W. Joseph Campbell

The insidious media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on July 29, 2018 at 11:31 am

The most powerful media myths are insidious, worming their way deep into popular consciousness where they gain resistance to debunking.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

That’s certainly the case with the award-winning “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken by an Associated Press photographer in June 1972, during the Vietnam War.

The black-and-white image shows a cluster of fear-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village, Trang Bang. The photograph’s central figure is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming in terror.

The image offers a timeless statement about war’s indiscriminate effects. And it has given rise to media myths, those false, dubious, or improbable tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

Most notable of the myths associated with the photograph is that U.S.-piloted aircraft carried out the napalm attack.

That version has been invoked so often and so blithely as to become insidious. An essay posted yesterday at the Milwaukee Independent, an online news magazine, suggests as much.

The essay recalled the career of John G. Morris, a once-prominent photo editor for the New York Times and other news organizations who died a year ago at 100.

The essay invoked the myth that Americans were responsible for the napalm drop at Trang Bang, stating:

“It was at Morris’s insistence that graphic images of the Vietnam war taken by two Associated Press photographers made the front page of the New York Times: in 1968, Morris challenged official policy and the supposed requirements of good taste with Eddie Adams’s image of a Vietcong prisoner at the moment of his execution by a South Vietnamese police officer; and in 1972 he used a similarly arresting image by Huynh Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, of a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing the US napalm attack that had burned off her clothes.”

But it was no “US napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

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

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.”

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

I address, and debunk, the media myths of the “Napalm Girl” in a chapter in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong. I close the chapter by considering why the photograph has been so often mischaracterized as showing the effects of “U.S. napalm” or a “U.S. air strike.”

Perhaps it is mostly a case of error repeated so often that it is accepted without second thought.

Or perhaps, as I write in Getting It Wrong, it is a representation of what Shelby Steele “has termed ‘poetic truth’ — the bending of ‘the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant.'”

The “Napalm Girl” photograph long has been associated with a narrative that the U.S. role in Vietnam was amoral and foolhardy, that Kim Phuc’s burns were, in the words of the Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott, “the collateral damage of a war we made.”

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop at Trang Bang has served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.

But to make such a connection, I write, “is to misrepresent the photograph, distort its meaning, and garble the circumstances of its making.” It is to allow narrative to obscure fact.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Advertisements

Roster expands of journos who’ve invoked ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 1, 2018 at 8:46 am

Although it has been recognized as a media myth for years, the list keeps expanding of journalists who’ve invoked William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to bring on war with Spain 120 years ago.

To the roster that includes writers for the Washington Post, Politico, and Forbes, as well as James Fallows, Garrison Keillor and Evan Thomas, we add the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman.

In an essay the other day that praised the resilience of journalists in the face of threats and attacks, Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, offered up this paragraph:

“In American folklore, newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst ‘started’ the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the famous illustrator Frederic Remington cabled him that there was no sign of conflict in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Hearst cabled back: ‘You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.'”

Well, no, he didn’t.

Hearst didn’t start, foment, or otherwise bring about the Spanish-American War. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the diplomatic impasse over Cuba that gave rise to the war was far beyond the control or influence of Hearst’s three daily newspapers.

Often cited as evidence that he did bring about the conflict is the vow attributed to Hearst, which usually is recounted as his having pledged to “furnish the war.”

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on even though the telegram that supposedly carried Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied having sent such a message. It lives on despite a a nearly complete absence of documentation.

And it lives on despite what I call an irreconcilable internal inconsistency. That is, it would have been made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington: Six days in Cuba

Remington was in Cuba six days in January 1897, a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been quite aware that Cuba was a theater of a brutal war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, the antecedent to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the evidence against it is such that the Hearstian vow deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

But why does this media myth keep popping up? Why does it seem so inviting to senior journalists?

The reasons are several, and include the deliciousness of the quotation: It tells a story that seems too good not to be true.

Also, it’s an anecdote that caricatures Hearst’s arrogance and hubris exquisitely well.

And it illustrates the presumptive perverse power of the news media — that under the right circumstances, the media can act so disreputably as to plunge the country into war, much as Hearst did in the late Nineteenth Century. Which is nonsense, but that surely is a factor in accounting for the myth’s tenacity.

Yet another factor has to be the sloppiness of journalists, or their reluctance to check out the anecdote — even though ample documentation about its mythical status is but keystrokes away, online.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

 

Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: