution to Lynch fable.

The newspaper has been known to characterize the hero-warrior tale as one that other news media were telling, too. That’s true, but only after the Post published the story that made Lynch, quite undeservedly, the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

Eleven years on, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly botched its report about Lynch.

WJC

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60 years on, CBS extols Murrow show on McCarthy as TV ‘turning point’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Predictably perhaps, CBS has recalled Edward R. Murrow’s mythical takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy 60 years ago as “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.

In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy and did so “only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.

The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”

In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.

So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer,  rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.

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

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

McCarthy: Brutish

McCarthy: Brutish

But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.

In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

How so was left unexplained.

The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.

McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.

Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.

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

A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.

On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.

“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.

In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.

WJC

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On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Quotes, Television on February 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

We’ll likely see a modest surge in the appearance of media myths in the next couple of weeks, with the approach of hallowed moments of exaggerated importance in media history.

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

The 60th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s program about the excesses of Senator Joseph M. McCarthy — sometimes called the finest half-hour in television history — falls in two weeks.

The media myth has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four years before.

In fact, Murrow was very late to take on McCarthy, and did so only after several other journalists had called attention to the senator’s excesses.  Notable among them was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist who began questioning the substance of McCarthy’s red-baiting accusations almost as soon as the senator began raising them.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow, in the days and weeks after his program about McCarthy, acknowledged that he had reinforced what others had long said about the senator.

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.”

But in the runup to the anniversary of program about McCarthy, we’re likely to hear far more about how Murrow was a courageous white knight, rather than a belated chronicler of McCarthy’s egregious ways.

This week brings the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” another mythical moment in television history that long ago assumed greater importance than it ever deserved.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared at the close of special report about the war in Vietnam that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the quagmire.

Cronkite’s observations supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pronouncement, the media myth has it, the president snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

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

Or something to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible tale which — like the Murrow-McCarthy media myth — is cited as compelling evidence of the power of television news and/or the remarkable sway of influential journalists.

Politico Magazine embraced the “influential journalist” interpretation the other day in recalling the putative “Cronkite Moment” in a lengthy, rambling essay.

The essay declared that Cronkite “had social weight. It seemed as if he spoke for the entire nation. Ironically, a country riven by war and social tensions had an elite that looked and thought about things pretty much the same way as Walter Cronkite.

“When Cronkite said the war [in Vietnam] was a disaster,” the essay continued, “many of them knew the jig was up. A month or so after Cronkite spoke those words, LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential election. As Johnson was said to remark to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’”

Except there’s little evidence that Johnson or other U.S. policymakers in 1968 were much moved by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observations.

By the time of Cronkite’s special report, “stalemate” was an unremarkable way of describing the war effort in Vietnam. The New York Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, including a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it,  the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Cronkite’s remarks about “stalemate” in Vietnam had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to run for reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s diminished political support within the Democratic party. By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And Johnson may have decided well before then against seeking another four-year term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that long before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light 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.”

Evidence also is scant that Cronkite’s program had much influence on popular opinion. Indeed, polls had detected shifts in sentiment against the war in Vietnam months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary. Which means the anchorman was following rather than precipitating shifts in public opinion.

WJC

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NYCity new mayor gushes over Bernstein, Woodward and their putative contributions to Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Bill de Blasio, New York’s recently inaugurated mayor, fairly gushed at a news conference yesterday about Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and their putative roles in unraveling the Watergate scandal, saying the duo exerted a major influence on his life.

De Blasio credited Bernstein and Woodward, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public understanding about Watergate.

deBlasio

de Blasio

“I always say I’m a child of the Watergate summer,” de Blasio declared at the news conference. “And I had an extraordinary experience a year or two ago when I first met Carl Bernstein who’s, I think, one of the people … who had the biggest impact on my life, with Bob Woodward. Because for any of us who were deeply affected by that moment in history, those two individuals framed and, you know, created that moment so much and so deeply.”

The mayor’s soliloquy was prompted by a reporter’s question about whether de Blasio ever considered becoming a journalist. “I did, for a bit,” the mayor said, “never overly coherently.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

It wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether Bernstein and Woodward much contributed to — let alone “framed” or “created” — conditions that gave rise to the 1973 Watergate hearings. By then, there were many other, more powerful and subpoena-wielding forces at work seeking to unravel the unfolding scandal.

As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive.

It’s instructive to note the decisive elements of the scandal that Bernstein and Woodward did not disclose.

