W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

‘Perverse appeal of apocalyptic’ emerged in Gulf spill coverage

In Debunking, Media myths on August 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm

In Getting It Wrong, my new book dismantling prominent media-driven myths, I discuss a phenomenon I call “the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic.”

By that I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I invoke “the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic” in chapters devoted to the myth of the crack baby and the myth of superlative reporting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

About Katrina coverage, I write that the hurricane–which struck five years ago this month–seemed to unleash “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the apocalyptic reporting proved true.

The “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic” reemerged in the more recent coverage of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which President Barack Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.”

News coverage anticipated near-apocalyptic effects, that the BP oil spill could ruin the Gulf, spread across Florida’s beaches, and be propelled by the loop current up the East Coast, “all the way to Cape Hatteras off North Carolina” by July or August.

Hasn’t happened.

A marine scientist named Ivor van Heerden was quoted by Time magazine as saying:

“There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good—I think they lied about the size of the spill—but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.”

Van Heerden was further quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”

Time, in a revealing contrarian assessment that asked whether damage from the Gulf spill was exaggerated, offered four reasons why the environmental consequences have been less than dire.

First, the BP oil, unlike that from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, “is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient.”

Such assessments are not without challenges, of course. But the near-apocalyptic predictions of spring and early summer simply haven’t held up.

As USA Today noted in an editorial, the Gulf of Mexico “is an enormous and surprisingly resilient place. The spilled oil … would fill the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans about one-sixth full. If that sounds like a lot—and perhaps to some it doesn’t—consider that it would take about 554 million Superdomes to fill the Gulf of Mexico.”

Now that, the newspaper said, is “a strikingly different image from one emblazoned in people’s mind by the early reaction.”

True enough.

And the sometimes over-the-top coverage of the Gulf spill offers another reminder to journalists about resisting the impulse to indulge in the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic, to recognize that the truly apocalyptic–the “worst environmental disaster” of all time–arrives very rarely.




Ignoring the astonishing reporting lapses in Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths on August 15, 2010 at 9:09 am

It’s astonishing, and a bit dismaying, how readily the Jessica Lynch case is cited as an example as a hoax perpetuated by the Pentagon. And how readily the Washington Post‘s central role in promoting the case is overlooked and ignored.

Lynch was the waiflike, 19-year-old Army private whom the Washington Post, in its erroneous reporting, catapulted into sudden and undeserved international fame in April 2003, during the first days of the Gulf War.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, the Post published a sensational, front-page report on April 3, 2003, that  said Lynch had fought with Rambo-like ferocity in an ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Washington Post, April 3, 2003

The Post said Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers,” had herself been shot and stabbed, but had kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

The article quoted a U.S. official as saying, anonymously:

“‘She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’”

“It was an electrifying account,” I write, one picked up by news outlets across the United States and around the world.

Only it wasn’t true.

Lynch didn’t fire a shot in the ambush.

She was badly injured not from gunshots and stabbings but from the crash of the Humvee fleeing the attack.

In the years since, the narrative of the Lynch case has shifted. The Post‘s role in injecting the story into the public domain has been largely forgotten–even though the newspaper “never fully acknowledged or explained its extraordinary error about Jessica Lynch,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

Instead, the dominant narrative now blames the Pentagon for supposedly concocting a story about a heroic female soldier.

There’s scant evidence to support such claims, which reemerged the other day at the Huffington Post, in an interview with author Laura Browder.

The interview was to promote Browder’s book, When Janey Comes Marching Home. And in the interview, Browder declares:

“The Army’s first story about Lynch was that she tried to fight off her captors, then was taken prison[er] and needed to be rescued. Their version of events was pure fiction. And it embodied this stereotype of women in the military: the damsel in distress.”

Let’s see: The “pure fiction” part was that Lynch “tried to fight off her captors,” and that came from the Post, which cited as sources unidentified “U.S. officials.”

The Pentagon was not the source for the Post‘s erroneous account, one of the Post reporters on the story has said.

That reporter, Vernon Loeb, told the Fresh Air radio program in December 2003:

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports [about Lynch], but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb added:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Loeb on another occasion was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

While he did not identify the Post’s sources for its “fighting to the death” article about Lynch, Loeb characterized them as “U.S. officials” who were “really good intelligence sources” in Washington, where he was based at the time.

It is little-remembered these days, but the Post‘s stunning story about Lynch’s heroics began unraveling within hours after publication.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Lynch’s father told reporters on the day the Post‘s account appeared that doctors at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, said Jessica Lynch had suffered neither gunshot nor knife wounds.

