W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

Marking five years: The best of Media Myth Alert

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Scandal, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 31, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Media Myth Alert today marks its fifth anniversary — an occasion fitting to revisit the top posts since the blog went live on October 31, 2009, with the objectives of calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Here are the top five of the more than 640 posts at Media Myth Alert. (A separate post today will revisit five other top items posted at Media Myth Alert.)

The top posts all were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all were represented disclosures found only at Media Myth Alert.

Krakauer quietly retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11, 2011): This post disclosed the walk-back by author Jon Krakauer from claims in his 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003.

Krakauer book coverThose claims were unattributed in the book — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory.

It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve pointed out that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the botched story about Lynch has allowed for the emergence not only of bogus allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a tenacious false narrative that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq in the first days of the Iraq War.

Walters was taken prisoner by Iraqi irregulars, and shot and killed.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3, 2012): The “napalm girl” photograph was one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — and remains a source of media myth.

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning image (AP)

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press on June 8, 1972, and showed terror-stricken Vietnamese children running from an errant aerial napalm attack. The central figure of the image was a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming from her burns.

So powerful was the photograph that it is sometimes said — erroneously — that it hastened an end to the war. Another myth is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. aircraft, a version repeated by the New York Times in May 2012, in an obituary of an Associated Press photo editor, Horst Faas.

The Times’ obituary claimed that the “napalm girl” photograph 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 napalm attack, and I pointed this out in an email to the Times. I noted that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

An editor for the Times, Peter Keepnews, replied, in what clearly was a contorted attempt to avoid publishing a correction:

“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 not at all relevant as to who carried out the attack.

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

The Times resisted for weeks before publishing an obscure 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 muddled and begrudging acknowledgement of error — hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, who had asserted in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29, 2013): The first-ever post at Media Myth Alert was a brief item about Orson Welles’ clever and famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938. Welles’ show, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, supposedly was so terrifying that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

That’s a media myth, one that circulates every year, at the approach of Halloween.

Welles_monument

Orson Welles

In 2013, at the 75th anniversary of Welles’ program, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds in a much-anticipated “American Experience” documentary that turned out to be quite a disappointment. PBS managed not only to make The War of the Worlds seem snoozy and tedious; it missed the opportunity to revisit the well-known but much-misunderstood radio program in fresh and revealing 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.”

The PBS program failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

And it failed to consider the growing body of scholarship which has impugned the conventional wisdom and has found that The War of the Worlds program sowed neither chaos nor widespread alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of Welles, the program’s 23-year-old star.

My critique was endorsed 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.’”

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18, 2011): Few media myths are as enduring as the hero-journalist trope about of Watergate. It holds that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post — guided by Woodward’s clandestine source, code-named “Deep Throat” — exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

It’s an easy-to-remember tale that cuts through the considerable complexity of Watergate and, as such, has become the dominant narrative of the scandal.

But it’s a history-lite version of Watergate, a media-centric version that the Post itself has mostly eschewed and dismissed over the years. (Woodward once put it this way: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Watergate marker_cropped

Marker with the error

A measure of how engrained Watergate’s dominant narrative has become can be seen in the historical marker that went up in August 2011 outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Woodward conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his “Deep Throat” source.

The marker, as I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

That’s not so.

Such obstruction-of-justice evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did.

But Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) did not share it with Woodward.

The “Deep Throat” garage is to be razed to permit the construction of two commercial and residential towers, the Post reported in June 2014. Interestingly, the Post’s article about the planned demolition repeated nearly verbatim the key portion of the marker’s description, stating:

“Felt … provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which is still wrong, even if printed in the newspaper.

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17, 2011): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University used to feature a quotation attributed to Murrow — a quotation that was only half-true.

Soon after I asked the dean about the provenance of the suspicious quotation, it was taken down.

The quotation read:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow: It was a passage in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow in 1954

 Not Murrow’s line

The second sentence of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In mid-February 2011, I noted that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s first appearance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak, who said he believed the Web page containing the suspect quote had been developed before his arrival at Washington State in 2009, referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the 'loyal opposition' quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

The bogus Murrow quote about “the loyal opposition” has popped up before.

For example, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq, Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage — and claimed Murrow was its author.

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ invoked as putdown in Conn. gubernatorial race

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes on October 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm
Secret plan? Who me?

Secret plan? Who, me?

A bit of campaign history that never was — Richard Nixon’s promise in 1968 that he had a “secret plan” for ending the Vietnam War — reportedly has emerged as a snide putdown in Connecticut’s closely contested gubernatorial race.

According to the New Haven Register, Dannel Malloy, the Democratic incumbent, referred to Nixon’s purported “secret plan” in attempting to score points against his Republican foe, Tom Foley.

