W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

NYTimes Mag and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2014 at 3:46 pm

You might think that New York Times Magazine is so closely edited that it would avoid trafficking in media-driven mythsNYT_Twitter_Magazine_400x400.

A passage in the issue due out Sunday gives lie to such an expectation.

The passage indulges in the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal — the mistaken notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The passage says of Woodward and Bernstein:

“They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.”

That passage appears in an otherwise fascinating account of the unraveling of then-Senator Gary Hart in a sex scandal in 1987. The article, adapted from a forthcoming book by Matt Bai, offers a none-too-pretty portrayal of the journalism that exposed Hart’s dalliance with a model named Donna Rice.

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the article’s almost-casual reference to Woodward and Bernstein and their putative takedown of Nixon.

And that, quite simply, is a wrong-headed, media-centric interpretation of Watergate. It didn’t happen that way — as principals at the Washington Post itself have pointed out from time to time over the years.

In 1997, for example, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, Katharine Graham, declared:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

She added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

In earthier terms, Woodward concurred, saying in an interview in 2004:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

Woodward on another occasion complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.

“The Washington Post stories had some part in a chain of events … that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

We ought to take Woodward at his word.

But too often, the heroic-journalist trope proves too delicious and too handy to be resisted.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the trope endures because it represents an easily accessible, though quite misleading, synthesis of a scandal that was daunting in its complexity.

There are other important reasons the trope lives on. They include the impeccable good timing of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about their Watergate reporting; the popularity of the cinematic version of their book, and the years-long speculation about the identity of Woodward’s well-placed secret Watergate source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”All_the_President's_Men

The book came out in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was approaching its denouement with Nixon’s resignation. It reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list late that month — and remained there until mid-November 1974, three months after Nixon quit.

The cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men was released in April 1976 to mostly rave reviews. The New York Times critic wrote that “not until ‘All The President’s Men,’ the riveting screen adaptation of the Watergate book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has any film come remotely close to being an accurate picture of American journalism at its best.”

The film focused on the work of Woodward and Bernstein, ignoring and even denigrating the vastly more significant contributions of other forces and agencies in uncovering the scandal — federal prosecutors, federal judges, federal grand jurors, bipartisan congressional panels, and the FBI.

The book and its screen version introduced the shadowy, conflicted character known as “Deep Throat,” whose identity was the subject of not-infrequent speculation over the years. That guessing game had the effect of keeping Woodward and Bernstein “in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been,” I pointed out  in Getting It Wrong.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, identified himself as “Deep Throat.” Felt by then was in his early 90s and suffering dementia.

The book, the movie, and the years-long guessing game combined to help ensure the appeal and the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. As the passage in the Times magazine suggests, the myth lives on, erroneous shorthand for how Nixon fell in Watergate.

WJC

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Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage

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

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

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

No media_cropped

Newtown, Connecticut

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

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

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

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

“Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.”

Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little of Compass’ extravagance proved true.

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

It sure did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

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

WJC

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A sort-of correction from the NYTimes

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

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

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

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

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

The obituary said the photograph showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

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

In response to my email sent in May about that lapse, the Times’ correction expert on its obituary staff, Peter Keepnews, wrote:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

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

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

Which makes for a less-than-clean correction.

Indeed, the correction seems begrudging, half-hearted.

And less than sincere.

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

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

“[T]he phrasing — ‘while the planes that carried out the attack were “American planes” in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not American forces’ — makes it sound like a bunch of teenagers borrowing daddy’s car.”

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an obituary published in May, the Times referred to the image as showing “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer were vital to the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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

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

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

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

The journalists are Richard Pyle, a Vietnam War correspondent for nearly five years and the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the agency’s photo service.

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

Update: The Times publishes a sort-of correction.

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

In an obituary published in May about Horst Faas — an award-winning AP photographer and editor who helped make sure Ut’s photograph moved across the agency’s wires — the Times described the image as “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

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

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

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer were a crucial element in the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He further stated:

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

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

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

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

That sure sounds good. Admirable, even.

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

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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The Internet’s uneven capacity to expose media fakes

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on July 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the online magazine Salon, hailed yesterday the corrective capacity of the Internet, noting how quickly a purported column by Bill Keller, one-time executive editor of the New York Times, was exposed over the weekend as an imaginative fake.

In pressing the argument, though, Greenwald offered up a hoary media myth that has survived quite well in the age of the Internet.

Greenwald wrote: “For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just … compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism.

“Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells [sic] (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic.”

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization set off “mass panic” is a delicious tale.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s also a tenacious 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 point out that “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But there is no evidence their fright rose to anything approaching “mass panic” or nationwide hysteria.

Indeed, most listeners recognized Welles’ program for what it was— an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

But newspaper reports the following day advanced the notion that “mass panic” had swept the country.

“These reports,” I point out, “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

But newspapers in 1938 “simply had no reliable way of testing or ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they made about the radio show,” I write.

Nonetheless, the purported “panic-broadcast” offered U.S. newspapers “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I write.