If the military were complicit in fabricating the Lynch hero-warrior saga, it defies logic to believe that it would permit its doctors at Landstuhl to impugn that narrative just as it had begun circulating around the world.



Country turned against Vietnam before ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 12, 2010 at 6:33 am

Politico posted an item yesterday asserting that President Barack Obama “has lost the most trusted man in the Hispanic media”–the Univision anchorman, Jorge Ramos.

Ramos and Obama, in chummier times

Ramos, Politico said, “has been called the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language media, an unparalleled nationwide voice for Hispanics. And just like the famed CBS newsman’s commentary helped turn the country against the Vietnam War, Ramos may be on the leading edge of a movement within the Hispanic media to challenge the president on immigration—a shift that some observers believe is contributing to Obama’s eroding poll numbers among Latino voters.”

There’s no doubt Obama’s poll numbers are sliding. But the Cronkite analogy is in error. And misleading.

Cronkite’s commentary–an on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate”–did little to “turn the country against the Vietnam War.”

That’s because public opinion had been souring on Vietnam for months before Cronkite’s commentary aired on February 27, 1968.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, the Gallup Organization reported in October 1967 that a plurality of Americans (47 percent to 44 percent) said deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.

A roughly similar response was reported in early February 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

Anecdotally, journalists also detected a softening in support for the war.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 “that the ‘summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters—along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials—appeared to be changing their views about the war.'”

More recently, Greg Mitchell, then editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in 2005: “Those who claim that [the Cronkite program] created a seismic shift on the war overlook the fact that there was much opposition to the conflict already.”

By late February 1968, then, “Cronkite’s ‘mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary,” I note in Getting It Wrong. I cite Mark Kurlansky’s year-study of the 1968 which said that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, just four days before Cronkite’s assessment, the Wall Street Journal declared in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

So reservations and pessimism were abundant and growing by the time of Cronkite’s commentary (which nowadays is often referred to as the “Cronkite Moment”).

As Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in a column soon after the purported “Cronkite Moment,” the anchorman’s assessment about America’s predicament in Vietnam “did not contain striking revelations.”



On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 11, 2010 at 11:49 am

Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate and Washington Post fame, offered a thoughtful observation recently about investigative reporting and the notion that its best days were long ago.

Bernstein said an interview “there’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of ‘investigative journalism’ that never really existed.”

That “golden age” sometimes is associated with the post-Watergate era, when investigative reporting, and teams of investigative reporters, flourished at American newspapers.

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media writer, indulged in this fallacy a few years ago, writing about a “golden glow” that Bernstein and his Watergate reporting colleague Bob Woodward supposedly cast across the news business in the mid-1970s.

“Newspapermen became cinematic heroes,” Kurtz wrote, adding that they were “determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders.

“But the media’s reputation since then has sunk like a stone….”

The notion there was a “golden age” of journalism or of investigative reporting is as alluring as it is misleading. And the “golden age fallacy” contributes to the tenacity of media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I address the fallacy in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate as well as nine other prominent tales about the news media.

I note in Getting It Wrong how  “media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of Murrow or Cronkite, or Woodward and Bernstein.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the heroic contributions of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite often have been overstated.

The “golden age fallacy” in the case of Woodward and Bernstein certainly was deepened and solidified with the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, their 1974 book about reporting on Watergate. The roles of Woodward and Bernstein were played, respectively, by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

“Such is the power of movies,” Frank Rich of the New York Times once noted, that the first image ‘Watergate’ brings to mind [more than] three decades later is not Richard Nixon so much as the golden duo of Redford and Hoffman riding to the nation’s rescue in ‘All the President’s Men.'”

True enough.

And while it is not specifically discussed in Getting It Wrong, another fallacy helps account for the appeal and tenacity of media-driven myths. And that is what the venerable historian David Hackett Fischer has called the “telescopic fallacy”–the urge to make a long story short.

“This form of error is common today,” Fischer wrote 40 years ago in his influential work, Historians’ Fallacies, “and likely to become still more so, as historians become increasingly interested in putting big questions to little tests.”

The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is, in a way, a representation of the “telescopic fallacy.” That interpretation compresses the details and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal into a readily understood, digestible package that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

However, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”



The wide appeal of the bra-burning meme

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on August 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

I’ve written from time to time about the striking international appeal of media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The Times newspaper in South Africa  underscored that appeal the other day in an interesting and amusing commentary titled, “From A to double D: a history of the bra.”

