W. Joseph Campbell

‘Most famous words in American journalism’? Probably not

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Media myths, New York Sun on December 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

In a blog post today, Followthemedia.com says the “Yes, Virginia” passage in the  1897 editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” are “the most famous words in American journalism.”

And it takes Macy’s to task for its Christmas season “Believe” campaign, a sappy promotion that capitalizes on the editorial and its inspiration, Viriginia O’Hanlon. She was the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the New York Sun asking about the exisitence of Santa Claus prompted the famous editorial.

Followthemedia.com says:

“We know this a is a tough retail year but Is nothing sacred – last week Macy’s, the giant US department store chain, enticed women named Virginia into its stores by offering $10 gift certificate as part of its ‘Believe’ campaign based on the most famous words in US journalism, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.'”

It adds:

“The company hasn’t said how many certificates it gave out, but it estimated there are more than 500,000 Virginias in the US, and it did try to expand the base by saying first, middle or last names would all be ok. And it really was all in a good cause – to bring people into the store to deliver letters to Santa Claus and for each letter delivered the store donated $1 to the Make-A-Wish charity.

“Of course it would never  enter the minds of store executives that once having enticed people into the store they might linger somewhat and actually do some shopping there? Ah, we just have to stop being so cynical at this time of good cheer!”

Cynicism aside, followthemedia.com raises an interesting point about “the most famous words in American journalism.” Are those words really, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?”

I’m not so sure.

The “Yes, Virginia,” passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. “Yes, Virginia,” long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.

Media-driven myths have propelled other phrases into what is arguably greater renown in American journalism.

Getting It Wrong: Forthcoming 2010

The quote attributed to William Randolph Hearst — “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” — may even be more famous than “Yes, Virgina?” As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the Hearst quote is almost certainly is apocryphal. But it lives on as a comment too rich and too delicious not to be true.

The same goes for the comment often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, after watching a CBS News special in late February 1968 in which anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was mired in stalemate.

Johnson, supposedly, had the sudden revelation that the war was now hopeless and turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or words to that effect. Words that may be more famous and more directly tied to journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

But the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is exaggerated, too, as Getting It Wrong discusses. Johnson did not see the program when it aired. And in the days and weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson continued hawkish calls for national sacrifice to win the war in Vietnam.

Even Cronkite, for many years, said he didn’t believe his comments had much effect on Johnson. Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the supposed power of the program on Vietnam.

He told Esquire magazine in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

But it didn’t, really.

WJC

  1. […] inconsequential nature of the purported “Cronkite Moment, which nonetheless remains among the hardiest myths of American […]

  2. […] ‘Most famous words in American journalism’? Probably not […]

  3. […] I noted in a blog post nearly a year ago: “The ‘Yes, Virginia,’ passage is invoked so […]

  4. […] The editorial is the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, “Is There A Santa Claus?“ […]

  5. […] Shortly after her birthday in July 1897, young Virginia wrote to the New York Sun, posing the timeless question: “Is there a Santa Claus?“ […]

  6. […] editorial that became a classic was published in the old New York Sun, in response to Virginia’s […]

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