W. Joseph Campbell

Convergence encore: Now the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on May 22, 2018 at 2:05 pm

Wasn’t I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the same time?

Well, here we are again.

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

This time the Federalist online magazine, in a roundup posted today about memorable cases of media misreporting, invoked what is known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, which centers around a prime-time special report by CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

The broadcast, which Cronkite based on a reporting trip to Vietnam, aired February 27, 1968. At the program’s close, Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

The Federalist essay says “the proclamations he made on his broadcast that night — to which President Johnson is said to have reacted with ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ — were dubious at best, and not at all based on fact.”

“Dubious at best”? That’s arguable, especially as the war was widely regarded as having lapsed into a stalemate in 1967.

But what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s visceral purported reaction — “‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!'”

It’s the stuff of a tenacious media myth.

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, that night, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” assessment (which was decidedly unoriginal), 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.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The show was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat analysis while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort.

The Federalist had company in invoking the mythical Cronkite-Johnson claim. The CBS outlet in Boston, WBZ, also turned to the myth today, stating in a post by the station’s political analyst:

“There’s a famous story from the Vietnam War era about the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, known back then as ‘the most respected man in America,’ as hard as that might be for today’s news consumers to imagine. When President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite deliver a scathing report about the progress of the war, he reportedly turned to an aide and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

Actually, the report wasn’t so “scathing.” Cronkite’s assessments were, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “somewhat muddled and far less emphatic than those offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. ‘The war,’ McGee declared on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, ‘is being lost by the administration’s definition.'”

Not “mired in stalemate.” “Being lost.”

It is impossible, moreover, to know whether Cronkite was “the most respected man in America” in 1968. He was sometimes called “the most trusted man in America” — but was so anointed in 1972, in Election Day advertisements CBS placed in major U.S. newspapers.

Media myths can converge in another fashion — as when a single article or essay offers up more than one tall tale about media power or media failings. And that takes us back to the Federalist essay, which also invokes the hoary myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain 120 years ago.

The essay declares that “Hearst sent famed American artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to check on the progress of a rumored rebellion against the Spanish government there.

Hearst: Denied sending message

“Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that read ‘Everything quiet here. There is no trouble. There will be no war. Wish to return.’ Hearst famously replied ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Less than a month later, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana.”

Let’s unpack the errors in those few sentences.

First, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule was hardly a “rumored” conflict. It was very real, having begun in early 1895. By the time Remington arrived in Havana in early 1897, the rebellion had reached islandwide proportions, prompting Spain to send about 200,000 troops to Cuba.

Additionally, the essay’s sequencing is off: Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897; the USS Maine blew up in February 1898, more than a year later.

Moreover, that telegrams were exchanged has never been proven. Hearst denied having sent such a message to Remington, and Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which gained wide circulation beginning in the mid-1930s, long after the artist’s death.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation: It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

It lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

It is highly likely that Hearst’s purported telegram (had it been sent) would have been intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their surveillance, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

An incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been seized upon and called out by Spanish authorities as an example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

But they made no such outcry.

So what does the latest published convergence of media myths tell us?

It certainly testifies to the hardiness of media myths, and to their enduring accessibility. It reminds us that media myths, which fundamentally are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity, can be too apt and too tempting to be checked out.

They can seem almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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A media myth convergence: Erroneous claims about ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Sometimes media myths converge.

On occasion, a variety of news outlets independently invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at about the same time. It’s an occurrence that confirms wide familiarity with prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The most recent manifestation of a media myth convergence centers around the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut, a photographer for the Associated Press.

Ut’s image showed a cluster of young children, screaming in terror as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, whose clothing had been burned away by the napalm.

The myths surrounding the “Napalm Girl” image are tenacious, as I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes, that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and that it hastened an end to the conflict.

Variations of those erroneous characterizations were invoked in recent days by the National newspaper in Scotland; by Quartz, which styles itself an online site “for business people in the new global economy”; by the left-wing site Truthdig, and by the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa.

That variety of outlets is a reminder of the portability of prominent media myths — they can travel far — and confirms anew how readily myths can be harnessed to underscore some larger point.

Consider the National newspaper, which invoked “Napalm Girl” as evidence of the potential power of photographs in directing attention to illegal trafficking in wildlife. The article began by stating:

“When Nick Ut’s harrowing image of the Napalm Girl was splashed across newspapers in 1972, it dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War. Even today, the image is a shivering reminder of the innocent millions caught up in warfare; proof of the enduring power photography holds.

“Now, a group of photojournalists is employing a similar approach to communicate the ills of the illegal wildlife trade, a battle being fought on behalf of hundreds of species worldwide,” in a book, Photographers Against Wildlife Crime.

The Quartz essay make a somewhat similar claim about Ut’s photograph, saying it “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig is more vague, declaring the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.”

Ut’s image won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 but evidence is scant that it did much to change “public attitude” — or “shift the understanding” — about Vietnam. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, U.S. public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972.

I pointed out that slightly more 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted in May 1971 — more than a year before the napalm bombing that Ut photographed — said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. Thirty-one percent of respondents in May 1971 said no, it had not been a mistake.

When Gallup next asked the question, in a survey in January 1973, about the time the United States and North Vietnamese reached a peace agreement, the results were essentially unchanged: 60 percent of respondents said sending U.S. forces to Vietnam had been a mistake, 29 percent said it had not.