The overwhelmingly negative commentary in the American press, helped frame and solidify the erroneous impression that The War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria.

The debunking of the myth is told not only in Getting It WrongI’ve blogged about the dubious “panic broadcast,” too, as posts here, here, here, and here indicate. I’ve also written about The War of the Worlds myth for the BBC online. Others have discussed the myth in blog posts as well, notably Michael Socolow in a fine dissection in 2008.

So why does the myth live on in the digital age? Why is it resistant to the Internet’s capacity, which Greenwald extols, to detect errors and swiftly banish them?

Obviously, the notion of the “panic broadcast” became entrenched in media lore long before the digital age. Indeed, it began taking dimension the day after Welles’ clever show.

Once a myth becomes thoroughly entrenched, it may be beyond the Internet’s power ever  to dismantle. (See also, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the supposed “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the misleading dominant narrative of Watergate.)

What’s more, the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were abruptly pitched into “mass panic” one night long ago remains a perversely appealing and irresistible tale. Its retelling affirms in a way the reassuring view that Americans these days are hardly the gullible rubes their ancestors were, back when broadcast media was emergent.

The mythical “panic broadcast” also offers a timeless anecdote with which to bash the media. The tale, after all, does suggest that when circumstances are just so, the media can spread fear and disruption, profoundly and unexpectedly.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews on July 9, 2012 at 7:29 am

The New York Times lined up Chris Matthews, voluble host of cable television’s Hardball program, to review Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite, the new biography about legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite.

LBJ wasn’t watching Cronkite’s report

Matthews turned in a fluffy review, published yesterday, that invoked one the American journalism’s best-known media myths — the claim that President Lyndon B. Johnson was dramatically moved by Cronkite’s on-air assessment about the war in  Vietnam.

“Cronkite never shied away from telling hard truths,” Matthews writes in his review. “Recall his half-hour ‘Report From Vietnam’ on Feb. 27, 1968, in which he declared the Vietnam War a ‘stalemate.’ It was a verdict the veteran war correspondent didn’t relish delivering, but Cronkite, who had recently returned from reporting on the Tet offensive, now believed that the war was unwinnable and indefensible.”

Matthews then repeats Brinkley’s thinly supported claim that Cronkite’s “stalemate” pronouncement had “seismic” effects.

Matthews adds, presumably as evidence of such an effect: “President Johnson reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever uttered such a remark.

Indeed, the president’s purported comment is defined by what I call acute version variability. That is, there is no agreed-upon version of what Johnson supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment.

Other versions include:

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

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”

And so on. (The Richmond Dispatch in a review published yesterday of Cronkite said Johnson exclaimed: “My God, if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”)

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, if anyone’s words should be captured with precision, they ought to be the president’s. Especially on matters as critical as support for war policy. The wide variance as to what Johnson supposedly said is, then, a marker of a media myth.

Even more injurious to the case that Cronkite’s pronouncement was of great significance is that Johnson didn’t see the program when it was broadcast.

The president was not at the White House on February 27, 1968; nor was he in front of a television set when Cronkite’s program aired.

And about the time Cronkite intoned his “stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Texas Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

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

I further note in Getting It Wrong that there is no compelling evidence that Johnson saw the Cronkite program later, on videotape.

Even if he had, Cronkite’s characterization of the was as a “stalemate” would have come as old news to the president. What Cronkite said about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, hardly earth-shaking, stunning, or original.

In no way did it alter the course of the war or influence American policy.

If anything, Cronkite’s observation about a “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.

For example, the Times said in a news analysis published July 4, 1967:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in a report from Saigon that appeared on August 7, 1967, the Times noted:

“‘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.”

So why bother calling out Matthews for casually invoking the central component of the mythical “Cronkite Moment”?

Doing so serves to highlight how insidious the myth has become, how blithely it is marshalled to support the notion that courageous and motivated journalists can do marvelous things.

Doing so also demonstrates anew that not even prominent and presumably fact-checked news organizations such as the Times are resistant to the intrusion of hoary media myths.

And doing so indicates that at least some high-profile contemporary journalists possess a shaky command of the history of their field.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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The media myths of Watergate: Part One

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

This is the first of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth
that reporting by the 
Washington Post brought down
Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency
.

For years, the dominant narrative of Watergate has been that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post revealed the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That’s also a media-driven myth — the heroic-journalist myth, as I called it in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the media-centric heroic-journalist construct “has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” serving as “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

The misdeeds of Watergate were many. Twenty men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.

Three powerful and related factors have propelled and solidified the heroic-journalist trope in the popular consciousness.

One factor was Woodward and Bernstein’s engaging book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, which came out in June 1974, just as the scandal was nearing culmination.

As Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s preeminent historian, has written, All the President’s Men “offered a journalistic brief to the nation as it prepared to understand and judge for itself” the growing evidence of Nixon’s guilt.

All the President’s Men was quite the success, holding the top spot on the New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks — through the climatic days of Watergate and beyond.

