W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media’

Appealing across generations of students: The Verne Edwards Mystique

In Journalism education, Newspapers on November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

The following is an expansion of remarks I offered yesterday, at a memorial service in Delaware, Ohio, for Verne E. Edwards, my undergraduate journalism professor and mentor who died this month at 90-years-old. I dedicated my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, to Edwards, who for 33 years taught journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University.

VerneEdwards

Verne Edwards, mid-1970s

How was it that Verne Edwards commanded such respect, such reverence, across generations of students?

He was a professor known for rigorous expectations — and sometimes-stern appraisals. I remember writing a headline for the student newspaper, the Transcript, that referred to Mount Union College (now University of Mount Union) as “Mount Vernon.”

In his weekly markup of the Transcript, Verne circled the errant headline in red pencil and identified it as the worst he had ever seen.

Verne was exacting, and could be quirky; he sometimes addressed his classes in a sidelong manner, not making much eye contact. But he was tough, and honest, and fair. And his students tended to feel terrible when they believed they had let him down. As in mistaking Mount Union for Mount Vernon.

The question of Verne Edwards’ appeal across generations has personal dimension and relevance: I have taught at American University for 17 years and know few faculty who command the kind of respect, indeed the reverence, that Verne so clearly won from generations of students. I have puzzled about the qualities and attributes that gained for Verne Edwards such esteem.

It is a puzzle; I call it the Verne Edwards Mystique, and I cannot claim to have fathomed all its sources.

The Verne Edwards Mystique surely sprang, in measure, from the authority borne of high standards and relevant experience. Verne was a print journalist. At one time or another, he wrote editorials or edited copy at such newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Toledo Blade. He wrote the textbook, too — Journalism in a Free Society, which he required in his classes for years.

It was little exaggeration that Ohio Wesleyan’s journalism program was known, to some of us, as “Vernalism.”

The Verne Edwards Mystique was rooted, too, in a deep and abiding interest in students, and a dedication to staying in touch. Verne would keep up on the accomplishments of his former students, and would welcome them back to campus.

Year after year, for many years, Verne prepared an annual alumni newsletter that he filled with details and updates about his students from across the generations. His newsletter was a highlight of the end-of-year holidays. And it created bonds among his former students, even for those who had never met one another.

What may best explain the Verne Edwards Mystique, though, is modesty, a decided modesty.

Verne was no self-promoter. He could have been, surely, given the awards and the recognition he received during his career. But his ego was kept under wraps and under control; his was a modesty that’s rather rare in the academy.

Students sensed that, too. Verne, they knew, was the real deal. And he didn’t flaunt it.

WJC

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Five years on: The best of Media Myth Alert, Part II

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on October 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Media Myth Alert revisits its top-ever posts today in observing its fifth anniversary.

The blog went live October 31, 2009, and its objective was, and remains, twofold: Calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out in 2010.

This is the second of a two-part review of the 10 top posts published at Media Myth Alert, home over the years to more than 640 essays and commentaries. The top posts shared these elements: All were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all represented disclosures exclusive to Media Myth Alert.

■ Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19, 2011): It is sometimes said, erroneously, that bra-burning “never happened,”  that such reports were little more than hostile exaggerations by journalists.

Toronto bra burning_1979

Toronto, March 1979

Bra-burning never occurred?

Not quite.

Credible, first-hand accounts are cited in Getting It Wrong that bras and other items were set afire, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American pageant. And in Toronto in March 1979, a demonstration was capped by a bra-burning, intended as a way to attract media attention. A photograph of the Toronto bra-burning is at right.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February 2011 with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper. I had doubts about its authenticity, given the periodic claims about no bras ever having been burned at a feminist protest.

The Toronto image, I thought at first, might have been faked — or unethically altered somehow.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said that “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police. (The report said that of 337 rapes investigated, 140 were “unprovoked.” The report also said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.)

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-aware and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Toronto newspapers the next day reported on the protest — but did not mention the bra-burning.

Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in June 2014, Rachel Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim, made while revisiting at some length the hero-warrior tale about Lynch, an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

PFC Lynch: Fired not a shot

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and declared that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003. Lynch suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee in Nasiriyah. She was taken prisoner by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on the hero-warrior story — which was wrong in its important details — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

None of that vital context was acknowledged by Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case on June 3, 2014.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary was inspired by controversy surrounding the release a few days before of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out on her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was additionally quoted as saying.

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.

Thorp, then a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing — he was following. He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s story already in circulation and quickly gaining international attention.

I wrote in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that “it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story.” But Maddow ignored the Post’s exclusive role in pushing the botched Lynch story into the public domain.

The Post did so by relying on sources it has never disclosed.

It ought to.

Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch? (posted April 27, 2012): The Washington Post’s Watergate content from the 1970s is freely available and readily accessible online.

But try finding online the Post’s famously wrong reporting about Jessica Lynch’s derring-do in Iraq, notably the electrifying front-page report that appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

Lynch_headline_PostThat story — which said Lynch had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner — was in error in all important details. You won’t find it online at any Washington Post site. (The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Nor will you find freely available online the scathing reviews of the Lynch story published by the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, in April and June 2003.

All of which suggests digital scrubbing of embarrassing content — conduct of the sort the Post criticized in 2012, in noting that Vogue magazine expunged the online version of a fawning profile of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Post at that time said Vogue had taken “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization” and had committed “a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

But had the Post not committed a similar “violation” in excising the digital reminders of the embarrassing Lynch case, a dramatic story that it had thoroughly and exclusively botched?

Rather looks like it.

I asked the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about the apparent digital scrubbing of the Lynch content.

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

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

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

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

He never replied before leaving the position in 2013, when his two-year term as ombudsman expired. He was not replaced.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4, 2012): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency in 2012 prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign memorable for an astonishingly clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most scathing putdowns in American political history.

But my research found that the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

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

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

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

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested gullibility, muddled thinking, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His run for the presidency never righted itself; he quit the race at the end of February 1968.

A witty putdown attributed to Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy ensured that Romney’s gaffe would remain unforgettable. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, all Romney needed was a “light rinse.”

So incisive was McCarthy’s quip that it is said to have “essentially finished Romney” as a candidate for president.

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

A search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward. (The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.)

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

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 claims.

American Melodrama, a hefty book published in 1969, described McCarthy’s remark as off-hand and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

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

Such vagueness invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. It also sounds a bit too perfect — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13, 2013):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post has moments of sheer arrogance.

This was apparent in late summer 2013, when the newspaper refused to acknowledge and correct an inarguably erroneous reference to Richard Nixon’s supposed “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

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

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

The Post’s obit of Thomas

The Post’s obituary was glowing and, as if to suggest Thomas’s impressive assertiveness, claimed that she once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

Trouble is, there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question, point-blank or otherwise.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. That’s probably what the obituary writer had in mind.

But Thomas had asked about Nixon’s peace plan, not a “secret plan.”

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

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

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

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

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

I brought all this to the attention of Douglas Feaver, who had been designated the Post’s reader representative, a sort of ombudsman-lite position set up months after Pexton’s departure.

I noted to Feaver that if the Post could identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if the newspaper could back up the claim in its obituary, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing if modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

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

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

How obtuse.

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

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

Sure: Quickly and completely. Just as it did in its mistaken reference to Nixon’s “secret plan.”

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

The death of Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, touched off  a wave of tributes that erroneously cited the newspaper’s central role in the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Bradlee, himself, had rejected the simplistic and mythical notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.

But as news spread yesterday that Bradlee had died at age 93, adulatory tributes poured in, many of them blithely invoking the media myth of Watergate.

USA Today, for example, said Bradlee “led” the Post’s “Watergate coverage that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The Los Angeles Times declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary about Bradlee stated that he “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.” (The print edition of the Times is less sweeping if not more accurate, saying Bradlee “presided over The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”)

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Similarly, the German news service Deutsche Welle said “Bradlee oversaw the journalistic investigation that brought down US president Richard Nixon.” (The new service also claimed the Post’s reporting “led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon”: Not only was the Post’s reporting a marginal factor in Nixon’s resignation, which he submitted before he could be impeached.)

