W. Joseph Campbell

For the media, Harvey was no Katrina redux; here’s why

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on September 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

Twelve years ago today, newspaper headlines across the United States told of chaos and anarchy that supposedly was sweeping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Katrina churns, 2005

“Anger, Anarchy, Desperation,” declared the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of  September 2, 2005.

“Crisis to Chaos,” said the Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona. “Toward Anarchy,” cried the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut. “Descent into Chaos,” asserted the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Snipers fired on cops and rescue workers” in New Orleans, reported the New York Daily News. “Gangs of looters took anything that wasn’t nailed down.”

In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune newspaper (see image nearby) declared on its front page of September 2, 2005, that “chaos and lawlessness rule the streets.”

The horror and mayhem that news organizations so widely reported 12 years ago proved highly exaggerated, but it had the effect of tainting a city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism, despite some attempts to characterize it as such.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall,” I wrote, “news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. … They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported that roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome [where hundreds of storm evacuees took shelter], raping and killing. They said that children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

“None of those reports was verified or substantiated.” Little of it was true.

D-minus was a grade none too severe for the post-Katrina coverage.

“Americans depend on timely and accurate reporting, especially during times of crisis,” a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives later said in a 600-page report about the hurricane’s aftermath, adding that “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted,” the report declared, “it was the media. Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

It is useful now to recall the erroneous and exaggerated coverage of Katrina’s aftermath because the destructive sweep of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas at the end of last month gave rise to little such egregious misreporting and produced few if any examples of the media having “rioted” in their storm coverage.

For news organizations, Harvey was no Katrina.

Here are some reasons why:

• Reasonably competent public officials. In Texas, state and local officials — including the mayor of Houston — were more credible, knowledgeable, and restrained than were senior public officials in New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, and Eddie Compass, the then-police commissioner, were sources for some of the most gruesome yet erroneous reports of lawlessness in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the Superdome. The mayor said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass spoke of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” the police commissioner said of the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were widely reported — but were almost completely without foundation. (Months later, Compass said he passed along rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”)

By contrast, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, projected an image of even-tempered authority. He spoke often to the news media, typically in measured and sedate tones. He didn’t preen for the cameras, and certainly didn’t mischaracterize his city as having been seized by violence and lawlessness. The only significant controversy to swirl around Turner was whether he should have ordered a mandatory evacuation as Harvey approached from the Gulf of Mexico.

No narrative-shifting surprises. Katrina’s aftermath marked by a surprising and decisive turn after the storm had passed: Not long after it appeared the city had been spared the hurricane’s worst effects, levees protecting the city began to fail, sending floodwaters across much of New Orleans. That development abruptly shifted news coverage of Katrina from having escaped a close call to something more grim and devastating. New Orleans was mostly under water and rumors of social disintegration, many of which made their way into news reports, soon were circulating.

Harvey was forecast to drop upwards of 50 inches of rain on parts of southeastern Texas, predictions that proved largely accurate. Journalists, at least in broad terms, knew what to expect; the absence of a narrative-altering surprise allowed them to keep story lines trained on storm victims, rescues and evacuations, without having to chase bleak rumors of mayhem and violence.

Principal controversies that arose about post-Harvey coverage focused on questions of media ethics — whether it was appropriate for a reporter to send Twitter messages about what he considered looting, and when a reporter should pull back from an on-camera interview of a clearly distraught storm victim.

Dubious memes were quickly debunked. An image of a shark plying floodwaters in Texas received a brief and apparently credulous mention on the Fox News Channel, but the photograph soon was exposed as fake. For a time, the Washington Post’s “Intersect” blog kept a running list of storm-related hoaxes and exaggerations that appeared on social media. Such compilations helped keep a lid on the over-the-top stuff.

Social media platforms — most of which hadn’t been developed in 2005 — seemed to have performed fairly well, overall. Notably, Facebook and Twitter became in Harvey’s aftermath lifelines for storm victims and their families.