Malloy, the newspaper reported, said “’if you think Tom Foley has a plan, you are probably foolish enough to vote for him. He can’t tell what he wants to do. He won’t tell you what he will cut to get to a flat budget.’” The newspaper further reported that in remarks after a candidates’ debate last night, Malloy compared Foley’s positions “to President Richard Nixon promising he had a secret plan for ending the Vietman [sic] War.”

Now, state politics in Connecticut are but of passing interest to Media Myth Alert; far more intriguing is the reported casual reference to a dubious and mythical tale — a tale of impressive tenacity despite a dearth of evidence to support it.

The notion that Nixon promised a “secret plan” during his run for the presidency dates to the  primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. In early March 1968, Nixon said that his “new leadership” would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In its report about the speech, the United Press International wire service pointed out that Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” But the UPI dispatch noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”

Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam but claiming to possess a “secret plan” to end the war was not an element of his campaign: He did not stump for the presidency declaring he had one.

That much is clear in reviewing a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise speaking about having a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Had Nixon promised or run on a “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Nixon’s foes on occasion claimed that Nixon’s vagueness about how he would “end the war” was tantamount to having a “secret plan.” But such was their interpretation.

When asked directly, Nixon replied by saying that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon further stated, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

It is possible that Nixon in 1968 privately had in mind a “secret plan” of some kind for Vietnam. But it was not among his campaign promises.

Like many media myths, the anecdote seems too good not to be true. It is easily remembered and suggests guile and duplicity, qualities not infrequently associated with Nixon. But the evidence shows that “secret plan” is really more Nixonian than Nixon.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Seeking context for Obama’s war, finding media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on September 24, 2014 at 8:03 pm

In reaching for historical context to assess President Barack Obama’s war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, a columnist for the Washington Examiner summoned a hoary media myth — that of Richard Nixon’s putative “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Examiner logo“Obama wasn’t the first president to promise peace and deliver war,” Timothy P. Carney wrote in his column posted today. “Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on keeping America out of the Great War. Nixon promised a secret plan to exit Vietnam quickly.”

Missing from Carney’s discussion were details about when Nixon made such a promise, and what the “secret plan”  entailed.

Those elements are missing because Nixon never promised a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

Even so, the chestnut still circulates as purported evidence of Nixon’s guile, shiftiness, and venality. It dates to the presidential primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon vowed that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In reporting on the speech, the wire service United Press International pointed out that Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch also noted that “Nixon’s promise evoked Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”

Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam but he made no claim to possess a “secret plan” to end the war. Nor did he campaign for the presidency saying he had one.

That he did not is clear in a search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 that Nixon quoted as touting or promising a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, had Nixon run for president saying he had “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers in 1968 would have noted it.

Nixon was asked about having a secret plan, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times. He replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

What 'secret plan'?

What ‘secret plan’?

He also said on that occasion:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But if so, he did not discuss it openly. And he certainly did not make it a campaign promise.

Like many other media myths, the “secret plan” anecdote is a dubious bit of popular history that can be too delicious to resist. It is, as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, once wrote, a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ pledge for Vietnam invoked as taunt in Illinois politics

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on June 4, 2014 at 7:35 am

A claim that Richard Nixon never made — that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam — has surfaced amid the snark and one-upmanship of politics in Illinois.

Nixon’s mythical pledge was invoked the other day by John Cullerton, president of the Illinois senate, who taunted the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bruce Rauner, for not directly addressing how his administration would cover the state’s multibillion budget deficit.

“It’s like,” Cullerton said, “Richard Nixon: ‘I have a secret plan to get out of Vietnam, just after the election.’” His comment was aired in a report on WUIS radio in Springfield, Illinois.

Media Myth Alert is only faintly interested in the intricacies of Illinois state politics. But it does find Cullerton’s snarky quip intriguing, as it suggests a casual, almost-reflexive embrace of a claim that rather sounds Nixonian but really wasn’t.

The “secret plan” chestnut, which circulates periodically as purported evidence of Nixon’s venality and sneaky ways, dates to the presidential election campaign in 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting Nixon’s speech, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch further noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”

Nixon may have been vague in his remarks about Vietnam, but he made no claim to possess a “secret plan” to end the war. He did not run for the presidency by proclaiming one. That much is quite clear in searching a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period of January 1967 to January 1969 in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, had Nixon been touting a “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers would have reported it.

According to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon addressed that notion, stating that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

He also said on that occasion:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not campaign for the presidency that year saying he did.

