W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Katrina’

Cronkite report on Vietnam was ‘most influential TV show ever’?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Television on June 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

The most influential TV show ever?

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

It’s rather a thumbsucker, but it’s the topic of the “Big Question” feature in the June number of the Atlantic. And the responses, culled from TV executives, producers, and show creators, range from All in the Family, to the Simpson’s, to Saturday Night Light, to Walter Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam.

I always thought All in the Family was grating and repetitive; the Simpson’s predictable, and Saturday Night Light ever-erratic. But the Cronkite report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968?

The most influential?

That’s just wrong. Factually wrong.

The Cronkite program was proposed as “most influential” by John Langley, co-creator of the series Cops, who wrote in explaining his choice:

“Public opinion followed Cronkite’s assessment, leading President Johnson to observe, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

That assessment includes a couple of important errors, to be addressed in moment.

Some background, first: Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, went to Vietnam in February 1968, shortly after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched a surprisingly extensive but ultimately failed offensive across South Vietnam.

Upon returning to New York, Cronkite prepared a report about Vietnam, describing the U.S. war effort there as “mired in stalemate” and suggesting that negotiations could offer a way out.

In the supposed reactions to Cronkite’s report lurks one the most popular and enduring myths of American journalism.

As Langley writes, American public opinion supposedly followed Cronkite: Americans were swayed, supposedly, by the assessment of someone as trusted as Cronkite, and they likewise turned against the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s special report, knew his war policy was in tatters and purportedly uttered something to the effect of:

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

In fact, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before the Cronkite program: Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening doubts about the wisdom of fighting in Vietnam.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a plurality of Americans (47 percent) told pollsters for Gallup in October 1967 that sending U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. That plurality edged upward to 49 percent in a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

Journalists, moreover, had detected a softening of popular support for the war.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, reported that the “summer and fall of 1967 [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.”

LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Wasn’t watching Cronkite

As for Johnson, he didn’t see the Cronkite report on Vietnam when it aired. He wasn’t in front a television set that night; he was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

And about the time Cronkite was intoning his pessimistic, “mired in stalemate” editorial comment about the war, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about 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.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” was an appraisal that was neither stunning nor novel in late February 1968. U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to describe the war effort for months before the Cronkite program.

For example, the New York Times asserted in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times 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’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

While the Atlantic’s “Big Question” had the intended effect of stirring debate and discussion, it wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the rankings issued last year of the “most impactful moments” on U.S. television of the past 50 years. Notably, none of the top 20 was an entertainment program.

The rankings were prepared from a survey conducted by Nielsen and Sony Electronics, and topping that list was coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the reporting of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and of the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdicts in 1995.

While dramatic, the Katrina coverage, was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the reporting on TV and in print “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

But few if any of the nightmarish accounts of violence, anarchy, and mayhem proved true.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage

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

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

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

No media_cropped

Newtown, Connecticut

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

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

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

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

“Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.”

Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little of Compass’ extravagance proved true.

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

It sure did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

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

WJC

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Slow to learn: Lesson for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Brian Ross’ appalling error linking the Tea Party movement to the suspected Batman-movie shooter in Colorado demonstrates anew how slow journalists can be in grasping an elementary lesson of disaster coverage: Resist temptation to report more than you can immediately verify.

In the hours just after a disaster, journalists tend to be especially prone to error and imprecision, as Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, amply demonstrated in declaring today on Good Morning America:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross added, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colo.”

The suspect arrested in the shootings early today at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, is named James Holmes. But he is not the “Jim Holmes” to whom Ross referred, and the suspected killer has no known connections to the grassroots Tea Party movement, which advocates restraints in government spending.

It soon was clear that Ross’ speculative remarks associating the killer with the Tea Party were in error. ABC News offered an apology — an apology that raised important unanswered questions:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

But how did that happen? How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?

ABC’s apology didn’t say.

It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.

Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.

In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.

I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong:

“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”

Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.

The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I note:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated.

Other examples of erroneous news reports about unfolding disasters are not difficult to find.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. This happened in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, offering a ready point of reference for reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath. The initial estimates of 10,000 deaths in New York were considerably overstated.”