Stirring images. Some of the most memorable photographs of Harvey were not of agony and grim misery (like the Times-Picayune front page of September 2, 2005) but were heartening — such as the one of a Houston police SWAT officer striding in knee-deep flood water, carrying woman who was cradling her 13-month-old son. The image was taken by an Associated Press photographer and became “a symbol of the storm and rescue efforts,” as a Houston television station described it.

AP photo/David J. Phillip

The AP photographer, David J. Phillip, captured another memorable image of the storm — a panorama of a flooded Houston boulevard where a swarm of human forms confronted the waters in a tableau of evident grit, resilience, and aquatic rescue. The photo at once testified to turmoil the hurricane had created and to an absence of turmoil in response.

The post-landfall coverage of Harvey may not have been magnificent, but in all it didn’t merit a D-minus.

I’d give it a B, at least.

WJC

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Getting it excruciatingly wrong about Hearst, Remington, Cuba, and war

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on August 14, 2017 at 9:01 am

William Randolph Hearst died 66 years ago today but remains a bogeyman of American media, routinely accused of journalistic misconduct such as fomenting the Spanish-American War in 1898, after vowing to a prominent artist that he would do just that.

Such claims of Hearst’s misconduct are nonsense: They are the stuff of media myth. Enduring media myth, in fact — as made clear by a rambling column posted the other day at the Los Angeles CityWatch site.

Hearst, gone these 66 years

The column demonstrates how excruciatingly wrong accounts of history can sometimes be.

Here are excerpts from the column, with inaccuracies and dubious claims highlighted in bold.

  • Hearst literally cooked up a war with Spain so he could increase his circulation. … That war was called the Spanish American War and was over pretty much after it started.
  • [Hearst’s journalism] was called “Yellow Journalism” mainly because the front page was printed on yellow paper.
  • The name “Yellow Journalism” came to mean those items or events that possibly held a germ of truth but were greatly exaggerated.
  • Famed western illustrator, sculptor and writer Frederic Remington worked for Hearst at the time. He went to Cuba to take pictures of all the horrible things Spain was doing it to Cuban citizens, but he couldn’t find a lot to photograph. Hearst reportedly told him, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

Let’s address those inaccuracies and flawed claims in turn.

Hearst stands wrongly accused of having brought on the war with Spain in 1898, as I discussed in detail in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. The war, I noted, was “the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of … Hearst’s New York Journal,” the leading exemplar of what then was known as “yellow journalism.”

Claims that yellow journalism brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which moved thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

It turned into a humanitarian disaster that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the Hearst press.

What’s clear is that the yellow press reported on, but it did not create, the terrible hardships of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

As leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed, the abuses and suffering created by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898. The content of the yellow press was a non-factor.

Almost always ignored in claims that Hearst brought about the war is any explanation about how newspaper content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was Hearst’s newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It is left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism. Hearst did not “literally” cook up war with Spain.

Nor was the term “yellow journalism” inspired by the color of front page newsprint. Nothing of the sort.

Wardman: He gave us ‘yellow journalism’

“Yellow journalism” was a sneer, coined by Ervin Wardman, a fastidious, Hearst-hating editor of the old New York Press. Wardman loathed what Hearst called “New Journalism” and took to experimenting with pithy turns of phrase to denigrate the flamboyant style.

In a one-line editorial comment in the Press in January 1897, Wardman suggested calling it “Nude Journalism,” to suggest that Hearst’s journalism was bereft of morals and decency.

Wardman soon landed on “yellow-kid journalism,” a term in part inspired by the popular comic running at the time in Hearst’s Journal and in the rival New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Both newspapers carried version of the comic which featured a wise-cracking urchin of the slums typically called the “Yellow Kid.”

