W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media’

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

PBS squanders opportunity to offer ‘content that educates’ in ‘War of the Worlds’ doc

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 29, 2013 at 10:02 pm
Orson Welles

Orson Welles

Tonight’s snoozy PBS documentary about the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds not only was tedious fare — it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.

The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.

But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of the program’s 23-year-old star, Orson Welles.

This scholarship is neither obscure nor inaccessible.

Jeffrey Sconce, for example, pointed out in 2000 in his book, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television: “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in actual panic over the [War of the Worlds] broadcast is … limited at best. … And yet the legend of paralyzing ‘mass panic’ lives on.”

Edward Jay Epstein has dismissed as a “fictoid” the notion that the radio program touched off mass hysteria. “The accounts of suicides, heart attacks, traffic collisions and flights all proved to be unfounded,” Epstein wrote, adding:

“The program itself of course was a fiction. So was the ‘Mass Hysteria,’ which became part of American folklore about the power of the media.”

Michael Socolow, a journalism historian at the University of Maine, said this about The War of the Worlds broadcast in a thoughtful commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago:

“Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.”

Socolow more recently has written a superb assessment of the broadcast, which was posted today at Slate.com. In it, he wrote:

“The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.”

Fifteen years ago, at the 60th anniversary of The War of the Worlds dramatization, Robert E. Bartholomew, an international expert on mass panic, pointed to a “growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic” created by Welles’ program, “was greatly exaggerated.

“The irony here,” Bartholomew wrote, “is that for the better part of the past sixty years many people may have been misled by the media to believe that the panic was far more extensive and intense than it apparently was.”

The panic, to be sure, was overstated. Exaggerated. And has become the stuff of a tenacious media-driven myth.

As I wrote in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I also discuss in Getting It Wrong a little-studied secondary phenomenon associated with The War of the Worlds broadcast, that “a false-alarm contagion took hold that night” in which well-intentioned people possessing little more than an incomplete understanding of Welles’ program set out on their own to warn others about a sudden and terrible threat.Getting It Wrong_cover

These would-be Paul Reveres, I wrote, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.

“It had to have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken. … In more than a few cases, a contagion took hold: Many non-listeners became quite frightened, thus compounding for a short time the commotion and confusion stemming from The World of the Worlds program.”

PBS might well have examined that effect. It might have more seriously considered the broader counter-narrative that has taken shape about the radio dramatization.

PBS might have examined, in ways revealing to its audience, how media influences are not transmitted like a narcotic injected by hypodermic needle. News and entertainment media exert influences in ways that typically are far more subtle, nuanced, complex, and uneven.

But to believe The War of the Worlds radio program stirred chaos, mass panic, and widespread hysteria is effectively to embrace the hypodermic needle theory of media influence — a theory discredited long ago .

The age, class, wealth, education, political views, and life experiences of media audiences all are factors as to how media messages are absorbed and interpreted — if they are absorbed at all.

Socolow in his Chronicle article in 2008 noted the uneven and often-limited effects of media messages, writing:

“If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn’t every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?”

PBS — which says its mission is “to create content that educates, informs and inspires” — might have seized the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast to address such questions.

But, no: The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

More from Media Myth Alert:

Upcoming PBS show on ‘War of Worlds’ may reinforce media myth — in cheesy fashion

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on August 29, 2013 at 11:05 am

An upcoming PBS documentary about the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization seems certain to embrace the media myth that the show provoked panic across the United States when it aired nearly 75 years ago.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of Worlds’

The PBS program is to be shown October 29, on the eve of the anniversary of the radio play that starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of the invasion of America by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

The ever-appealing tale of radio-inducted hysteria is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Simply put, the notion that The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria is Halloween’s greatest media myth.

I note in Getting It Wrong that pockets of Americans may have been frightened by the program. But there is scant evidence that many listeners acted on their fears. And being frightened is hardly synonymous with being pitched into panic and hysteria.

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria  swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.

Nonetheless, the panic myth probably is too well-known, and too entrenched in American culture, ever to be thoroughly cast aside. And the PBS program in late October may well serve to reinforce an already-tenacious media myth.

