W. Joseph Campbell

CNN commentary incorporates a rare media-myth twofer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes on July 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

In an essay that mocks “conservative media” for clinging to an “‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative,” a high-profile historian writing for CNN completed the unusual feat of working two prominent media myths into a single commentary.

The essay, posted yesterday, speculated that recent criticism by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Ross Douthat, both of whom are syndicated columnists, may signal significant erosion in Trump’s support among conservatives in the face of suspicions his presidential campaign last year improperly colluded with Russia’s government.

Maybe. But one can argue whether those columnists project much agenda-setting authority. Especially Krauthammer, whose wariness of Trump has long been evident.

In any case, what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay-writer’s invoking persistent myths about Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and about Edward R. Murrow’s televised report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954.

The writer, Julian Zelizer, set up references to those myths by writing:

“Historically, significant shifts among journalists in how they cover and analyze a story can have major political effects. The media has the power to sway public opinion.”

Perhaps on occasion.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), media power “tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.” Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.” (And I note that economist Robert Samuelson has offered similar observations.)

Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, repeats the hoary claim that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, delivered at the close of an hour-long report about Vietnam, had a sudden and visceral influence on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Zelizer writes:

LBJ wasn’t watching Cronkite

“Watching on one of his television sets in the Oval Office, Johnson told his aides, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on February 27, 1968, and there’s no sure evidence when or if he saw the program later on videotape. (The power of this anecdote, I write in Getting It Wrong, “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect [Cronkite’s assessment] supposedly had on the president: such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”)

Johnson was neither in front of television sets that night, nor was he at the Oval Office. He was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for one of his long-time allies, Governor John Connally Jr.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment — a characterization hardly novel or unprecedented in early 1968 — Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally, saying:

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

The president left Austin shortly afterward and later that night boarded Air Force One to return to Washington.

Zelizer’s commentary invokes the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, and says the program “exposed the contradictions and lies of rabid anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Exposed?

Not quite.

“It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding that by March 1954, McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics “were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread. …

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists — including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson — had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson was an energetic muckraker who openly challenged McCarthy beginning in 1950, shortly after the senator’s speech in West Virginia in which he claimed more than 200 communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

The columnist pointedly dismissed the allegations, writing that they seemed derived from an outdated and discredited list that Congress had examined three years before. Pearson also noted that he had covered the State Department for about 20 years, and during that time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson pursued his critical reporting about McCarthy, so angering the senator that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950 following a dinner-dance at the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington. Not long after that, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to assail Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Zelizer’s commentary makes no mention of Pearson and his work to expose McCarthy’s “contradictions and lies” but claims “Murrow’s broadcast was an important moment in Sen. McCarthy’s downfall.”

More accurately, it was very belated in the media’s exposés of McCarthy — as Murrow’s friend and colleague, the CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, pointed out years later.

The See It Now program on McCarthy, Sevareid noted, “came very late in the day. The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

Also of note is that Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred Friendly, pointed to another factor in ending McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch hunt — the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in spring of 1954. The hearings centered around allegations that McCarthy’s key associate, Roy Cohn, pressured the Army to grant special treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide.

“What made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy, Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir, “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings. People saw the evil right there on the tube. ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy.” (Emphasis added.)

Several weeks after the See It Now program on McCarthy, the New York Post’s television critic, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow was feeling “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Deep in his essay, Zelizer acknowledges that it is “much too early to tell” whether anti-Trump commentary by some conservative pundits “will turn into something bigger and more sustained, or if the majority of the coverage on these [conservative] outlets remains pro-Trump.” He takes a swipe at those news outlets, citing a New York Times commentary in stating that “most of the conservative media still clings to an ‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative.”

“Alternative reality”? What are media myths if not expressions of “alternative reality”?

WJC

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In essay about fake news, ‘Vox’ offers up media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on July 6, 2017 at 9:15 pm

In a lengthy essay posted yesterday about “fake news,” the online site Vox summoned a persistent media myth — that of the evocative “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam 45 years ago.

The essay invoked the photograph in discussing how remedies for “fake news” can be worse than the malady.

It ruminated about “potential unintended consequences of cracking down on fake news” and noted the controversy last year over “Facebook’s mishandling of the iconic photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War. After a Norwegian author published the photo as part of a commentary on the evils of war, Facebook took the photo down, saying it violated standards regarding nudity on the site.”

Indeed, Facebook goofed up thoroughly in that episode.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s passage about “the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

That’s an erroneous reference to a misguided aerial bombing on June 8, 1972, during which napalm was dropped near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Nick Ut of the Associated Press took the memorable photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc and other terror-stricken children fleeing the attack. Kim’s arms were outstretched and her face was contorted in agony. Her clothing had been burned away.

The napalm attack was carried out not by the United States but by Skyraider warplanes of the South Vietnamese Air Force, attempting to roust communist forces dug in near the village.

Contemporaneous news accounts were quite clear about who dropped the napalm.

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service, “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.” Donald Kirk of the Chicago Tribune reported the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

The headline on the New York Times dispatch from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.” And the Boston Globe declared: “”S. Viet error kills 20 in napalm inferno.”

The fight at Trang Bang was — as I point out in the new edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — “an all-Vietnamese encounter.” The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned Kim Phuc and others is false, but  enduring.