Early reports about the attacks of September 11, 2001, also were distorted by error — by accounts, for example, of a car bombing at State Department, of military aircraft downing a hijacked plane near Camp David.

All too often, the news media are disinclined to revisit their disaster-coverage lapses and account for the errors. Such was the case in Katrina’s aftermath, when news organizations offered at best feeble and one-off explanations for their flawed and exaggerated reporting.

Ross and ABC News owe their viewers nothing less than a thorough and candid accounting for their error today.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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No, really: Ray Nagin sought out for advice on hurricane prep

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 28, 2011 at 2:37 am

What a joke.

Nagin in New Orleans

As Hurricane Irene churned toward the East Coast of the United States, MSNBC brought on Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, for insights about storm preparations.

In introducing Nagin, MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir declared:

“Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin joins us to explain what leaders must do to avoid the mistakes that were made six years ago” when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

Nagin, a preparedness authority?

Hardly.

Not only did Nagin fumble the local response to Hurricane Katrina (remember the yellow school buses, all neatly parked and submerged by flood waters?). He contributed significantly to the terribly misleading notion that in the storm’s aftermath, the city was swept by mayhem and lawlessness.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Nagin offered up  what proved to be highly exaggerated estimates of Katrina-related deaths in New Orleans.

He said the toll could reach 10,000.

Deaths attributed to the hurricane in Louisiana were a little more than 1,000.

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, “Nagin and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass, were sources for some of the most shocking and exaggerated reports about the disaster.”

During an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s television talk show on September 6, 2005, Nagin said “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing storm evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Nagin was winging it on national television. And smearing his city in the process.

(It deserves noting that Nagin was criticized in a bipartisan Congressional report about the responses to Katrina. The report, issued in 2006 and titled A Failure of Initiative, pointed out that the mayor had “repeated unsubstantiated rumors before the national media, creating an exaggerated image of utter lawlessness.”)

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Nagin’s descriptions “were widely reported — and proved to be almost totally without foundation. In all, six people died in the Superdome during the Katrina aftermath. None of those deaths was related to violent crime.”

Interestingly, Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted post-Katrina New Orleans as swept by mayhem and terror.

He offered this strange reply:

“I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,” he said. “So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”

Compass was forced to resign within a few weeks of his appearance on Oprah. Nagin, though, was reelected in 2006 to a four-year term as mayor. He left office in 2010.

He’s out now with a self-published book, Katrina’s Secrets: Storms after the Storm (Volume I). In it, Nagin stokes the undocumented claims about violence inside the Superdome in the hurricane’s aftermath.

According to an essay written by Brendan McCarthy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and posted at nola.com, Nagin claims in the book to have had “private conversations” with “several” women who said they were raped there.

McCarthy’s post quotes Nagin’s book as stating:

“The political and media spin later claimed that many of the rapes were basically the figment of our collective imagination. This ensured that anyone who was raped would not come forward to face unfair, invasive scrutiny while being forced to defend their credibility.”

McCarthy’s post also quotes Compass’ successor, Warren Riley, as having said in 2010:

“The stories that people had died in the Superdome, that people were being raped — there’s not one iota of evidence to show that anyone was killed or raped in the Dome.”

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ at ‘Reader’s Corner’ tonight

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

I’ll be discussing my latest book, Getting It Wrong, in a half-hour interview that airs tonight at 7:30 (Eastern) on “Reader’s Corner,” a program of Boise State University public radio, KBSX 91.5 FM.

The host is the university’s president, Bob Kustra, an engaging interviewer who taped the show with me last week.

We discussed a number of the media-driven myths debunked in Getting It Wrong, including, in some detail, the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly swung U.S. policy in Vietnam with his on-air assessment that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were a prospective way out of Southeast Asia.

The assessment, I write in Getting It Wrong, “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment.’”

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect. Versions vary. Markedly.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House, either.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of the president’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was saying this, about Connally’s age:

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

It’s difficult to imagine how Johnson was much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Even if the president did watch the Cronkite report at some later date on videotape — and there’s no evidence he did — it’s clear that Johnson did not take the anchorman’s assessment to heart. “Mired in stalemate” was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, just three days after the Cronkite program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”

I noted in the interview with Kustra, that Cronkite until late in his life pooh-poohed the notion his assessment about Vietnam represented a pivotal moment.