They did not, for example, break the news about hush payments to the burglars who committed the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward disclose that Nixon secretly made audiorecordings of most of his private conversations at the Oval Office. The White House tapes were pivotal to Watergate’s denouement, revealing that Nixon conspired to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

The existence of the tapes was revealed by the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, in the midst of the “Watergate summer,” which de Blasio recalled yesterday as “one of the most riveting things that’s happened in the history of the republic.”

The hearings, the mayor said, represented “an affirmation of democracy. It was an affirmation of what good elected leaders can do, even if the face of tremendous odds. It certainly was an affirmation of the role of the media in our society.”

To the last claim — probably not.

De Blasio was not asked at the news conference to elaborate on his extravagant remarks about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate, remarks that all but embraced the myth of the heroic journalist.

Not to mention the “golden age” fallacy.

WJC

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Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.

Murrow

Murrow

They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch's] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch_headline_Post

Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

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

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.

Other memorable posts of 2013:

Getting it right about ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes on December 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

The paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit published in 1897 in the old New York Sun long ago became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism. It also is decidedly myth-prone, as recent newspaper descriptions of the legendary editorial suggest.

These descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title as well as details about its derivation and its author. Surely, can’t be churlish to expect newspapers to get it right about a newspaper commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.

Is There_NYSunThe editorial was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” as Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote the other day in a commentary for the Tampa Bay Times. (Clark’s commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out.”)

The phrase “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“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 editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years later, recalled the excited speculation that prompted her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897, as is often assumed, but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is probable that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period after reaching the Sun. In any case, the Sun certainly did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as the San Jose Mercury News claimed yesterday in reprinting the editorial.

We know this because that Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated as much Monday.

But that almost certainly was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death, in an exceptional and moving tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

So why does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon live on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis? These are among the reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming, a commentary without villains or sinister elements. It is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past; it is reassuring somehow to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers a moving reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

WJC

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Editor’s little-noted memoir offers intriguing insight about WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

It’s mentioned on few if any “books of the year” lists, but the recent memoir by a former Washington Post editor offers revealing insights about the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, describing how one of them, Carl Bernstein, was such a slacker that he was nearly dismissed in the early 1970s.

Rosenfeld memoir_coverThe memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate, is Harry Rosenfeld’s telling of his long career in newspapering. He was the Post’s metropolitan editor during Watergate and managed Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in 1972 and 1973 were the newspaper’s lead reporters on the unfolding scandal.

Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Or so the media myth has it.

Rosenfeld comes close in his book to embracing the myth of Watergate, stating that the Post “played a key role in assisting the ship of state to stay the course while navigating through the stormy waters of a constitutional crisis” that brought Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He makes scant acknowledgement of the more powerful investigative forces — congressional and judicial — that combined to uncover Nixon’s criminal misconduct and bring an end to his presidency.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome were modest at best.

Rosenfeld writes with evident pride about Woodward and the “intensity of his work habits.” By the time the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Rosenfeld says, Woodward “had established himself as a fully qualified reporter, sharper than most and more ambitious and hardworking than any.”

The most delicious passages of Rosenfeld’s book discuss Bernstein’s troubled times at the Post during the period before and shortly after the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein, he writes, routinely antagonized his editors, was known for missing deadlines while regularly logging many hours of unapproved overtime, and was notorious for failing to submit expense reports. He also had a tendency on assignments to rent cars that he was slow to return, running up late charges for the Post.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

After such a caper in the summer of 1972, the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and its managing editor, Howard Simons, wanted Rosenfeld to fire Bernstein. He had “yet again rented a car and left it stranded in a parking lot for days, with costly rental fees mounting by the hour,” Rosenfeld writes.

But Rosenfeld demurred, telling the editors that dismissing Bernstein made no sense when, “‘for once in his life, Carl is producing the goods’” in reporting on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Bernstein kept his job.

Rosenfeld had laid groundwork for dismissing Bernstein in 1971, after the reporter had failed to submit an article about the port of Norfolk, VA, despite his many promises to produce the story.

Rosenfeld sat in on what he called “a heart-to-heart” conversation between Bernstein and his then-editor, Kevin Klose, who later became dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

After the heart-to-heart, Rosenfeld wrote in a memorandum that it had been made clear to Bernstein “‘that he either begins to be a productive reporter or he and the Post better go separate ways and that if cannot soon come to grips with his responsibilities to his job, that I would move against him on negligence of duty. …’”

Bernstein, Rosenfeld wrote in the memorandum, “‘understood that if he could not become productive and that if he and his editors continued to be antagonistic all the time, it would be better for him to leave. He said that … I would see a much changed man.’