It could be a cheesy show, too. The PBS description suggests as much, saying the program will make use of “letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself” to dramatize “the public’s reaction … with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment… or the end of the world.”

(The actor outtakes posted online undeniably are cheesy.)

The PBS program, should it promote the media myth, would run counter to a substantial body of research that has dismissed or cast serious doubt on the notion Welles’ radio program caused panic and mass hysteria. In addition to my research and Socolow’s work, Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on the phenomenon of panics, has written that many people wrongly “believe a panic took place” during and immediately after the airing of The War of the Worlds radio show.

Moreover, this month has brought publication of The United States of Paranoia, a sophisticated study of conspiracy theories in the United States. The book, written by Jesse Walker, an editor at  Reason magazine, addresses The War of the Worlds radio show and notes:

“There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, though, that they were any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.”

That’s very good. The producers of the PBS documentary would do well to give thought to such a telling observation.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

More from Media Myth Alert:

PBS set to embrace ‘mass hysteria’ myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds on May 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm
Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’: No panic

PBS plans to air an “American Experience” program in October about the famous War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of Earth’s invasion by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

The PBS description sounds as if the program will embrace a hoary media-driven myth — that The War of the Worlds show of October 30, 1938, set off widespread panic and mass hysteria.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

In overwhelming numbers, I write in referring to contemporaneous polling data, most listeners “recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.”

But here’s the PBS summary of an hour-long “American Experience” program, to be aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary:

“AMERICAN EXPERIENCE ‘War of the Worlds’ Orson Welles’ infamous radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history 75 years ago. The film examines the elements that made America ripe for the hoax. Tuesday, October 29, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.”

The reference to “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history” raises eyebrows — and commanded the attention of Media Myth Alert.

(Asked for details about the content of the “American Experience” show, Cara White, a spokeswoman, said by email: “We don’t have additional information at this time since the program isn’t premiering until October. But we should have more information closer to the broadcast.”)

The 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds may have produced fleeting, localized fright and confusion. But there’s no persuasive evidence that it stirred anything approaching panic of nationwide dimension.

This is more than an academic argument: Listener reaction to The War of the Worlds program in 1938 speaks to whether the media have the capacity to create powerful, immediate, and unnerving effects.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I’m not alone in my conclusions about The War of the Worlds program, an hour-long adaptation that aired on CBS radio.

Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has noted there is scant evidence that many frightened listeners acted on their fears that night in 1938.

Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay in 2008 that “panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

Socolow also noted:

“The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry” during or after the radio program.

Moreover, had Welles’ show “set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history,” the resulting turmoil and trauma certainly would have resulted in serious injuries and deaths, including suicides.

But none were linked to the program.

The erroneous notion that The War of the Worlds dramatization had convulsed the country in panic and mass hysteria certainly was afoot in 1938 — and for U.S. newspapers of the time, that misleading interpretation offered a delicious opportunity to assail an upstart rival medium, radio.

By the late 1930s, radio had become an important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers had, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm,” I note. “It was as an opportunity they could not fail to let pass.”

The New York Times, for example, declared in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”:

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

The Times and other American newspapers in 1938 seemed eager to chastise radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the lingering and erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization set off panic and hysteria across the country.

Judging from its news release, PBS seems ready to embrace that media myth.

WJC

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

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

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

Did he inspire a 'Brokaw Moment'?

Did he inspire a ‘Brokaw Moment’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

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

The “tipping point” had been reached months before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not in front of a television set

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

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

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

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

WJC

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

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10 years on: WaPo, Jessica Lynch, and the battle at Nasiriyah

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 23, 2013 at 5:45 am

Lynch_headline_PostThe first major battle of the Iraq War, the ambush 10 years ago today of an U.S. support unit, gave rise to one the most woeful moments in recent war correspondence — the Washington Post’s thoroughly inaccurate front-page report about a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Jessica Lynch.

The Post claimed that Lynch, a waif-like supply clerk who never expected to see combat, had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasiriyah, firing at attacking Iraqis until her ammunition ran out.

It was an electrifying report, conjuring as it did cinematic images of an improbable female Rambo.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch

As it turned out, it was one of those remarkably rare news stories that’s spectacularly wrong but reverberates long after its initial publication.