In his memoir published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that his “mired in stalemate” assessment posed for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

But by 2006, three years before his death, Cronkite had come to embrace the conventional interpretation of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Among other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency) and the woefully exaggerated reporting that characterized coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.

I also noted during the interview that Getting It Wrong is best regarded as aligned with the fundamental imperative of newsgathering — that of getting it right, of seeking to obtain the most accurate version of events as possible.

WJC

Media myths, the ‘comfort food’ of journalism

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

One of my favored characterizations of media-driven myths, those dubious tales about media power that masquerade as factual, is that they’re the “junk food of journalism.”

Not comforting at all

By that I mean they’re tasty and alluring, but not very nutritious, not very healthy.

The “junk food of journalism” is a turn of phrase suggested by an American University graduate student a few years ago. And, crediting him, I included that description in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out almost a year ago.

At a recent Roads Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) program at which I spoke about media myths, a participant offered a variation on “junk food of journalism.”

Media myths, she suggested, also are akin to “comfort food of journalism.”

The comfort food of journalism.

I liked the phrase. Liked it immediately.

Media myths, after all, do tend to offer comfort to journalists, the practitioners of a profession that’s largely unloved.

Tales such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales speak to the potential of journalism to do good, to make a difference.

The tales are indeed much like comfort food.

Seeking reassurance about the relevance of journalism helps explain the myth of superlative reporting that marred the coverage of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in late summer 2005.

The hurricane brought vast flooding to New Orleans, where levees failed.

“In the face of the deepening disaster, federal, state, and city emergency relief efforts proved sluggish, erratic, and stymied, especially in New Orleans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Evidence of government incompetence at all levels was abundant, and became a powerful story. People were suffering in New Orleans, and journalists went after the story vigorously, posing lacerating questions of federal, state, and city authorities: Where was the aid? Why had it not arrived? What was to be done to help the evacuees?”

In the turmoil, traditional news media seemed vital and authoritative. They were “essential again,” as American Journalism Review declared in a cover story both flattering and comforting.

“Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country,” American Journalism Review asserted. “Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.”

It added:

“In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”

Woah: “reunited the people and the reporters”? Talk about comfort food for the press.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, such self-reverential praise was “more than a little misleading.” The post-Katrina comfort-food story was largely wrong.

The reporting about Katrina’s aftermath was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I note, adding:

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

In the days immediately after Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror supposedly unleashed by the hurricane. Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood.

News reports spoke of roving gangs that preyed on tourists and terrorized the occupants of the Superdome. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

The exaggerated coverage not only delayed the arrival of aid to New Orleans; it impugned a battered city and defamed its residents, depicting them, inaccurately, as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

WJC

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The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post on May 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Wall Street Journal  over the weekend carried an intriguing commentary about the appeal of the apocalyptic, a commentary pegged to predictions of a Christian radio network that Saturday next will mark the end of days.

Terrible, but not apocalyptic

“Why are such apocalyptic prophecies so common in human history? What are their emotional and cognitive underpinnings?” the Journal commentary asked.

“In most doomsday scenarios,” it noted, “destruction is followed by redemption, giving us a sense of both fear and hope. The ostensible ‘end’ is usually seen as a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.”

When posed in a slightly different manner, the question has relevance for journalists: What accounts for the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic that often emerges in the reporting of upheaval and disasters?

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic helps define and animate such coverage. And it helps explain why news reporting of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 and of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was so distorted and exaggerated.

By “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic,” I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that Hurricane Katrina – which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005 – seemed in news reports to have unleashed “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the news media’s apocalyptic-like reporting of mayhem, violence, and anarchy in post-Katrina New Orleans proved true.

The “crack baby” scare, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

The scare was based on the widely reported belief that prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would give rise to a generation of misfits, of children so mentally and physically damaged that they would forever be wards of the state.