And so it went.

Even the Post, which over the years had largely refrained from embracing the Watergate myth, went all in, saying on its front page today that Watergate was “a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting.”

The scandal, in fact, was touched off by a burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and investigative authorities quickly tied the crime to Nixon’s reelection committee and to White House operatives. Watergate hardly was “touched off by the Post’s reporting”; nor did the Post contribute significantly to the scandal’s unraveling.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s reporting failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It also failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, which were crucial to the scandal’s outcome.

Their existence was disclosed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In their book All the President’s Men, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, said they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

But according to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and thus missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

The Post went hagiographic in its editorial page tribute to Bradlee, describing him as “the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.”

The editorial continued, saying, “There was nothing like working for him …. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain ‘creative tension’ was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.”

And so on.

Surely it is not churlish to point out that the editorial failed to mention Bradlee’s greatest failure as editor — the fraud of “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that the Post published in 1980. The article was so compelling that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

But soon after the award was announced, it was revealed that Janet Cooke, the author of “Jimmy’s World,” had falsified key elements of the biography submitted to the Pulitzer board, claiming among other credentials a degree from Vassar and a command of six languages.

The exposure of those lies forced the Post editors to confront Cooke about “Jimmy’s World,” and she soon confessed to having made it all up.

The extensive back story to “Jimmy’s World” was reported by William Green, then the Post’s ombudsman, in 1981; his writeup is available here and, 33 years on, it still makes absorbing reading.

WJC

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Maddow cherry-picks to avoid correcting claim about Pentagon, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post on June 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

To cherry-pick is to be highly selective, to use facts that support one’s position while ignoring the confounding evidence.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

And that’s essentially what Rachel Maddow did on her MSNBC program last night. She cherry-picked details about the reporting of the hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch to avoid correcting her erroneous claim on a show June 3. Maddow had said in a commentary that night “the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics in the first days of the Iraq War.

In cherry-picking, Maddow failed to mention the foundation of the bogus hero-warrior story – the Washington Post article that cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch, then a 19-year-old supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, on March 23, 2003. The Post’s story turned out to be wrong in almost all vital details.

One of the reporters on the story, which the Post published on its front page on April 3, 2003, later said, unequivocally:

Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Rather, he said, without a trace of irony, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C.

The reporter was Vernon Loeb, who at the time the Post’s defense correspondent. He also said in an interview that aired on NPR in December 2003: “We got these intelligence reports right as [Lynch] was being rescued” in an operation mounted by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003. Lynch has been grievously injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the ambush; she was taken prisoner and held at an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah.

Loeb said the Post’s story “turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong.”

What’s more, he said:

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those [intelligence] reports at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all. They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

Despite Loeb’s statements about the sourcing of the hero-warrior story, a false narrative has taken hold over the years that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, supposedly to build homefront support for the war.

On her show last night, Maddow referred neither to Loeb’s statements nor to the Post’s seminal report about Lynch. She instead assailed Politifact, a blog aligned with Punditfact, which had assessed as false her claim last week that the Pentagon “made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.

According to a transcript of her remarks last night, Maddow smugly declared:

“So, this is a pretty simple thing from the fact-checking perspective. Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative that Jessica Lynch went down fighting when she was captured?”

(Note the none-too-subtle shift: On her program June 3, Maddow asserted that “the Pentagon made up” the story about Lynch’s heroics. Last night, her parameters were: “Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative ….” Not quite the same.)

Maddow referred last night to a report by the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp also was quoted as saying. “Reports are that she fired her (M-16 rifle) until she had no more ammunition.”

Maddow crowed: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.

Lynch_headline_Post

WaPo’s hero-warrior story

Thorp,  then a Navy captain assigned to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing, he was following. He was restating elements of a story the Post had already placed in circulation, a story based on intelligence sources, a story that quickly attracted all sorts of international attention.

As the Post’s ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, pointed out: “The Post story [about Lynch] was exclusive. The rest of the world’s media picked it up from The Post, which put this tale into the public domain.”