“The book’s impeccable timing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, served to “promote an impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.”

The book that helped promote a myth

That impression was deepened in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which was released to great fanfare and rave reviews in April 1976.

The movie placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling — and minimized or ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators.

Indeed, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The third factor in pressing the heroic-journalist myth firmly into the popular consciousness was the 30-year guessing game about the identity of Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source whom a Post editor code-named “Deep Throat.”

Speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” came not infrequently and was often prominent. The guessing game offered periodic reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage. The speculation effectively kept Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise might have.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly second in command at the FBI, disclosed that he had been the “Deep Throat” source — giving rise to yet another round of reminiscing about the heroic journalists  of Watergate.

Such preening was misplaced, of course.

As Max Holland, author of Leak, a recent book about Watergate and “Deep Throat,” has aptly put it:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

Interestingly, principals at the Post have periodically scoffed at and rejected the heroic-journalist narrative.

For example, Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, said at a program in 1997 marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

And Woodward  complained in 1996 that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon.

“Totally absurd.”

Indeed. To explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to simplify and misunderstand the scandal. It is to misread history and indulge in a beguiling media-driven myth.

WJC

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

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

‘Napalm Girl’ image (Nick Ut/AP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

The Times’ obituary described the photograph as showing “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

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

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

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

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

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all central or relevant.

I said as much in replying to Keepnews.

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

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

Keepnews sent this brief, dismissive response:

“Thank you for your feedback.”

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

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

The Times should.

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

It’s advice worth following.

WJC

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Kurtz invokes ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in reviewing new Cronkite biography

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Media critic Howard Kurtz invokes one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths in a review today about the forthcoming biography of Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman from 1962-81.

Out soon

Kurtz writes in the review, which is posted at the Daily Beast:

“As everyone from presidents to astronauts catered to him, Cronkite used that access to drive unflinching coverage of civil rights, corruption, and especially the morass of Vietnam — when his own reporting led him to declare that ill-fated conflict a stalemate. When LBJ said that ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,’ he was acknowledging that a single newsman had the power to change a national narrative.”

It’s highly arguable whether Cronkite “had the power to change a national narrative.”

But first, that mythical “I’ve lost Cronkite” quotation.

As I discuss in my latest my book, Getting It Wrong, there is no compelling, first-hand evidence that LBJ — President Lyndon B. Johnson — ever uttered the comment about losing Cronkite.  (Douglas Brinkley, author of the Cronkite biography, writes in the latest issue of American Heritage magazine that Johnson “probably didn’t” make such a statement. The evidence is far more persuasive than “probably didn’t,” though.)

Legend has it that Johnson said something of the sort in reacting to Cronkite’s special televised report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. At the close of the broadcast, Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

Johnson, supposedly, watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s assessment, the president snapped off the television set and declared to an aide or aides:

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

Or, as Kurtz writes, the president said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or something to that effect. Versions vary (and version variability of such magnitude is a signal of a media myth).

The power of that broadcast stems from the immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s critique supposedly had on the president.

It is, though, exceedingly unlikely that Johnson had any reaction of the sort. After all, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the president wasn’t in front of a television set that night.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time the anchorman intoned his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t lamenting any loss of support from Cronkite. Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

So it’s difficult to fathom how Johnson could have had much moved by a television program he didn’t see. Or ever discussed with Cronkite.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that Johnson’s supposedly “self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply” with his contemporaneous characterizations of the war.

“Hours before the Cronkite program,” I write, “Johnson delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms. It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”

In that speech, Johnson declared:

“Persevere in Vietnam we will, and we must.” The militancy of the president’s remarks render the purported despairing comment about having “lost Cronkite” all the more improbable.

Even if Johnson later heard — or heard about— Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment, it would have come as no epiphany. “Stalemate,” after all, had been bruited for months in Washington policy circles and in South Vietnam.

Indeed, less than three weeks before Cronkite’s televised commentary, the New York Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The phrasing seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s on-air assessment, in which he declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

In any case, Johnson didn’t turn dovish in the days following Cronkite’s report. Not long after the program, the president delivered a lectern-thumping speech in Minnesota in which he urged a “total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace,” Johnson said on that occasion, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So publicly, at least, Johnson remained hawkish in the immediate aftermath of the Cronkite program.

And as for Kurtz’s claim that Cronkite possessed singular power “to change a national narrative”? Cronkite, himself, didn’t much buy into that notion, not in the context of his 1968 report on Vietnam.

For example, Cronkite said in 1997 in promoting his memoir that the program’s effect on Johnson was akin to “a very small straw on a very heavy load he was already carrying.” Hardly narrative-changing.

(In the years just before his death in 2009, Cronkite did begin to embrace the purported impact of his 1968 program.)

In any event, public opinion polls indicated that Americans were turning against the Vietnam War by autumn 1967, well before the Cronkite report.

As Daniel C. Hallin memorably wrote in the former Media Studies Journal in 1998:

“Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”

WJC

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