At the end of January 1897, “yellow-kid journalism” was modified to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

“Yellow journalism,” as practiced in the late 19th century, was defined by much more than exaggeration. Indeed, it was a genre characterized by:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by rudimentary use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Given those features, I noted in Yellow Journalism, the genre “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

No media myth in American journalism is more enduring than that of Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

It supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, who went to Cuba for Hearst’s Journal in January 1897. Remington was an artist, sculptor, and writer: He was no photographer. His assignment in Cuba to draw illustrations of the rebellion against Spanish rule, the precursor to the Spanish-American War.

As myth has it, Remington before leaving sent a telegram to Hearst, saying, “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst’s supposedly stated:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

The anecdote of the Remington-Hearst exchange lives on, as I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.”

It lives on “even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message,” I wrote. “It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Not only that, I added, but Spanish control and censorship of the cable traffic in Havana “was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to go unnoticed and unremarked upon. A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war’ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter may be accessed here.

WJC

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Rare sighting: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Television on August 5, 2017 at 8:40 am

I noted the other day how unusual it is to find two media myths incorporated into the same article or essay. A media myth twofer, as it were.

An essay posted yesterday at the Daily Beast accomplishes a feat even more rare: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs.

February 28, 1968

The Beast’s essay recounts President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite‘s special report in 1968 about the Vietnam War and invokes the hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s mythical “secret plan” to end the conflict.

Specifically, the essay says “the iconic CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a week-long reporting trip to Vietnam and declared the war essentially unwinnable, upending months of false optimism from the administration. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,’ the president said.

“When Richard Nixon rode to the White House proclaiming a ‘secret plan to win the war in Vietnam’ any expected honeymoon with the press did not last long.”

Myth fairly drips from those unsourced claims.

Taking Nixon’s “secret plan” first: Simply put, it’s a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

Had Nixon, during his run for the presidency in 1968, proclaimed to have a “secret plan to win the war in Vietnam,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

They didn’t.

That much is clear from examining search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. daily newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period 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 before, during, and immediately aft Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign.)

Their silence about a “secret plan” signals it was not a plank of Nixon’s campaign.

Moreover, Nixon pointedly dismissed the suggestion he had a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

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

As for Cronkite, he did not exactly say the war “essentially unwinnable” following his reporting trip to what then was South Vietnam.

The anchorman said at the close of a special report on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” — a decidedly an unremarkable observation.

“Stalemate” had been circulating in the U.S. news media long before Cronkite’s on-air appraisal. In August 1967, for example, R.W. (Johnny) Apple of New York Times reported from Vietnam that the war “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple said in his dispatch, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

He also wrote:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

Apple’s downbeat analysis was published on the Times’ front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite hedged in his closing remarks on February 27, 1968. He “held open the possibility,” I write, “that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam” in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, a coordinated assault launched by the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies across South Vietnam at the end of January 1968.

Here’s what Cronkite said in his equivocal conclusion:

“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” (Emphasis added.)

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

Notably, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally (see photo nearby), and there is no certain evidence as to whether, or when, the president may have viewed the program on videotape.

As such, Johnson’s purported downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” — is suspect. Especially so because Johnson did not alter his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s report.

In fact, he doubled down on that policy, mounting an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart — if he even heard it.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president declared, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, Johnson stated:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke about Vietnam with even more vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to address the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department, Johnson declared:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days afterward, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25 — nearly a month after Cronkite’s special report — Johnson told an audience of trade unionists:

“Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. He remained, I write in Getting It Wrong, “openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” He was similarly adamant about Vietnam on the day Cronkite’s delivered his report.

As I note in Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is now available), Johnson “invoked Churchillian language” that day at a midday speech in Dallas, saying:

“I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

“I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further declared:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

Johnson’s speech in Dallas is seldom recalled in discussions about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” But it was covered the next day on the front pages of major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times also reported Johnson’s speech on its cover (see image above), beneath a bold, top-of-the-page headline that read:

“NO VIET RETREAT.”

As in all discussions about history, context matters. To embrace the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as accurate is to suspend recognition of context and to ignore what Johnson said about Vietnam before and after Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal “mired in stalemate” assessment.

WJC

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