“That new man,” Rosenfeld says, “clearly emerged in Watergate — a full year after his pledge. In the course of Watergate, the tiger changed his stripes, the leopard his spots, and Joshua commanded the sun not to set and the moon to stand still. The transformation was that epic. …. If he had persisted in his old ways … he almost surely would have been fired, for which the legal groundwork had been laid.”

Still, Bernstein’s redemption was less than total. Even when doing his best work, Rosenfeld notes in the book, Bernstein “still managed to remain irritating.”

So why, more than 40 years afterward,  is all of this important?

As Rosenfeld notes, it is “worth contemplating” how Bernstein — who remains one of America’s best-known and most outspoken journalists — nearly missed having an “historic role” in the Watergate story. Rosenfeld’s memoir also demonstrates how unpopular Bernstein was in the Post’s newsroom.

More important is that Rosenfeld’s unflattering characterizations, which clearly are offered not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way that Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not do in their bestselling 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

Finally, the passages about Bernstein serves as a reminder that the most engaging memoirs are those not sanitized. Although the book has not received wide attention, Rosenfeld’s memoir is commendable for its candor about Bernstein.

WJC

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Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on November 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm

It’s testimony to the program’s flaws and tedium that public discussion about the PBS “American Experience” documentary largely faded away within days if not hours after it was broadcast. The documentary revisited the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds which aired 75 years ago and told of Martians mounting lethal attack on the United States.

Hyping the reaction

Did not

So realistic was the radio show that it supposedly pitched tens of thousands of listeners into panic and mass hysteria.

That, of course, makes for a timeless story, and  is a critical reason why the program is recalled and discussed unlike any other radio show. But the reports of panic and hysteria loosed by the radio show were grossly exaggerated by the newspapers of the day. As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, whatever fear the program may have stirred, it did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and hysteria.

Eleven days ago, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds dramatization in a documentary notable for failing to confront the most important and intriguing questions about radio program: Did it set off panicked reactions across the country when it aired on October 30, 1938? If not, why is it so widely believed that it had such powerful and immediate effects?

In ducking those central questions, the documentary was an opportunity lost.

The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, said as much in a column last week, saying he was “in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

The PBS documentary prompted other criticism, too — including its use of cheesy recreated dialog spoken by actors clad in period clothing.

One of the actors played the part of a “Sylvia Holmes” from Newark, New Jersey, who supposedly was pitched into panic by The War of the Worlds radio show. The documentary, however, did not disclose that “Sylvia Holmes” was a pseudonymous character, whose “remarks” were taken from The Invasion From Mars, a flawed book about the radio show published in 1940. (That book intentionally obscured the identities of “Holmes” and other interview subjects.)

As I pointed out at Media Myth Alert last week, PBS editorial standards say that its programming content “should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

Offering up a pseudonymous character and failing to identify her as such seemed to skirt those standards.

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

Getler in a column yesterday said he didn’t think so. “The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name,” he wrote, adding:

“But I don’t view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person.”

It’s sloppy, though. It’s slyly misleading, and it’s hardly in keeping with a commitment to transparency. As such, it’s another dent in a documentary that was full of them.

Getler reiterated in his column yesterday that the documentary’s “biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.”

That’s quite true. But the documentary was more deeply flawed than that. Its makers, after all, ignored recent research that has impugned the notion The War of the Worlds program stirred mass panic.

And in dodging the central questions of The War of the Worlds program, the documentary ended up confused and meandering, not knowing for sure what it was supposed to do. So it turned out to be part tribute to the radio program; part tribute to the radio show’s director and star, Orson Welles;  part rumination about America of the late 1930s, and part digression about life on Mars.

At least it won’t be regarded as a definitive treatment about what was a clever, memorable, and mythical radio dramatization.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The ombudsman agrees: PBS ‘War of the Worlds’ doc was missed opportunity

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on November 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm
Getler

Getler

Not many news organizations these days have internal critics, usually known as ombudsmen or “reader representatives.” Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, is the best of them.

He’s a straightshooter, tough but fairminded.

Getler was often outstanding in five years as ombudsman at the Washington Post, notably calling out the newspaper’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch’s mythical battlefield exploits early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private whom the Post catapulted to international fame in a story in April 2003 that claimed she fought fiercely in an ambush in Iraq, firing at her attackers despite being shot and stabbed and seeing comrades “die around her.” Lynch was taken prisoner, the Post, reported, only after running out of ammunition.

The electrifying story, which the Post based on otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials,” was wrong in every important detail. In his analyses, Getler was withering and incisive.

The hero-warrior story about Lynch, he wrote, “had an odor to it almost from the beginning, and other news organizations blew holes in it well before The Post did….”

Why, he asked in one of his columns, did the information in the Post’s hero-warrior story “remain unchallenged for so long?

