W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Photographs’ Category

Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 29, 2014 at 8:03 am
'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The famous “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 undeniably ranks among the most profound and disturbing images of the Vietnam War. Its power, though, is often overstated.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, and showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled. The photograph, formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since then, a tendency has developed to attribute to the image effects that are far more powerful and decisive than it projected at the time.

For example, the Guardian newspaper in London asserted in a review the other day of an exhibit in France of the imagery of war that Ut’s photo “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.” Neither claim is accurate.

By June 1972, American public opinion had long since turned against the war in Vietnam. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

Ut’s photo can hardly be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: That shift had taken place years before.

Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

Compelling though it was, the “napalm girl” photo exerted impact far less profound than is now believed.

But so what? Why is it problematic to overstate the image’s effects?

To do so is to indulge in a central flaw of a media-driven myth — that of media centrism, of exaggerating the power of the journalism, of attributing to news media greater influence than they really wield. To do so also is to misread and distort the historical record. No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam or “expedited” its end: The war’s duration, its uncertain policy objectives, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive factors in the outcome of the conflict.

“Napalm girl” was an unsettling image, undeniably memorable. But it does not follow that it wielded immeasurable or decisive influence.

It did not.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Strategy for peace’ and blocking the schoolhouse door: Recalling a crowded week in June 1963

In Anniversaries, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Television, Year studies on June 6, 2013 at 5:56 am

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “strategy for peace” commencement address at American University, a speech delivered at the height of the Cold War in which he called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

JFK_AU_speech

Kennedy, June 10, 1963

The speech often is ranked among the finest of its kind.

Speaking to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also said the United States would suspend atmospheric testing as long as other nuclear powers did the same.

Fifty years on, the speech is still recalled for such passages as: “[W]e must labor on— not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”

And:

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

Those sentiments represented something of a modest departure from the rhetoric common at the time. Kennedy spoke at American University less than eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange.

The speech was not without significance: The talks Kennedy announced on June 10, 1963, led fairly quickly to a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and British.

Interestingly, Kennedy’s address was in short order crowded off the front pages. His “strategy for peace” remarks hardly dominated the news that week.

Indeed, few weeks arguably have been as packed with such a variety of major and memorable news events as June 9-15, 1963.

Kennedy’s commencement speech received prominent treatment for a day or two in U.S. newspapers. Then it was overtaken by some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights era — among them, Governor George Wallace’s stand at the schoolhouse door, symbolically blocking the desegregation of the University of Alabama.

It has been said that the “drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus” that day, June 11, 1963.

In the face of the governor’s defiance, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. After reading a bitter statement denouncing the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace stepped aside. Two black students were allowed to register for classes.

NYT-front_11June1963_full

New York Times front, June 11, 1963

Kennedy referred to the confrontation in Alabama in a radio and television speech that night in which he proposed that Congress pass civil rights legislation to end discrimination in voting, enhance educational opportunities, and ensure access to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.

The resulting legislation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also on June 11, 1963,  an Associated Press correspondent in South Vietnam, Malcolm Browne, took one of the iconic images of the long war in Southeast Asia — that of a Buddhist monk who had set himself afire in downtown Saigon, to protest the government’s religious oppression.

“It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” Browne later said. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed ….”

The following day, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried three times for Evers’ killing, most recently in 1994 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The other two trials ended in hung juries.

Evers, an Army veteran who had fought in World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The space race, as it was known, seldom was far from the news in 1963. At the close of the crowded week, the Soviets were preparing to launch Vostok 6. On board was Valentina Tereshkova, destined to become the first woman in space.

The flight lifted off on June 16, 1963, and lasted nearly 71 hours. Tereshkova’s 49 Earth orbits more than doubled the most compiled to that point by any American astronaut.

And 20 years would pass before the first American woman flew in space. She was Sally Ride, a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

The crowded week 50 years ago was a microcosm of the Cold War era, what with nuclear arms, civil rights, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.-Soviet space race all prominently in the news.

Even so, why does it much matter to look back on that week in June?

Doing so offer some useful and interesting perspective, given that we tend to think we live in such busy and momentous times.

Taking a look back also reveals how unsettled the country seemed to be in 1963, given the violence and the confrontations in the South, the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the strife in Vietnam.

So looking back to the crowded week in June tells us the 1960s were churning well before the climatic and tumultuous year of 1968.

One wouldn’t immediately have recognized this in mid-June 1963, but dominance was shifting in the news media, flowing from newspapers  to television.

Confirmation of this transition came in late November 1963 with wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. “Even television’s critics had to admit that the medium had been transformed into an even more powerful force,” media historian David Davies wrote in a book of the postwar decline of American newspapers.

Nineteen sixty-three was pivotal for the news media.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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:

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.

Recent or related:

A sort-of correction from the NYTimes

In Debunking, Error, New York Times, Photographs on August 28, 2012 at 9:09 pm

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It has taken more than three months, but the New York Times today published a sort-of correction of its erroneous description about the napalm attack in Vietnam in June 1972 that preceded the famous photograph of children terrified and wounded by the bombing.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. It is colloquially known as the “napalm girl” image.

The Times’ error appeared in an obituary, published May 14, about Horst Faas, an award-winning AP photographer and editor who spent years in Vietnam.

The obituary said the photograph showed “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.”

But as I, and others, pointed out to the Times, the napalm was not dropped by the American military but by the South Vietnamese Air Force.

In response to my email sent in May about that lapse, the Times’ correction expert on its 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.”

Of course, the aircraft’s manufacturer was hardly at issue. And in the sort-of correction published today, the Times removed the reference to “American planes” in the digital version of the obituary but otherwise embraced Keepnews’ convoluted reasoning, 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.”

Which makes for a less-than-clean correction.

Indeed, the correction seems begrudging, half-hearted.

And less than sincere.

It’s as if the Times were saying the South Vietnamese Air Force was doing the dirty work for the American military — which by June 1972 was decidedly winding down its war effort in Vietnam.

Richard Pyle, a retired veteran AP correspondent who was the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, characterized the Times’ correction this way:

“[T]he phrasing — ‘while the planes that carried out the 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 American forces’ — makes it sound like a bunch of teenagers borrowing daddy’s car.”

Indeed.

Pyle, who retired from AP in 2009, also had petitioned the Times for a correction in the Faas obituary. So had Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the news agency’s photo service.

In July, they sent a joint letter by email to the Times, pointing to the very real prospect that the error, if left uncorrected, could solidify into wide acceptance.

They wrote: “Our larger concern, beyond amending the immediate record, is that if left standing, this error will be repeated in future by the Times and any publications that might rely on it as a source, in effect causing a significant piece of misinformation to be cast in journalistic stone.”

The Times’ sort-of correction muddies rather than clarifies or fully corrects. The concerns that Pyle and Buell addressed are hardly set to rest.

The sort-of correction is disappointing, too, in light of the praise that the Times’ outgoing public editor, Arthur Brisbane, offered Sunday about the newspaper’s corrections staff.

Brisbane extolled the Times’ corrections desk as “a powerful engine of accountability” unmatched by similar operations at other U.S. news organizations.

The sort-of correction published today mocks such extravagant praise.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent or related:

Pardon the scoffing: NYT corrections desk is ‘a powerful engine of accountability’?

In Error, New York Times, Photographs on August 26, 2012 at 11:49 am

The swan song column of Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, salutes the newspaper’s corrections desk as “a powerful engine of accountability” unmatched by similar operations elsewhere.

Brisbane salutes ‘powerful engine of accountability’ (NYTimes photo)

Pardon my scoffing: A “powerful engine of accountability”?

The Times has been often and rightly lampooned for obsessing over trivial lapses while ignoring far more consequential missteps — as suggested by its ignoring repeated recent requests to correct its unambiguous error about the context of the famous “napalm girl” photograph taken in Vietnam in June 1972.

The image, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, shows a naked child, screaming in pain as she fled an aerial napalm attack near a village in South Vietnam. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize and remains one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

In an obituary published in May, the Times referred to the image as showing “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.”

But as has been repeatedly pointed out to the Times, the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American; it was South Vietnamese.

Among those who’ve called attention to the Times’ error are two senior former Associated Press journalists, Richard Pyle, the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president.

Both men have petitioned the Times for a correction, stating in a joint letter sent last month by email:

“Our larger concern, beyond amending the immediate record, is that if left standing, this error will be repeated in future by the Times and any publications that might rely on it as a source, in effect causing a significant piece of misinformation to be cast in journalistic stone.”

Pyle and Buell also pointed to the Times’ inclination to police its minor errors, writing:

“Given the Times’ demonstrated commitment to correcting middle initials, transposed letters and other Lilliputian errata, it shouldn’t be asking too much for it to repair a factual error of greater magnitude.”