Indeed, it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story. And Thorp’s subsequent statements made clear that he had been following the Post’s lead that day. Thorp said in an email in 2007 to a congressional staffer who had asked about the comments to the Military Times:

“As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States .…  I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same .… I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them .… We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred .… That is what I stated.” (Ellipses in the original.)

Thorp later was quoted by Newsweek as saying he was not a source for the Post on its seminal story about Lynch’s heroics.

Which makes sense. Had he been a source for the Post on the Lynch story, why would the newspaper resist identifying him as such, especially after his remarks to the Military Times? If Thorp, a military spokesman, had been a source for the Post, why would Loeb, months after the hero-warrior story was published, insist that his sources had been “intelligence sources”?

Thorp at most played a bit part in the Lynch saga.

Besides, the cynical, Pentagon-made-it-up narrative never made much sense. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “At the time of the Lynch rescue, U.S. forces were closing in on Baghdad. So it defies logic to argue that the American military would have singled out and hyped the Lynch rescue for morale-building purposes when its central and vastly more important wartime objective was within reach.”

WJC

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Now from the right: ‘American Spectator’ wrongly says Jessica Lynch was ‘portrayed by Pentagon as hero’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post on June 8, 2014 at 8:58 am

In an otherwise cogent critique of Rachel Maddow’s recent commentary about returned American prisoner Bowe Berghdahl, the right-of-center American Spectator wrongly accused the Pentagon of portraying Jessica Lynch “as a hero” early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army supply clerk severely injured March 23, 2003, in the crash of her Humvee while fleeing an ambush in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The Washington Post, though, reported that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds as she fought fiercely against the attacking Iraqis. She kept firing, the Post said, until she ran out of ammunition.

None of those details was accurate, however. Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon jammed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, but was badly hurt in the Humvee crash. Lynch was taken prisoner and held in an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

AmSpecturkey_1

American Spectator logo

In the years since the Post’s hero-warrior story was published on April 3, 2003, a false narrative has taken hold that says the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do. The American Spectator’s claim, included in a commentary posted online Friday, is the latest evocation of that narrative.

We know it’s a false narrative because one of the Post reporters on the story has flatly stated that the newspaper’s sources for the story “were not Pentagon sources.” The reporter, Vernon Loeb, who in 2003 was the Post’s defense correspondent, further stated in an interview in December 2003 on NPR that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb, now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also said in the interview:

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

None of that what acknowledged by the liberal Maddow in an on-air commentary Tuesday on MSNBC in which she sought to equate the rescue of Lynch with the release of Bergdahl, the American soldier whose comrades say deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was taken captive by the Taliban and exchanged a week ago for five senior Taliban figures.

In her commentary, Maddow asserted without citing sources that the Pentagon had “made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics. The American Spectator, in taking issue with Maddow’s equating the cases of Lynch and Bergdahl, committed a similar error: Lynch, it said, “was initially portrayed by the Pentagon as a hero … who went down guns blazing and riddled with bullets.”

Loeb and the Post have never made clear how it got the Lynch-combat story so utterly wrong — a story that Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, memorably described as having “had an odor to it almost from the beginning.”

Loeb’s interview on NPR was the Post’s most detailed public discussion about sourcing for that story, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt reported from Washington, D.C. But even that discussion fell woefully short in important respects.

In the NPR interview, Loeb said “we were told by some really good intelligence sources here in Washington that, you know, there were indications that [Lynch] had, you know, fired back and resisted her capture and actually been shot and possibly stabbed doing so. None of this turned out to be the case as we, you know, quickly learned. But, you know, we basically told our readers that day what the U.S. intelligence community was telling senior members of the U.S. government. It just kind of goes back to the old adage that, you know, initial reports from the battlefield are almost always wrong.”

Despite the recognized unreliability of such reports, the Post placed its account of Lynch’s supposed exploits in combat on the front page, thrusting the hero-warrior tale into the public domain. And the story was picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, declared that “Private Lynch has won a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero, to rival the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.”

In its erroneous report about Lynch, Post cited otherwise unnamed “U.S. officials” as sources. The newspaper has never identified them.Getting It Wrong_cover

In 2008, I called Loeb to discuss the matter but he hung up on me. I was at the time researching my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a chapter of which is devoted to the bogus hero-warrior story about Lynch.

