W. Joseph Campbell

Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ out soon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio on September 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

The runup to Monday’s debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican foe, Donald Trump, has been accompanied by news accounts about the first debate 56 years ago between major party candidates — and more than a few references to a hoary and tenacious media-driven myth.

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Second edition, out soon

The myth has it that television viewers and radio listeners disagreed sharply as to the winner of the debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and his Republican foe, Richard M. Nixon. TV viewers, it is said, thought Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave their nod to Nixon.

I take up the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in one of three new chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking The Greatest Myths of American Journalism. Other new chapters discuss the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph and the reach and velocity of Internet-driven bogus quotations.

The second edition, to be published by University of California Press, is due out in about a month’s time.

In the book, I characterize viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

It is, I add, “described often and nonchalantly in books about American presidential politics, in news articles recalling the 1960 debate, and in commentaries ruminating about the legacies and lessons of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter.”

In news articles, for sure.

Today’s “Saturday essay,” a prominent section front of the weekend Wall Street Journal, invoked the viewer-listener myth declaring, quite nonchalantly and without attribution:

“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference.”

Today’s New York Daily News published a look-back at the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate that stated:

“Following the debate, most TV viewers believed that Kennedy had been the victor. Conversely though, radio listeners found that Nixon had a slight edge over Kennedy. And this, arguably, began the process of presidential candidates and their camps being completely obsessed with a perfect TV image.”

Similarly, an article posted the other day at the online site of Voice of America asserted:

“[W]hat the 1960 debates showed was how television was changing politics. In the first debate, radio listeners said Nixon won. Those who watched on television said Kennedy was the better debater.”

Pacific Standard magazine offered a waffling, diffident embrace of the myth, stating:

“According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.”

In this case, “conventional wisdom” is a media myth: The notion of viewer-listener disagreement is, I write, “a dubious bit of political lore.”

I note in the new chapter that the myth of viewer-listener disagreement “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

I seek in the second edition of Getting It Wrong to build upon the fine work of Vancil and Pendell and present contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries of those newspapers turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-7-56-07-am“Even the oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were vague and few,” I write, adding:

“The most proximate reference to the purported phenomenon appeared two days after the debate in a column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill wrote that he had arranged for ‘a number of persons [to] listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.'”

While intriguing in its prescience, I point out that McGill’s experiment “was more speculative than revealing. His column did not report how many people he had recruited to listen to the debate on radio, nor did it describe their party affiliations or where they lived. It was not a representative sampling; obviously, it was not meant to be.”

Rather, I write, it was an opportunity “to ruminate about the novelty of television as an instrument of political campaigns.” McGill called the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate “a triumph for television,” which it was. But it produced no significant disconnect among television viewers and radio listeners.

WJC

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No, ‘Forbes’: It wasn’t ‘an American napalm attack’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Forbes weighed in yesterday on the dust-up over Facebook’s removal of the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War. In  doing so, the magazine stepped squarely in a nasty and tenacious media myth.

Facebook deleted the image from a Norwegian writer’s site, claiming the photograph violated content prohibitions on showing nudity. The move sparked an uproar in Norway and beyond, and the social media giant soon reversed itself.

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-10-25-21-amOf particular interest to Media Myth Alert was this passage in a commentary at the Forbes online site: “the image depicts a group of children, one of whom is nude, running in fear after an American napalm attack.”

The napalm bombing took place June 8, 1972, near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

But it was no “American napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped in error by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear (see front page image, nearby, of the now-defunct Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia).

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops,” Christopher Wain of Britain’s ITN television network, who saw the attack, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International news service.

Similarly, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times reported from Trang Bang that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm on his troops and a cluster of civilians.”

Nonetheless, the myth of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack soon took hold, and has proven extremely durable. A few weeks ago, for example, the Los Angeles Times declared the naked girl at the center of the photograph had been “scorched by American napalm.” (The newspaper subsequently deleted the erroneous reference, without acknowledging error or posting a correction.)

Even more egregious, and even farther from the truth, was this assertion, offered last month in the online newsletter of an Australian think tank: “The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese.”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech on October 10, 1972, McGovern invoked the photograph of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim [Phuc], fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say. In any case, his reference to “dropped in the name of America” suggested U.S. involvement in the attack.

So, too, did Susan Sontag, the filmmaker and author, who asserted that the “naked Vietnamese child” shown in the picture had been “sprayed by American napalm.” That passage, which appeared in her book, On Photography, was an unmistakable insinuation of U.S. responsibility for the napalm bombing.

A wholly inaccurate and exaggerated insinuation.

WJC

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‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on August 22, 2016 at 7:33 am

One of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War was “The Terror of War,” better known as “Napalm Girl.”

The image showed a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant bombing raid near their village, Trang Bang. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc who was badly burned in the napalm attack.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The photograph was taken June 8, 1972, by an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and much acclaim in the years since then.

It also has given rise to enduring media myths — notably that Ut’s photograph showed the effects of a U.S. bombing raid at Trang Bang, northwest of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

That myth of the “Napalm Girl” was invoked yesterday in a 900-word profile of Ut in the Los Angeles Times. The article referred in its opening paragraph to Kim Phuc, saying she had been “scorched by American napalm.”

In fact, the aerial napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see right), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

The New York Times reported on June 9, 1972, that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm right on his troops and a cluster of civilians.” The Chicago Tribune told of “napalm dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider [warplane] diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain of Britain ITN television network wrote in a dispatch from Trang Bang for the United Press International news service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years. Early this month, for example, a columnist for USAToday referred to Ut’s photograph and said it showed “a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing her village after U.S. forces bombed it with napalm….”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech in October 1972, McGovern invoked the image of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim, fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say.

But his claim that the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America” insinuated U.S. responsibility for the errant attack — which misstated what had happened at Trang Bang. The aerial attack was carried out by South Vietnamese forces to roust communist troops from bunkers at the outskirts of the village.

The fighting there was an all-Vietnamese encounter.

WJC

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