But the “powerful engine of accountability” hasn’t deigned to address the error, which insinuates that the U.S. military was responsible for the attack that preceded Ut’s “napalm girl” photograph.

By June 1972, however, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For the American military, the war then was winding down.

Pyle and Buell, jointly and individually, have sought a correction, addressing email to Brisbane’s desk and elsewhere at the Times. I, too, have pointed out the Times’ lapse and in May received this frankly illogical reply from the newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews:

“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 were vital to the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.

The Times’ failure to address the error hints at limited viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, a topic that Brisbane points to in his swan song.

He writes:

“Across the paper’s many departments … so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane states, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

That description prompted a rebuke from the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson. But it’s a telling and doubtless accurate observation that Brisbane ought to have made more often during his two-year tenure as “public editor,” or internal critic.

Brisbane’s comment about “political and cultural progressivism” evokes an observation by the Times’ first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. In a column in 2004, Okrent addressed what he called “the flammable stuff that ignites the [political] right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.

“And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.”

Brisbane’s comment also is evocative of one of the final columns that Deborah Howell wrote as ombudsman at the Washington Post.

She acknowledged in mid-November 2008 that “some of the conservatives’ complaints about a liberal tilt [in mainstream journalism] are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did.”

She also wrote:

“There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

I argue in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that viewpoint diversity and contrarian thinking should be vigorously promoted in American newsrooms.

But the ideological imbalance of mainstream American journalism never receives much more than passing attention in mainstream American journalism.

It’s little wonder, then, that the believability quotient of leading U.S. news media continues to ebb: There’s a keen sense that they’re not dealing it straight.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of respondents said they said believed “all or most” of what the Times has to say.

WJC

Recent or related:

NYTimes ignores senior former AP journalists seeking correction on ‘napalm girl’ context

In Debunking, New York Times, Photographs on August 17, 2012 at 10:35 am

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The New York Times has ignored written requests by two senior former Associated Press journalists seeking the correction of an unambiguous error published in a Times obituary three months ago.

The journalists are Richard Pyle, a Vietnam War correspondent for nearly five years and 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.

At issue is the Times’  mischaracterization of the attack that gave rise to one of the Vietnam War’s most memorable photographs — the “napalm girl” image of June 1972.

Update: The Times publishes a sort-of correction.

The centerpiece of the photograph, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, shows a naked child, screaming in pain as she fled an aerial napalm attack near a village in South Vietnam.

In an obituary published in May about Horst Faas — an award-winning AP photographer and editor who helped make sure Ut’s photograph moved across the agency’s wires — the Times described the image as “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.”

But as I pointed out in an email sent to the Times soon after the obituary was published, the aircraft that dropped the napalm wasn’t American; it was South Vietnamese.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied to me on May 22, stating in an email:

“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 were a crucial element in the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.

I wrote about the Times’ error — and Keepnews’ illogical response — in a post in early June at Media Myth Alert.

Quite independently of my efforts, Pyle and Buell also called the Times’ attention to the error about the napalm attack.

Their requests for a correction have been ignored, Pyle said.

Pyle shared the contents of a letter he sent by email to the Times in mid-June, in which he noted that the Faas obituary “included a serious error, asserting … that the napalm bombs were dropped by U.S. aircraft.  In fact the planes were A-1 Skyraiders of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), supporting a ground operation by South Vietnamese troops, in which there was no U.S. involvement.”

Pyle, a correspondent for AP from 1960 until retiring in 2009, also wrote that he was “dismayed to see the inclusion of an error that had first cropped up in a report about Nick Ut’s photo more than a decade ago, and which has required correction on several occasions since.

“It’s a classic example of how an error in print can be ‘killed’ repeatedly but never die.”

In a joint letter sent by email to the Times on July 22 and subsequently shared with me, Pyle and Buell reiterated that the error, if left uncorrected, may harden into wide acceptance.

They wrote:

“Our larger concern, beyond amending the immediate record, is that if left standing, this error will be repeated in future by the Times and any publications that might rely on it as a source, in effect causing a significant piece of misinformation to be cast in journalistic stone.”

They pointed out that they had separately sent letters by email to the Times but those letters “were simply ignored.” (The Times has not replied to an email I sent Wednesday, seeking comment about this matter.)