The Post’s article had the effect of:

  • turning Lynch, through no exceptional effort of her own, into the best-known U.S. enlisted soldier of the Iraq War
  • obscuring the heroics of an Army cook-sergeant who was captured, then killed, by Iraqis
  • prompting the rise of media myths that continue to distort understanding about what happened at Nasiriyah.

Ten years on and the Post has never fully accounted for its botched reporting. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so stunning that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

That story was published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

The Post said Lynch was shot and stabbed “when Iraqi forces closed in on her position,” and based its account on otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”

The story was reported from Washington, D.C.: No journalists were with Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, when its convoy of trucks and support vehicles made a wrong turn and mistakenly entered Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The convoy fell under attack and 11 U.S. soldiers were killed in the fighting. Among them was Sgt. Donald Walters, who had put down covering fire as his comrades tried to flee the ambush.

Walters was taken prisoner and soon after was executed by his Iraqi captors. So far as is known, his killers have never been captured.

It emerged months later that Walters most likely performed the battlefield heroics misattributed to Lynch, who never embraced the Post’s account.

The mistaken identity stemmed apparently from mistranslation of Iraqi battlefield transmissions.

The Post, though, never showed any interest in that aspect of the story — or in Walters’ bravery.

Sgt. Donald Walters

Sgt. Donald Walters

His name has appeared in only four news reports published by the Post, the most recent of which was an Associated Press dispatch in May 2004 which said “details of [Walters'] actions remarkably resemble a story circulated in The Washington Post and other news media, based on anonymous sources, describing how Lynch had fought until her ammunition ran out.”

The reference to “other news media” was misleading, though. It was the Post, alone, that thrust the hero-warrior about Lynch’s battlefield heroics into worldwide circulation.

It was the Post that said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” at Nasiriyah.

And none of it was true: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.

She never fired a shot in Iraq. Her weapon jammed during the fighting.

She tried to escape the attack in the back of a Humvee, her head lowered to her knees in prayer. The fleeing Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, sending the vehicle hurtling into a disabled tractor-trailer.

Lynch suffered shattering injuries to her arms, legs, and back in the crash. Four fellow soldiers were killed.

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch began unraveling in the spring of 2003. As it did, a toxic narrative arose that the Pentagon (or, more broadly, the “military“) had concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude and cynical attempt to boost public support for the war.

The narrative is perversely appealing — and utterly false.

Mythical, even.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, one of the authors of the Post’s botched hero-warrior story, Vernon Loeb, has stated unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.

In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb said:

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

Loeb said they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

Loeb made clear he that “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb declared, adding:

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

Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain. But they’ve been mostly ignored.

We know from Loeb who the Post’s sources weren’t.

On the 10th anniversary of the battle of Nasiriyah, it’s high time for the Post to say who they were, to set the record straight and clarify at long last how one of the most memorable yet twisted narratives of the Iraq War came to be.

WJC

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Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez in DC, plans digital newspaper back home

In Newspapers on March 20, 2013 at 6:13 am
Sanchez_Cato

Yoani Sanchez in DC

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s most prominent and outspoken dissident blogger, took her international tour to Washington yesterday, vowing to promote “responsible, objective journalism” on an island that has known anything but since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Sanchez, in remarks at the libertarian Cato Institute, said she plans to establish an independent digital newspaper upon her return to Cuba, one of the world’s most inhospitable places for searching journalism.

Sanchez, 37, has won international fame as a blogger who has stood up to the regime’s hostility while posting pithy ruminations and slice-of-life essays at her Generación Y (“Generation Y”) site, which has attracted a wide following outside of Cuba.

She is on an 80-day world tour, accepting honors and honors that she has won over the years but has not been allowed to collect. Sanchez told the audience at the Cato Institute that Cuban authorities denied her applications to travel abroad no fewer than 20 times over the past five years.

She was granted a passport in January, after the communist regime of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor as president, eased travel restrictions.

She speculated that in permitting her to travel abroad, the regime may have hoped that she would not return to Cuba.

But, she declared, “I’m not going to stay in another country,  and I’m not going to be afraid” of what the regime may have in store upon her return.

She said she likely will be the target of surveillance and harassment back in Cuba, but added that her prominence and outspokenness serve as “a protective shield,” making it less likely that Cuban authorities will treat her harshly.