Commentators turned to phrases such as “bio-underclass” to characterize the disaster they said lie ahead. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked “bio-underclass” in 1989, declaring in a column in the Washington Post:

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free: “neither prudent nor sensible,” I write.

However, I note, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping.” And biomedical research has found nothing akin to the “bio-underclass” that Krauthammer and others warned about more than 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I argue in Getting It Wrong, because doing so permits “insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research.” They seize upon the would-be apocalyptic instead.

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, is the winner of the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism.

The award will be presented in September at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, which are dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a summary of the 10 myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.
  2. War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is exaggerated.
  3. Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy.
  4. Bay of Pigs: The New York Times did not suppress its reporting in the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
  5. Cronkite-Johnson: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment or revision of U.S. war policy.
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September 1968.
  7. Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds.
  8. Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
  9. Jessica Lynch: The Washington Post’s erroneous reporting about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War gave rise to several myths about her capture and rescue.
  10. Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” SPJ says, and “must be based on original research; either published or unpublished, and must have been completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”

WJC

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A cautionary note on early coverage of dramatic events

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

Amid yesterday’s jubilation about the slaying of terror leader Osama bin Laden, the media critic at slate.com, Jack Shafer, posted a timely and telling reminder that initial news reports of major events seldom are reliable.

This is especially so, I would add, in covering disasters: The early accounts almost always are erroneous.

Got it wrong in New Orleans

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is instructive: News reports about the surreal violence that the storm supposedly unleashed on New Orleans in late summer 2005 were highly exaggerated and wildly inaccurate.

“Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I write, adding, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. “

In his column about the coverage of the killing of bin Laden, Shafer noted that “the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.”

He pointed out the wide variance in the early reports about bin Laden’s violent end, noting such discrepancies as these:

  • ABC News: “He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead.”
  • The Atlantic: “One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face.”
  • The London Sun: “Elite troops opened fire when the 9/11 terror chief refused to surrender, hitting him in the head and chest. …”
  • MSNBC.com: “[H]e was shot in the left eye.”

Shafer added: “At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we’ll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we’re reading and viewing today. Until then, it’s caveat emptor for news consumers.”

Journalists would do well to offer such reminders more frequently than they do.

Cautionary notes ought to be routine, as should specific reference to the challenges of reporting military operations from afar.

Such distance-reporting, after all, can give rise to errors that are both memorable and acutely embarrassingly. The Jessica Lynch case, which unfolded during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003 and which is discussed in Getting It Wrong, is memorable in that regard.

The Washington Post, drawing on sources it has never identified (but should), offered the world a sensational report about the battlefield heroics of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who never expected to see combat.

Elements of her units fell under ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

According to the Post’s front-page article — which was mostly reported by journalists based in Washington — Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world. But it was wrong, utterly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death before being rescued on April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

The Post report offers another reminder about covering combat — the passage of time is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting. The sensational account about Lynch appeared on the Post’s front page of April 3, 2003, 11 days after the ambush at Nasiriyah.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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A fiasco for the press, too: Error, hype marked Bay of Pigs reporting

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 15, 2011 at 3:17 am

The Wall Street Journal told of at least three landings in “a land, air and sea struggle” to topple Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.

Miami Herald headline

The Miami Herald spoke of battles raging “throughout” the island.

The United Press International wire service said invading “revolutionaries … appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.”

Thus, a sampling of some of the erroneous first U.S. news reports about the ill-fated invasion of Cuba, launched 50 years ago this weekend at the Bay of Pigs.

Castro’s military overwhelmed the assault in less than three days; the CIA-trained invasion force of some 1,400 Cuban exiles never gained much more than a bitterly contested beachhead.

The thwarted invasion entrenched Castro’s dictatorship and represented a major foreign policy setback for the United States and the three-month-old administration of President John F. Kennedy.

It was something of a fiasco for the U.S. news media as well.

Raul Castro: Not captured

No correspondents were with the invading forces and Castro’s regime imposed a blackout on U.S. correspondents assigned to Cuba. The first news accounts of the invasion of April 17, 1961, as a result were wildly inaccurate and, in some cases, highly colorful and imaginative.

