W. Joseph Campbell

‘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.


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About the ‘Murrow Moment’: A ‘tipping point’ that wasn’t

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New Yorker, Television on August 13, 2016 at 9:45 am

The “Murrow Moment” has become a fashionable phrase in American journalism, invoked to justify suspending impartiality in reporting on Donald Trump and his often-incendiary, gaffe-prone campaign for president.


He of the ‘Murrow Moment’

Invoking the phrase also allows contemporary reporters to associate themselves with the presumed greatness and courage of Edward R. Murrow, a legendary journalist for CBS News in the 1940s and 1950s. “Murrow Moment” is an allusion to a half-hour television program in 1954 when Murrow took on Joseph R. McCarthy, a menacing, red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

“Murrow Moment” has been in circulation for a couple of months, at least since an essay at Huffington Post invoked the phrase. It has picked up intensity in recent weeks, following a commentary published in Columbia Journalism Review under the headline, “For journalists covering Trump, a Murrow moment.”

“After months of holding back,” the commentary declared, “modern-day journalists are acting a lot like Murrow, pushing explicitly against Donald Trump, the … Republican presidential nominee.”

The commentary gave prominent reference to Murrow’s program about McCarthy, stating:

“As Edward R. Murrow wrapped up his now-famous special report condemning Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he looked into the camera and said words that could apply today. ‘He didn’t create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully,’ Murrow said of McCarthy. Most of Murrow’s argument relied on McCarthy’s own words, but in the end Murrow shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: ‘This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent—or for those who approve,’ he said. ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.'”

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.26.02 PM

Columbia Journalism Review headline

In reality, Murrow’s half-hour report on McCarthy in 1954 wasn’t all that extraordinary.

Courageous, it was not.

But over the years the program has taken on mythical dimension, that it was, in the words of another recent Huffington Post essay, a “tipping point” that “helped bring about the end of McCarthy.”

Murrow’s program was a lacerating attack on McCarthy. But it was no “tipping point,” for reasons that include:

  • Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists directed pointed and sustained attention to McCarthy’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more implacable critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.
    McCarthy became so unnerved by Pearson’s work that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.
  • ŸŸŸMcCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954. As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. McCarthy’s favorable rating dropped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably. By mid-March 1954, the proportion had shifted to 32 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.
  • Murrow’s program benefited from coincidental good timing, airing during the week when the senator’s fortunes took a prominent and decisive turn for the worse — for reasons unrelated to Murrow.
    “The pivotal moment of the decisive week,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, was “the disclosure … about the Army’s allegations that McCarthy and his subcommittee’s counsel, Roy Cohn. The Army charged they had exerted pressure in an attempt to gain favored treatment for G. David Schine, Cohn’s friend and assistant who had been drafted into military service.” The Army’s complaint became the subject of televised hearings in spring and summer 1954, which hastened McCarthy’s downfall. His conduct was condemned by the Senate in December 1954.

Interestingly, Murrow in 1954 downplayed the presumptive effects of his program about McCarthy. According to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the then-liberal New York Post, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter.”

Tuck further wrote that Murrow “said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the program on McCarthy was dispositive to the senator’s decline. Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

The “Murrow moment” commentary in Columbia Journalism Review included a reference to Murrow’s having “shed his journalistic detachment” in calling out McCarthy in 1954.

The passage brought to mind an eye-opening discussion in A.M. Sperber’s biography of Murrow, in which she reported that Murrow had privately advised Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign on “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, was sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.” Sperber described Murrow’s decision as “a radical departure from his usual practice.”

The idea, Sperber wrote, was “to effect a liaison between the broadcaster and the candidate, to discuss the use of TV in the forthcoming campaign.”

She noted that the Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen” and that the matter was to be “kept quiet.”

So why did Murrow discreetly “shed his journalistic detachment” to advise Stevenson?

“He wouldn’t say,” Sperber wrote, adding that Murrow’s “friends, knowing his detestation of [John] Foster Dulles, were not surprised.” Dulles, a political conservative, was Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1954.

Murrow’s coaching of Stevenson came to little, Sperber wrote. They met in a New York studio in June 1956 and Murrow “sweated over the candidate, trying to inculcate the finer points of speaking to the camera. Stevenson barely endured it, chiding campaign manager George Ball about the money this was costing the Democrats.”

Sperber also wrote that Murrow “dictated a few ideas for issue-oriented TV spots” but they were “never put to use.”

Additionally, according to a New Yorker article in 2006, Murrow thought “seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat” in 1958 and “consulted privately with both [CBS chief executive William] Paley and Harry Truman,” the Democratic former president, before deciding not to seek the office.


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Trump, Nixon, and the ‘secret plan’ media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2016 at 7:47 pm

The hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam has surfaced with some frequency in recent days as commentators across the political spectrum stretch for parallels between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the campaign Nixon ran in 1968.

These commentators — writing for such diverse sources as the New York Post, the National Interest, the Daily Beast, History News Network, among others — have referred to Nixon’s “secret plan” as if such a pledge figured in his run for the White House 48 years ago.

What 'secret plan'?

What ‘secret plan’?

It didn’t.

Nixon never said he had a secret plan.

This is a media myth that won’t die, partly because “secret plan” seems so Nixonian in duplicity and deceit. It is, like many media myths, almost too good to be false.

So of late, we’ve had the New York Post declaring flatly that Nixon in 1968 “ran against the Vietnam War by claiming he had a ‘secret plan’ to end it.” We’ve had the National Interest — in a commentary headlined, “Can Trump Follow Nixon to Victory?” — asserting that “Nixon said he had a ‘secret plan’ to end” the war.

We’ve had a political columnist writing in the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts that Nixon “said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam — a war that was tearing the country apart.”

And we’ve had the History News Network, which seeks to place “current events into historical perspective,” stating that “Richard Nixon won the presidency, mainly based on his ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War and his tough stance on law and order.”

What has encouraged those and other outsize references to Nixon’s “secret plan” has been Trump’s repeated if vague promise to wipe out ISIS, the radical Islamic terror organization that has seized portions of Syria and Iraq and has taken responsibility for murderous attacks in Europe and the United States. Trump, for example, declared in an interview that aired Sunday on 60 Minutes, “We’re going to declare war against ISIS. We have to wipe out ISIS.”
Trump offered few details on occasions he has spoken about ISIS — a vagueness that seemed redolent of candidate Nixon’s saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam.
But Nixon pointedly and publicly dismissed such a notion: In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” Nixon was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Now Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim wasn’t a feature of his campaign. That becomes quite clear in reviewing the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

As I’ve noted several times at Media Myth Alert, if Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers certainly would have reported it.

The “secret plan” anecdote is likely derived from a speech Nixon made on March 5, 1968, in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which he declared that “new leadership” in Washington would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting on Nixon’s remarks, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI account also noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.” Eisenhower was elected president that year.

A New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted the candidate as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. Nixon also said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief follow-on report published in the Times that day quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in seeking to end the war.

A fine recent book about the tumultuous 1968 presidential election briefly takes up, and promptly dismisses, the “secret plan” claim.

The book, written by Michael A. Cohen and titled American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, says:

“Though it is often claimed that Nixon spoke of a ‘secret plan’ to end the war, he never uttered those words. Even suggesting that he had a plan would have been too much for Nixon.”



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