Sanchez is dark-eyed, petite, and strikingly poised. She seems to wear the mantle of international fame comfortably, without evident haughtiness. Swaggering she is not.

She spoke through an interpreter, Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York. Henken helped organize her visit to the United States, which included a stop in New York City to collect the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, given by Columbia University to recognize journalism that promotes inter-American understanding. She won the award in 2009.

Sanchez said yesterday that she never expected to gain international prominence through her blogging, and characterized her fame as “a joke of fate” and “a cross” that she bears.

Her travels outside Cuba — she visited Brazil and the Czech Republic before arriving last week in the United States — certainly have heightened her international profile. And her intention to start an non-governmental newspaper in Cuba could place her on a collision course with the Castro regime.

Sanchez said the newspaper she envisions will be digital-only, at least at first. That’s because the regime would outlaw an independent print newspaper as anti-government propaganda, she said.

Cuba’s media landscape is among the most repressive in the world. The non-governmental organization Freedom House ranks Cuba 190th among 197 countries and territories it assesses in its annual press-freedom report. North Korea is last in the Freedom House rankings; Finland, Norway, and Sweden are first.

Sanchez said social media platforms such as blogs and Twitter “have helped us create small cracks in the wall of censorship” in Cuba. But she said she’s under no illusion that social media will seriously threaten the regime. (Sanchez’s Twitter account has more than 450,000 followers.)

“By themselves,” she said, “these aren’t the instruments that will bring democracy to Cuba.”

Even so, she said, “you can’t imagine the speed with which information is circulating in Cuba.” It often moves hand-to-hand, in that someone uses a thumb drive to download information from the Internet — access to which is severely restricted — and passes the thumb drive from person to person, in what Sanchez called a “black market of information.”

Sanchez, who spoke without notes, also traced the recent trajectory of dissidence in Cuba. It was 10 years ago, she noted, when the Castro regime imposed a sweeping crackdown, rounding up dissidents and journalists and sentencing them to lengthy prison terms.

What is often called Cuba’s “Black Spring” crackdown took place when the world’s attention was trained on the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

WJC

Many thanks to Ed Driscoll, subbing at Instapundit,
for linking to this post.

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Confused and illogical: WaPo commentary on effects of ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Washington Post on March 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

The Washington Post today offers one of the more baffling and illogical characterizations of the supposed effects of Walter Cronkite’s mythical report about Vietnam, which aired in February 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite’s assessment supposedly was so exceptional, so influential on American policy and politics, that it has come to be call the “Cronkite Moment.”

A commentary in today’s Post addresses that occasion in a broader discussion of hostility between the news media and the White House. In referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the commentary says:

“Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.”

How’s that? Johnson “did not see” the Cronkite report; even so, it packed such wallop that Johnson knew without watching that he had “lost Cronkite”?

Who’s editing this stuff?

Not only is that passage confused and illogical: It’s historically inaccurate.

Let’s unpack the passage:

  • Cronkite’s report was aired February 27, 1968, on CBS television. In closing, the anchorman offered the comparatively mild assessment that U.S. forces were “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — an assessment reflecting the conventional wisdom that had been circulating for months among the news media in Washington and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
  • Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report: When it aired, the president was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John B. Connally, a long-time political ally.
  • There’s no persuasive evidence or documentation that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement.  Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and such variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.
  • Nearly five weeks after Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war had nothing to do with Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection (see below).

In the days following Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war in Vietnam. In mid-March 1968, for example, he traveled Minnesota to deliver a rousing speech in which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

Johnson punctuated his remarks in Minnesota by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air. “We love nothing more than peace,” he declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” The president disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection stemmed from at least two sources: his health and his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.

There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967 or before, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency in part because of concerns about his health. “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, “I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Johnson’s announcement not to seek another term came after insurgent Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy had won more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary on March 12, 1968, and after had Johnson nemesis Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic nomination on March 16.

Johnson, moreover, was facing near-certain defeat in the Wisconsin primary, on April 2, 1968.

Those were considerations weighing on Johnson on March 31, 1968, when he said he would not seek reelection. Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, were not a factor.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the purported “Cronkite Moment,” when scrutinized, “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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