In the end, the “secret plan” anecdote is a dubious bit of popular history that can be too tempting to resist. It is, as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, once wrote, a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”

Had Cullerton been inclined to research the anecdote before so blithely invoking it, he might have turned to the back issues of the largest newspaper in his district, the Chicago Tribune. In September 1972, in the midst of Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Tribune observed in an editorial that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern “has repeatedly attacked President Nixon for saying in 1968 that he had ‘a secret plan to end the war.’ … Such quotes from the past would make wonderful political weapons if they were true.

“The trouble is they are not. Mr. Nixon never uttered the phrase.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Furnish the war’ media myth infiltrates NPR tribute to Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 16, 2013 at 11:07 am

Media myths often are pressed into the service of emphasis, to underscore telling points and broader themes about media performance.

Hearst in caricature, 1896

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So it is with the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. The anecdote speaks to the arrogance and dangers of media power — that at their worst, the news media can even bring on war.

Which is nonsense.

Even so, “furnish the war” is a tale too tempting sometimes not to be pressed into the service of emphasis.

Which takes us to an essay posted today at the NPR’s online “You Must Read This” column, where writers discuss their favorite books. In the essay, Alexander Nazaryan of the “Page Views” blog of the New York Daily News pays tribute to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a delicious send-up of war reporting that was published in 1938.

ScNPR books_logooop centers around William Boot, a hapless nature writer for the fictional London newspaper Daily Beast who inadvertently is assigned to cover the turmoil in Ishmaelia, a fictional state in East Africa.

While slow to get going, Scoop offers hilarious turns. Its portraits of arrogant, suspicious, hype-prone war reporters are entertaining and resonate even today, 75 years on.

Why the NPR essay about Scoop much matters to Media Myth Alert is that it invokes the tale about “furnish the war.”

The essay notes how the bumbling Boot inevitably incurs the wrath of editors back in London, and adds:

“After filing the kind of stories that wouldn’t get a single retweet these days, he receives an unambiguous telegram from the Daily Beast:  ‘LORD COPPER PERSONALLY REQUIRES VICTORIES.’ If that seems like rather heavy-handed satire, remember that the not-at-all-fictional Randolph William Hearst once allegedly told a correspondent in Cuba, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.’”

Actually, it’s  not “Randolph William Hearst.”

And William Randolph Hearst almost certainly never sent a message vowing to “furnish the war.”

That anecdote revolves around a purported exchange of telegrams between Hearst and Frederic Remington, the famous American artist who in January 1897 went to Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

Remington’s assignment was to draw sketches about Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. He was in Cuba six days, then returned to New York.

Before leaving, Remington supposedly wired Hearst, saying:

“Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst supposedly said:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, reasons for doubting the Remington-Hearst exchange are many, and include the absence of documentary evidence: The telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

Moreover, Hearst denied ever having sent such a message, and Remington apparently never discussed it.

And the tale lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency:  It would have been absurd for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war— the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason Hearst dispatched Remington to Cuba in the first place.

“Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

The “furnish the war” anecdote first appeared in 1901, a brief passage in a slim memoir titled On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent. The author was James Creelman, a portly, bearded, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hype and pomposity.

Creelman did not explain how or from whom he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange. Creelman in January 1897 was Hearst’s correspondent in Europe, which means he wasn’t with Remington in Cuba, nor with Hearst in New York.

Creelman invoked the anecdote not to condemn Hearst, but to compliment him. For Creelman, the “furnish the war” vow was suggestive of the aggressive, anticipatory “yellow journalism” that he saw and liked in Hearst’s newspapers.

But in the mid- and late-1930s, the anecdote’s meaning shifted dramatically, to become emblematic of the supposedly wretched character of Hearst and his journalism.

The transformation made “furnish the war” a far more engaging tale, and ensured that it would live on and on. And ready to be pressed into the service of emphasis.

WJC

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‘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

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Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? ‘Salon’ dials up a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Television on May 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

The online news and commentary site Salon today invokes the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 in mulling TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced criticism last night about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Salon logoStewart’s remarks on his Daily Show are evocative, Salon declares, of “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,” in which he suggested that negotiations could offer a way out of Vietnam.

Salon adds the media myth, stating:

“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 then injects a muddled caveat, stated 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 “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

And here are a few of the reasons why:

  • 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 party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his commentary about Vietnam, Johnson 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.”
  • Cronkite’s on-air remarks had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced at the end of March 1968, not to seek reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s eroding political support: By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting intra-party challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. And Johnson may have decided well before then against another term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that well before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”
  • Cronkite for years rejected the notion that his on-air comments about Vietnam had had much effect on Johnson. The anchorman characterized his observations as akin to “another straw on the back of a crippled camel.” Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s commentary had much influence on popular opinion, either. Polls had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s on-air remarks. Which means the anchorman can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening disenchantment about the war.