In their letter, Pyle and Buell also noted the Times’ earnest efforts to correct even minor errors and trivial lapses that creep into its columns, stating:

“Given the Times’ demonstrated commitment to correcting middle initials, transposed letters and other Lilliputian errata, it shouldn’t be asking too much for it to repair a factual error of greater magnitude.

“By clarifying this for the current record, you can also assure that it won’t be mindlessly recycled in future references to one of the Vietnam’s war’s most oft-published photo images.”

“Napalm girl” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for spot news photography.

(Full disclosure: I reported from Europe and West Africa for the Associated Press in the early 1980s but have never met Pyle or Buell.)

The Times’reluctance to address and correct this error evokes a couple of telling observations offered by media critic Jack Shafer, in a column for Slate in 2004.

Shafer wrote: “The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

He further stated:

“Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”

The Times’ unwillingness to acknowledge and correct its error about the context of the “napalm girl” image also brings to mind a sanctimonious pledge last year by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller.

He declared in a column in March 2011 that at the Times, “[w]e put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny.”

Keller further declared that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

That sure sounds good. Admirable, even.

But in fulfilling those high-sounding virtues, the Times fails utterly, at least in this case. And it is arrogant and dismissive in its failure.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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40 years on: The ‘napalm girl’ photo and its associated errors

In Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Photographs on June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

‘Napalm Girl’ image (Nick Ut/AP)

Nearly 40 years have passed since an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled, naked, from a misdirected napalm attack.

In a recent retrospective article, the AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

There’s no denying the stunning quality of what often is called the “napalm girl” image. But whether it helped “end” the Vietnam War is improbable: That’s an exaggeration, a case of locating far too much significance in a single image.

By mid-June 1972, after all, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For American forces, the ground war was quickly winding down.

The “napalm girl” image figured in a recent New York Times obituary about Horst Faas, a gruff, German-born photographer who spent years in Vietnam, covering the conflict for the AP.

Faas won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work in Vietnam and, later, in Bangladesh. And he was instrumental in making sure the AP moved the “napalm girl” photograph across its wires.

The Times quoted Faas as saying in an AP oral history: “The girl was obviously nude, and one of the rules was we don’t — at the A.P. — we don’t present nude pictures, especially of girls in puberty age.” Even so, the Times wrote, Faas “set his mind on ‘getting the thing published and out.'”

Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

The Times’ obituary described the photograph as showing “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.”

Except that the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American.

It was South Vietnamese (as the AP correctly notes in its recent retrospective, stating: “As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end”).

By referring to “American planes,” the Times‘ obituary insinuates that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph — and I pointed this out in an email to the Times.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied by email, saying:

“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 central or relevant.

I said as much in replying to Keepnews.

“I think you’re too eager to avoid a correction, or a clarification,” I wrote. “The manufacturer (or ownership) of the aircraft is inconsequential; far more important is who was flying the planes. And the obit’s wording (‘bombings in the countryside by American planes’) clearly suggests the aerial attacks were carried out [by] Americans, and that Americans caused the deaths and injuries. And that wasn’t the case. The aircraft were American-made, but flown by South Vietnamese pilots.

“A clarification seems in order,” I wrote, “to make the distinction clear.”

Keepnews sent this brief, dismissive response:

“Thank you for your feedback.”

In reply, I pointed out to Keepnews that the brief bios the Times published of the Pulitzer winners in 1973 correctly said that Ut had taken the photo “after South Vietnamese dropped napalm on own people by mistake.”

Keepnews sent no response, and the Times has neither corrected nor clarified the erroneous reference in the Faas obit to the aircraft that dropped the napalm.

The Times should.

After all, Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s executive editor, asserted in a column last year that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

It’s advice worth following.

WJC

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On bra-burning, Erica Jong is wrong

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on March 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Bra-burning in Toronto, 1979 (Bettmann/Corbis)

The writer Erica Jong asserts in a rambling commentary posted yesterday at the Daily Beast that bra-burning “never actually occurred.”

The mischaracterization of bra-burning was an element of Jong’s defense of feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Jong wrote in the commentary:

“The fact that the so-called mainstream press reduced our valid struggles to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and bra burning (which, btw, never actually occurred) was their attempt to further disempower us. And they surely prevailed.”

It’s not an infrequent claim, that feminist bra-burning was a media trope, a media myth. That it “never actually occurred.”

But there were at least a couple of documented occasions when feminist protesters set fire to bras.