So if the Post will not disclose the sources that led it to such embarrassment, the next-best step would be for news organizations to avoid, resist, and deep-six the false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon.

Important steps to that end can be taken if Maddow and the American Spectator were to issue corrections to their erroneous reports.

WJC

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Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 4, 2014 at 6:43 pm
Lynch_headline_Post

The hero-warrior tale: WaPo’s story

In a logically confused commentary on her MSNBC program last night, Rachel Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow cited no source for her claim, offered as she revisited at some length the hero-warrior tale about Lynch, an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, front-page story in the Washington Post.

The Post article cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” in declaring that Lynch, then a 19-year-old private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on that story — which turned out to be wrong in almost every important detail — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb, then the Post’s defense correspondent, also said in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He further declared:

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

And yet none of that vital context was known to, or acknowledged by, Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case last night.

Maddow did so in an odd, contorted, and ultimately unpersuasive attempt to locate parallels between Lynch — who was taken prisoner at Nasiriyah and was rescued 11 days later by U.S. special forces — and the controversial recent release of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years.

The administration of President Barack Obama over the weekend swapped five senior Taliban figures for Bergdahl’s freedom.

According to a transcript of her program, Maddow recalled that Lynch and her unit “were supposed to take a detour around the city of Nasiriyah, but they didn’t. They took a wrong turn or more likely a few wrong turns. And they ended up right in the city center.

“They were supposed to go around the city and not go through it at all. They ended up wrong turn after wrong turn, right in the city center, undefended, in territory where the U.S. Army knew they were likely to be attacks or ambushes, and they just drove right into it.”

But the 507th Maintenance wasn’t exactly “undefended”; some of its soldiers put up terrific resistance. Among them was Sergeant Donald Walters, a cook who put down covering fire as his comrades tried to escape the ambush.

Walters and 10 other soldiers in the 507th Maintenance were killed at Nasiriyah. Lynch suffered shattering injuries in the crash of her Humvee as it fled the attack.

Maddow then raised questions about Lynch’s rescue (which took place two days before the Post’s hero-warrior story was published) that no one seriously poses:

“Should that rescue not have happened? Should Jessica Lynch have been left there? Seriously, is that what we think about these things now?

“Private First Class Jessica Lynch, star of the show of that rescue. If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered. After all, maybe it was their own screw-up that got them ambushed and hurt and captured in the first place.

“Is that how we think about these things now?” Maddow asked. “Is that how we think now about that rescue in hindsight knowing what we know now?

“Because that kind of a case, that obscenity of a case that maybe some Americans might deserve to be left behind, that is new cause célèbre on the American right, right now, that the American prisoner of war, the last American prisoner of war, the last and only one still held from either the Iraq war or the Afghanistan war, the American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, he did not deserve to be freed — that the U.S. government working to free him, succeeding to free him, that was a shame somehow, because yes, sure, he was an American soldier, but he was a bad one,” Maddow said.

That’s to torture logic, and to raise strawman arguments in seeking equivalence in the cases of Lynch — who undeniably was a prisoner of war, if not a heroic one — and of Bergdahl. The circumstances are vastly different.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is Maddow’s claim, offered casually and without reference to sources, “that the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch

The Pentagon rather treated the Lynch hero-warrior story as if it were radioactive. As Loeb, now a top editor at the Houston Chronicle, declared on another occasion:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

The false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon represents continuing fallout not only from the Post’s bungled reporting in April 2003 but from the newspaper’s reluctance to identify the sources on whom Loeb and fellow reporter Susan Schmidt relied in preparing the hero-warrior story.

Only by identifying the sources who led it awry on that story will the Post set right a false narrative that still circulates widely, as Maddow’s commentary last night made quite clear.

WJC

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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

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On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

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

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

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

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

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

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

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

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

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

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

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

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

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

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

Or something to that effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

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

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

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

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

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

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light about Connally’s age, saying:

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

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

WJC

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

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

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

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

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

Or so the media myth has it.

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

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

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

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

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

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

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

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

Hyping the reaction

Did not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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