What’s more, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s commentary — he also said the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” — was far less emphatic than the on-air remarks not long afterward by a rival network newsman, Frank McGee of NBC News.

On March 10, 1968, McGee declared: “The war is being lost by the administration’s definition.”

Lost: No hedging there about a stalemate.

Not only does Salon indulge in media myth, its commentary probably overstates the impact of Stewart’s segment about the scandals.

The comedian was hardly direct or unrelenting in criticizing Obama. His frustration was aimed primarily at IRS and the agency’s stunning recent acknowledgement that it had singled out conservative organizations for detailed scrutiny.

As such, Stewart’s remarks are unlikely to be remembered as much of a turning point in popular views about the Obama administration.

WJC

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A ‘Cronkite Moment’ in the war on terror? There never was a ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Year studies on April 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm

When Walter Cronkite of CBS News called the Vietnam War a stalemate in 1968, he supposedly set a standard of courage that some journalists yearn desperately to find in contemporary practice.

Did he inspire a 'Brokaw Moment'?

Did he inspire a ‘Brokaw Moment’?

The latest example of such nostalgic longing appeared yesterday, in a column praising Tom Brokaw’s remarks during Sunday’s Meet the Press program about the terrorist bombings at this month’s Boston Marathon.

The surviving of the two suspected bombers reportedly has said the attack was motivated by U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To David Sirota, that signals retributive blowback in America’s war on terror. And in a column posted at the In These Times site (also posted at Salon.com), Sirota lavished praise on Brokaw for having said on Meet the Press:

“But we’ve got to look at the roots of all of this. Because it exists across the whole [Asian] subcontinent and the Islamic world around the world. And I think we also have to examine the use of drones that the United States is involved in. And there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

“And I can tell you, having spent a lot of time over there, young people will come up to me on the streets and say, ‘We love America. But if you harm one hair on the head of my sister, I will fight you forever.’ And there is this enormous rage against what they see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.”

While not particularly pithy or eloquent, such sentiments qualify Brokaw as “a Walter Cronkite of his age,” Sirota wrote in his column, adding that Brokaw’s “declaration recalls Cronkite’s seminal moment 45 years ago.

“Back in 1968,” Sirota went on, “opponents of the Vietnam War were being marginalized in much the same way critics of today’s wars now are. But when such a revered voice as Cronkite took to television to declare the conflict an unwinnable ‘stalemate,’ he helped create a tipping point whereby Americans began to reconsider their assumptions.

“In similarly making such an assumption-challenging statement, Brokaw has followed in Cronkite’s heroic footsteps,” Sirota declared. His commentary carried the headline, “A Cronkite Moment for the War on Terror.”

Whether media historians one day will refer to the “Brokaw Moment” in the war on terror is questionable: I doubt whether Brokaw’s remarks on Meet the Press will prove very memorable.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is embellishing the so-called “Cronkite Moment” as a kind of lofty and inspiring standard of journalistic conduct, as a singular moment of memorable courage.

It wasn’t.

Now, there is no doubt that Walter Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. He said so on February 27, 1968, in a special report that aired on CBS television.

But over time, the effects of Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation have been inflated out of proportion to the decidedly modest impact it had in 1968. Sirota’s column is emblematic of that tendency to inflate.

After all, it was scarcely original or provocative to describe the Vietnam War as a “stalemate” in early 1968. In his well-regarded study of that year, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” at the time.

News organizations such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” as early as the summer of 1967 in reporting and commenting about Vietnam.

Indeed, a front-page new analysis about the war, published in the Times in August 1967,  carried the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” comment “helped create a tipping point” in U.S. public opinion about the war.

The “tipping point” had been reached months before.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polling had detected shifts in views about the war long before Cronkite’s program. In a very real sense, Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening popular doubts about the wisdom of the war.

For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early October 1967 – 4½ months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation — reported that 47 percent of respondents, a plurality, said it was a mistake to have sent U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. A little more that two years earlier, Gallup had reported that only 24 percent of respondents felt that way.

Journalists detected other evidence in late 1967 of a shift in views about the war. Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 that the previous five or six months had been “a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

Opponents of the war hardly “were being marginalized” in early 1968. They were increasingly outspoken, and prominent.

As for Cronkite, he pooh-poohed for years the notion his “mired in stalemate” observation was of much consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for President Lyndon Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying on a CNN program in 1999:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” lies in the immediate and visceral effects Cronkite’s “stalemate” comment supposedly had on Johnson.

It often has been said that Johnson watched the Cronkite program at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” remark, turned to an aide or aides and said something along these lines:

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

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not in front of a television set

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program aired. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” opinion, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite. He was making light of Connally’s age.

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

WJC

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

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