It is one of a number of myths attached to the “Napalm Girl” photograph.

Other myths are that the photograph was so raw and compelling that it hastened an end to the war (in fact it went on until April 1975) and that the image galvanized American public opinion against the conflict (Americans’ views about the war had turned negative in early 1968).

Another myth is that the “Napalm Girl” image appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere in the United States.

Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph soon after it was distributed by Associated Press. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it showed frontal nudity.

Of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers included in a review I conducted with a research assistant (all 40 were Associated Press subscribers), 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers examined — more than one-third the sample — did not publish the photograph at all. These titles included the Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Des Moines Register, Detroit Free Press, Newark Star-Ledger, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Just three of the newspapers examined — the Boston Globe, New York Post, and New York Timesprinted editorials specifically addressing the photograph and its significance.

The editorial in the New York Post asked: “When will this bloodiest and most bestial of wars also be recognized as the monstrous mistake that it is? The picture of the children [fleeing the napalm attack] will never leave anyone who saw it….”

WJC

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Murrow ‘risked his career to confront demagogic Joe McCarthy’? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post on July 1, 2017 at 3:01 pm

The sentiments may be noble but the claims — one of them, at least — are dubious.

‘Demagogic’ Joe McCarthy

So it is with a Washington Post commentary this weekend that makes mention of “men and women who defended this country and its values in other ways [than taking up arms]: people like Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster who risked his career to confront the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy; Harvey Milk, who helped pass gay rights legislation in San Francisco before he was assassinated; and Rosa Parks, whose courageous defiance was a spark for the civil rights movement, in which many were killed.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the reference to Murrow’s having risked his career in taking on McCarthy — a reference to the broadcaster’s half-hour television program, “See It Now,” in March 1954 that critically examined the senator’s communists-in-government witchhunt.

The show has long since become encrusted with media myth — namely that Murrow’s report exposed McCarthy’s demagoguery and abruptly ended his red-baiting ways.

The notion that Murrow’s career hung in the balance in taking on the bullying senator from Wisconsin was promoted in Good Night, and Good Luck, an overwrought cinematic account of the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation. But in reality, the risks to Murrow were scant by time he took on McCarthy in 1954.

By then, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (a second edition of which is out now), Murrow was quite safe.

Murrow

That’s because, as I write, Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and “did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

These journalists included the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who called out McCarthy’s exaggerations almost as soon as the senator began hurling accusations of communists infiltration of the State Department. That was in February 1950 — years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

Pearson certainly wasn’t a much-liked journalist; he was an aggressive, self-important muckraker whom media critic Jack Shafer once described as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story. Pearson, I note, was always “eager to inject himself as a participant in Washington’s political scene.”

But he caught on quickly to McCarthy’s excesses.

Pearson: McCarthy nemesis

I note in Getting It Wrong that “Pearson first wrote about McCarthy’s wild allegations on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them. Pearson called McCarthy the ‘harum-scarum’ senator,” and described how the allegations had been discredited years earlier, after having been raised by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Pearson wrote that “knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson also went after McCarthy for his tax troubles in Wisconsin and for a suspicious $10,000 payment from a government contractor. And he likened McCarthy and his tactics to 17th century witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

All of this angered the headstrong McCarthy who, at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, approached Pearson, placed a hand on the columnist’s arm and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The thuggish threat, I write, was a prelude to a brief but violent encounter at the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C.

The Sulgrave, which occupies a late Gilded Age, Beaux-Arts mansion at DuPont Circle, was in the 1950s a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers. “The club prided itself on insuring privacy and permitted no photographers to enter,” I note.

In December 1950, a young socialite named Louise Tinsley (“Tinnie”) Steinman invited both Pearson and McCarthy to join her guests at a dinner-dance at the Sulgrave.

She seated the men at the same table and they traded insults throughout the evening. Pearson and McCarthy “are the two biggest billygoats in the onion patch, and when they began butting, all present knew history was being made,” Time magazine said about their encounter.

“As the evening ended,” I write, “McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room. Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

“Senator Richard Nixon, who also was a guest at Tinnie Steinman’s party, intervened to break up the encounter.”

In his memoir RN, Nixon quoted McCarthy as saying:

“You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.”

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate not long afterward to assail Pearson in speeches that were unalloyed McCarthyism.

He denounced the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

McCarthy also aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., the principal sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program on NBC. McCarthy declared that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams [sic] hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

Adam Hat subsequently said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s radio show, citing “a planned change in advertising media for 1951.”

Pearson later claimed that losing the Adam Hat sponsorship cut his gross radio income to $100,000 from $250,000. “I suppose no one newspaperman suffered more economically than I did from Joe McCarthy,” he mused.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Post’s commentary would have been more apropos had it replaced Pearson for Murrow in saluting “men and women who defended this country and its values.” But, then, the memory of Drew Pearson projects none of the luster of the legendary Ed Murrow.

Also, it’s worth speculating that a keener risk to Murrow’s career and his reputation came in 1956, when he privately advised Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, on what Murrow’s biographer, A.M. Sperber, called “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in Murrow: His Life and Times that even though the Republican incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, seemed sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.”

The Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” Sperber noted, adding that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson’s advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen,” that his coaching was to be “kept quiet.”

WJC

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