That poll question was a proxy for gauging Americans’ views about the war. It was first asked in August 1965, when only 24 percent of respondents said it had been a mistake to send troops to Vietnam; 60 percent said it had not been a mistake.

Additionally, Ut claimed in an interview in 2012 that publication of his image sparked “anti-war protests all over the world” — including London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. But there is no evidence — specifically no news reports — that such protests took place.

I wrote in Getting It Wrong:

“A review of the front pages of leading U.S. newspapers reveals no reports of antiwar protests of the sort that Ut described in the interview. Disturbing though it was, ‘Napalm Girl’ did not prompt Americans to take to the streets in rallies or demonstrations against the war.

“It is no doubt asking too much of a still photograph to stir far-reaching protest,” I observed.

The Sunday Times presented a particularly pernicious element of the “Napalm Girl” myths, saying the photograph was made following a “US napalm strike.”

The newspaper made that erroneous assertion in a tribute, published today, to Sam Nzima, a self-taught South African photographer.

Nzima, who died this month, was best known for the image of a dying young victim being carried away from student protests in Soweto in 1976.

In its tribute, the Sunday Times likened Nzima’s photograph to “Napalm Girl,” stating:

“In terms of impact and effect it was in the same league as Associated Press photojournalist Nick Ut’s picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road in agony after being caught up in a US napalm strike, which changed American perceptions of the war.”

‘Evening Bulletin,’ June 8, 1972

As often is the case in discussing the presumed influence of “Napalm Girl,” the Sunday Times’ claim about “changed American perceptions of the war” is backed by no evidence or documentation.

More significantly, the napalm that severely burned Kim Phuc was dropped not by U.S. warplanes but by an A-1 Skyraider of the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports at the time made quite clear (see image of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article nearby).

The New York Times, for example, reported on June 9, 1972, the day after the errant attack, 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 diving onto the wrong target.”

It was no “US napalm strike.”

WJC

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Hearst, Ted Cruz, and the myth of war-mongering ‘yellow journalism’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on April 27, 2018 at 7:19 am

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz  assailed U.S. technology companies this week and, in doing so, brought up one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — that William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers brought about the Spanish-American War 120 years ago.

In an interview with “Breitbart News Tonight,” Cruz declared that the “scope of the power” of Facebook and other tech companies “is truly unprecedented. You think back to the heights of yellow journalism, when publisher William Randolph Hearst controlled much of media and in fact got America into the Spanish-American War. Well, these tech companies have power William Randolph Hearst could never have imagined.”

Cruz: Blames Hearst for war

Maybe.

But it hardly can be said that Hearst “controlled much of [the] media” in 1898. He ran three newspapers then — his flagship New York Journal, its down-market companion the Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. At the time, the United States had more than 2,000 daily newspapers (and 12,000 weeklies), the ownership of which was quite diffuse.

More intriguing to Media Myth Alert was the senator’s unsourced claim that Hearst “got America into the Spanish-American War.” No serious historian of the period embraces that notion. It is indeed a hoary media myth, which I addressed and debunked in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism.

Claims about Hearst’s war-mongering power almost always are unsourced. They almost always lack an explanation about just how Hearst and his “yellow journalism” brought on the war: What was the linkage? By what mechanism were the contents of Hearst’s three newspapers transformed into government policy and military action against Spain?

The short answer: There was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the deadly destruction of the USS Maine in mid-February 1898, while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The administration assuredly did not take a policy lead from the Hearst press. His newspapers were, I noted, “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war on April 25, 1898. The conflict lasted 114 days as the U.S. Army and Navy routed Spanish forces in theaters in the Caribbean and Asia — in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

To indict the yellow press for bringing on the conflict is to misread the evidence and ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in an impasse that led to war. Failed diplomacy — essentially, the United States and Spain could not resolve differences over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — gave rise to war.

The start date of the conflict was a source of recent confusion for the Washington Post which, in a glib essay about the cruelties of April, erroneously stated the war was declared on April 20, 1898.

Hearst’s Journal: Offered reward to solve Maine destruction, 1898

The Post’s essay also said “the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (‘Remember the Maine’). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.”

Not so.

In March 1898 (very much “at the time”), a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine’s destruction was likely triggered by the detonation of an underwater mine in Havana harbor, which was under Spanish control. The Court’s key finding was that a portion of the battleship’s bottom plating had been bent inward, in the shape of an inverted “V.” That evidence signaled an external source of the explosion.

Although the Court of Inquiry identified no suspects in the presumed mining, the American press and public held Spanish authorities responsible, given their control of the harbor. (For example, one of Hearst’s rivals, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, declared at the end of March 1898: “The Government of Spain is inescapably responsible for the destruction of the Maine by a MINE in Havana harbor. What are we going to do about it?”)

The Naval Court’s central finding was endorsed in 1911, when the wreck of the Maine was raised from Havana harbor and taken to sea for burial in 400 fathoms of water. The 1911 inquiry placed the likely location of the underwater mine farther aft than did the 1898 inquiry.

The mine-sunk-the-Maine interpretation was not seriously challenged until the mid-1970s, when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover commissioned a private study that proposed spontaneous combustion — a fire smoldering undetected in a coal bunkers near the ship’s forward magazines — was the explosion’s probable source.

Rickover’s interpretation has proved not to be the final word, however.

In 1998, a study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted with computer simulations by Advanced Marine Enterprises found fresh support for the mine theory.

The study said “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine” was the source of the explosion. It also said “that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating … would have blown outward, not inward.”

WJC

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