Those initial reports, while still interesting on their face, offer timeless testimony to the extraordinary difficulties of covering conflict from afar.

They also offer a lesson the U.S. news media seem intent on never remembering: First reports from the battlefield, or from the scene of a disaster, almost reliably will be in error. Cautious reporting and scrutiny of sources are thus always advisable amid uncertain and shifting conditions.

Such lessons tend to remain unlearned, however — as was apparent in the highly exaggerated news reports about violence and mayhem that supposedly swept New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting [about post-Katrina New Orleans] had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

I further note that “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. … Recognition of this tendency may well have helped to temper or curb the exaggerated reports of lawlessness and violence” in Katrina’s wake.

Revisiting the Bay of Pigs coverage also demonstrates how wished-for outcomes can color and distort news coverage.

The Miami Herald, which clearly wanted Castro gone, was eager to report imagined gains by the undermanned exile force, while offering no sources at all in its breathless accounts.

Beneath a banner headline that read, “Invaders Slug Into Interior,” the Herald reported on April 18, 1961, that the anti-Castro rebels “were pushing into the interior of Cuba” after launching assaults “at several key points” on the island.

“It was brother against brother,” the Herald said of the fighting, adding, “A virtual blackout was stretched across Cuba since the first shot of the civil war was fired.”

The newspaper further reported — while citing no sources — that it had “learned that the rebel troops are paying heavily for every mile gained.”

The Herald also attempted to divine the invaders’ strategy, asserting: “Rebels pouring in from Las Villas in the soft underbelly of Cuba were headed towards Central Highway in an apparent attempt to control the strategic road and cut the island in two.”

While somewhat more cautious than the colorful account in the Miami Herald, the Wall Street Journal of April 18, 1961, reported that at “least three widely scattered landings” had “brought an immediate state of emergency and brisk fighting inside Cuba and rapid repercussions around the globe.”

The Journal noted that the “cutoff of telephone and cable communications by the Castro government and conflicting battle reports made the tide of fighting difficult to assess,” but added:

“The invaders seem bent on cutting Cuba in half, then wheeling westward to Havana, about 100 miles from their original beachhead.”

The Journal didn’t hold back from publishing what it acknowledged were unverified reports that anti-Castro forces had captured the Isle of Pines and freed 10,000 political prisoners; had taken Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, and had seized Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“None of these reports were confirmed, however,” the Journal added — as if such a disclaimer were of much value after having offered up what proved to be wild and fanciful rumors.

The Washington Post of April 18, 1961, turned to wire service dispatches in compiling its first account of the invasion. It led with a United Press International report that breathlessly declared:

“Invading Cuban revolutionary troops, landed from the sea and dropped from planes, fought a bloody battle yesterday in the swamps 90 miles southeast of Havana and appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.

“There were reports that segments of the Cuban Navy had revolted.

“The revolutionary front directed by former Castro Premier Jose Miro Cardona in a secret United States headquarters was estimated to have thrown 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans into action in 48 hours on the east and south coasts.”

The Post’s report incorporated an Associated Press dispatch that said “the invaders hit the beaches in four of Cuba’s six provinces.”

Within weeks of the failed invasion, one of the leading journalists in America, James (“Scotty”) Reston of the New York Times, charged in a column that U.S. government officials and the CIA had fed reporters erroneous information about the assault on Cuba.

“When the landings started,” Reston wrote, “American reporters in Miami were told that this was an ‘invasion’ of around 5,000 men — this for the purpose of creating the impression among the Cuban people that they should rise up to support a sizable invasion force.

“When the landing … began to get in trouble, however,” Reston added, “officials here in Washington put out the story — this time to minimize the defeat in the minds of the American people — that there was no ‘invasion’ at all, but merely a landing of some 200-400 men to deliver supplies to anti-Castro guerrillas already in Cuba.

“Both times the press was debased for the Government’s purpose.”

Could be, but journalists amply demonstrated in their reporting that they were inclined to be gullible accomplices — eager at least to embrace wishful scenarios about the invasion. Official disinformation only partly explains the media credulity in reporting the Bay of Pigs.

News outlets bear a far heavier burden for botching the coverage.

WJC

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