“What were the motivations (and even the identities) of the leakers and sustainers of this myth, and why didn’t reporters dig deeper into it more quickly?” Getler asked.

Excellent questions, which the Post never has deigned to address.

In 2005, Getler became the first ombudsman at PBS, to help ensure “that PBS upholds its own rigorous standards of journalistic ethics for both online and on-air content.”

I was in touch with Getler by email weeks before PBS aired its recent turgid documentary about the famous radio dramatization in 1938 of The War of the Worlds, which told of a Martian invasion of the United States.

I described to Getler my concerns that the documentary would embrace the media myth that The War of the Worlds program set off mass panic and nationwide hysteria on the night it was aired. I also asked about how the documentary would present or characterize recent scholarship that has impugned the panic-and-hysteria interpretation.

My concerns were heightened because pre-broadcast material that PBS posted online said “perhaps a million [people] or more” were  “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

Getler forwarded my queries to Mark Samels, executive producer of the PBS “American Experience” series. Soon after, Getler told me that Samels said he was “not going to respond to someone who has not seen the program.” This was seven weeks before the documentary aired.

(Getler also noted that he did not speak for PBS and has no “pre-broadcast role” at the organization.)

I subsequently sent an email directly to Samels, reiterating my concerns.

Samels never replied.

Immediately after the documentary was shown Tuesday evening, I posted a commentary at Media Myth Alert saying the program represented a squandered opportunity to revisit The War of the Worlds dramatization in a searching and educational way.

PBS,  I wrote, “could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.”

But PBS failed to raise searching questions or offer revealing insight about the famous radio show; instead, it presented a tedious program that claimed upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

No explanation was offered during the program as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a dubious figure.

Getler yesterday posted a thoughtful and insightful critique about the documentary. Notably, he pointed out that shortly before the program ended, “the narrator, just casually in his final summing up, includes this sentence:  ‘Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press.’”

“Really!” Getler wrote. “Is that not part of the real story? Is that not worth more than a sentence at the end of an hour-long program? Could that be described by some as burying the lead?”

“Burying the lead” is journalese for failing to assign prominence to the most important information of a news report.

And he’s right: PBS buried the lead in its War of the Worlds documentary.

Big time.

Getler also wrote:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Getler’s column closed with comments — at long last — from Samels, who stated:

“Our film does not say that people panicked, nor does the script include the phrase ‘mass hysteria.’”

Ah, but the documentary invoked “chaos” to describe reactions to The War of the Worlds radio program. And as Getler noted in his critique, the documentary displayed “several banner newspaper headlines” published the day after 1938 dramatization. The effect was to suggest that the radio show had spread panic across the country.

Which assuredly it had not.

Those headlines made such declarations as:

  • “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”
  • “Radio ‘Martian Attack’ Terrorizes U.S. Hearers, Thousands in Panic”WOW Newspaper
  • “Radio Fake Scares Nation”

And of course, PBS did claim in the documentary that “upwards of a million people” were convinced, if briefly, the country was under Martian attack — an estimate Samels in his comments said was taken from Hadley Cantril’s 1940 book, The Invasion From Mars.

But Cantril estimated that 1 million to 1.2 million people may have been “frightened” or “disturbed” or “excited” by what they heard. He did not exactly say those listeners were “convinced” the country was under Martian attack. And as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fear or excitement.

Being “frightened” or “disturbed” is hardly synonymous with being “panic-stricken.”

In any event, there are more recent and more discerning sources than Cantril’s problematic, 73-year-old book about The War of the Worlds program. But Samels and the documentary’s producer ignored those sources.

Another matter about the PBS documentary awaits Getler’s consideration.

This has to do with the program’s recreated dialog, in which actors dressed in period clothing gave voice to reactions that contemporaneous listeners of the radio program had described in letters.

One of the actors spoke the words of a “Sylvia Holmes” of Newark, New Jersey.

'Sylvia Holmes'

‘Sylvia Holmes’

“Holmes” was presented in the documentary as someone deeply frightened by the radio show.

But her remarks on the PBS documentary were drawn from Cantril’s 1940 book. As media historian Michael Socolow has pointed out, Cantril did not use real names in the book. Indeed, Cantril wrote:

“All names of respondents used in the text, are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised, but the true flavor of the case studies is preserved.”

So “Sylvia Holmes” is a pseudonym. And in a posting at Twitter that addressed Socolow’s point, PBS seemed to say it knew that. Left unclear, though, is why the documentary presented a fictitious name as if it were real.

PBS editorial standards say that programming “content should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

In offering viewers the comments of the pseudonymous “Sylvia Holmes,” PBS may have skirted its cornerstone guidance.

WJC

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