One occasion came 33 years ago this month, when members of Women Against Violence Against Women demonstrated outside Toronto City Hall. As the demonstration neared its end, a protester named Pat Murphy dropped a white bra into the hungry flames of a burn barrel (see photo, above).

The demonstration in Toronto on March 8, 1979, coincided with International Women’s Day and was aimed at denouncing a report on rape prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

The police report said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.

The Women Against Violence Against Women group assailed the report as outrageous and “dazzling in its illogic.” Protesters carried signs saying: “Take a Rapist to Lunch — Charcoal Broiled” and “Hookers Who Wink Go to the Clink! Men Who Rape Escape.”

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the protesters lighted “a fire in a garbage can, to the obvious annoyance of about a dozen watchful constables, [and] shouted: ‘Burn the rapists, burn the city, burn the OPP,’” acronym for Ontario Provincial Police.

The newspaper’s account did not specifically mention bra-burning which, one participant has told me, “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest.

But bra-burning did happen there.

Another participant has recalled that “weighing in on the stereotype of ‘feminist bra-burners’ was actually an effective way [for protesters] to say: Women will control our own bodies, thank you!

“The bra burning,” she said, “was a way to entice the media as well as [offer] a critique of the police report.”

A little more than 10 years before the demonstration in Toronto, some 100 women gathered on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant. The demonstration was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women and was an early manifestation of the women’s liberation movement.

In Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out in 2010, I offer evidence that bras were set afire, briefly, during the demonstration at Atlantic City.

The evidence is from two witness accounts, one of which was published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, on September 8, 1968, the day after the protest.

Boucher (1949 photo)

That account appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Boucher’s article referred to the burn barrel that demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

That published account was buttressed by recollections of the writer Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City newspaper. Katz was on the Atlantic City boardwalk the day of the protest, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s sidebar didn’t mention the fire in the “Freedom Trash Can.”

But in correspondence with me, Katz stated:

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire.

“I am quite certain of this.”

WJC

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

Recent and related:

Bra-burning ‘never happened’?

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on March 8, 2011 at 8:40 am

Toronto, 32 years ago today (Bettmann/Corbis)

“Bra-burning has long been associated with the feminist movement, but it never happened.”

So asserted an article published the other day in the Sacramento Bee.

It’s a not-infrequent claim, that feminist bra-burning was a media invention, a media myth.

But there were at least a couple of occasions when feminist protesters set fire to bras.

One of the occasions came 32 years ago today, when members of Women Against Violence Against Women demonstrated outside city hall in Toronto. Near the close of the demonstration, a protester named Pat Murphy dropped a white bra into the hungry flames of a burn barrel (see photo).

The demonstration in Toronto on March 8, 1979, coincided with International Women’s Day and was aimed at denouncing a report on rape prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

The police report said that of 337 rapes investigated, 140 were “unprovoked.” The report also said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.

The Women Against Violence Against Women group scorned the report as outrageous and “dazzling in its illogic.” Protesters carried signs saying: “Take a Rapist to Lunch — Charcoal Broiled” and “Hookers Who Wink Go to the Clink! Men Who Rape Escape.”

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the protesters lighted “a fire in a garbage can, to the obvious annoyance of about a dozen watchful constables, [and] shouted: ‘Burn the rapists, burn the city, burn the OPP,’” acronym for Ontario Provincial Police.

The newspaper’s account did not mention the bra-burning which, one participant recently told me, “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest.

But it did happen.

Another participant recently recalled that “weighing in on the stereotype of ‘feminist bra-burners’ was actually an effective way [for protesters] to say: Women will control our own bodies, thank you!

“The bra burning,” she said, “was a way to entice the media as well as [offer] a critique of the police report.”

A little more than 10 years before the demonstration in Toronto, about 100 women gathered on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant. The demonstration was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women and has been recognized as an early manifestation of the women’s liberation movement.

In Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out last year, I offer evidence that denials to the contrary, bras were briefly set afire at Atlantic City.

The evidence is from two witness accounts — one of which was published in the Press of Atlantic City on September 8, 1968, the day after the protest.

Boucher (1949 photo)

That account appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Boucher’s article referred to the burn barrel that demonstrators had dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

That account was buttressed by recollections of the writer Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press. Katz was on the Atlantic City boardwalk the day of the protest, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s sidebar didn’t mention the fire in the “Freedom Trash Can.”

But in correspondence with me, Katz stated:

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire.

“I am quite certain of this.”

WJC

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