The commentary included a reference to bra-burning, stating:

At the 'Freedom Trash Can,' 1968

“One of the abiding symbols of the feminist movement is the burning of the bra. As a representation of liberation from the oppression of patriarchy, the alleged incineration of the intimate was meant to signify the death of male domination over women’s self-image. …

“In any case, most sources say the bra-burning never really happened.”

My research indicates otherwise, however.

As the commentary noted–and as I discuss in my new book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong–the bra-burning trope stems from the women’s liberation protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant at Atlantic City.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The demonstrators denounced the pageant as a ‘degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie symbol’ that placed ‘women on a pedestal/auction block to compete for male approval,’ and promoted a ‘Madonna Whore image of womanhood.'”

They carried placards declaring: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” and “Miss America Is a Big Falsie.”A centerpiece of the protest was a burn barrel, which the demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can.” Into the “Freedom Trash Can” they tossed items and articles they said repressed and demeaned women–bras, girdles, high-heels, as well as copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines.

The protest’s organizers have long insisted that nothing was set ablaze that day at Atlantic City. The lead organizer, Robin Morgan, has asserted, for example:

“There were no bras burned. That’s a media myth.”

But in researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked, contemporaneous account in the Press of Atlantic City that said “bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can.’”

The Press article was published September 8, 1968, a day after the protest, and appeared beneath the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Its author, a veteran newspaperman named John Boucher, died in 1973.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Boucher’s article “did not elaborate about the fire and the articles burning in the Freedom Trash Can, nor did it suggest the fire was all that important. Rather, the article conveyed a sense of astonishment that an event such as the women’s liberation protest could take place near the venue of the pageant.”

Separately, I tracked down and interviewed Jon Katz, who also had covered the Miss America protest for the Press.

Katz said in interviews with me that he recalled that bras and other items were set afire during the demonstration and that they burned briefly.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire. I am quite certain of this,” Katz said.

The contemporaneous Press article and Katz’s recollections represent, I write, “evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City.”

At very least, the accounts offer fresh dimension to the widely appealing legend of bra-burning.



<!–[if !mso]> They carried placards declaring: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie,”[i] and “Miss America Goes Down.”

[i] Cited in Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 96.

Nixon quits–36 years on

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 9, 2010 at 8:40 am

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 36 years ago today–the only American president to have done so.

Nixon leaves, August 9, 1974

He left the White House on August 9, 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction. By then it had become clear that Nixon had ordered senior aides to cover up the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic national headquarters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, forcing Nixon’s resignation “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But in the years since 1974, the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal has become the heroic-journalist meme, the widely held notion that the investigative reporting of two young, tireless reporters for the Washington Post led the way in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Such claims appear often in the news media, both in the United States and abroad.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Indeed, 19 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972 went to jail for crimes in the Watergate scandal–a revealing marker of the scandal’s reach and complexity.

I write in Getting It Wrong that how “the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

So why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate become the dominant popular narrative?

Three related reasons offer themselves, I write in Getting It Wrong.

They are:

  • the well-timed release in June 1974 of All the President’s Men, the best-selling book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting
  • the cinematic version of the book, which was released in 1976 to very favorable reviews, and
  • the decades-long guessing game about the identity of the helpful and anonymous high-level source, code-named “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward surreptitiously met while investigating Watergate. The secret source was introduced in All the President’s Men and immediately prompted considerable speculation as to who he was.

“These factors,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “combined to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness, and project the notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news media.”

This is especially so in the movie All the President’s Men, which, I write, “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

The movie also suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.

However, to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is, I note, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office”–the special Watergate prosecutors, the federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.

Even then, I argue, Nixon probably would have survived in office and served out his term–albeit as a wounded and weakened chief executive–had it not been for the existence of the audiotapes he made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court in late July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive element of the Watergate scandal—the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office.

And the tapes were decisive in ultimately forcing his resignation.



‘Getting It Wrong’ plays the Tattered Cover

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Denver’s well-known Tattered Cover bookstore was the venue last night for a fine discussion about Getting It Wrong, my new book that addresses and debunks 10 prominent, media-driven myths.

At the Tattered Cover

About 60 people attended the book event, at least a few of whom had learned about it in listening to my in-studio interview Friday morning with David Sirota on KKZN, AM 760, Denver’s progressive talk radio station.

At the Tattered Cover, one of the country’s top independent bookstores, I discussed the myths of Watergate, of the “Cronkite Moment,” of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, and of the famous War of Worlds radio dramatization of  1938.

Those stories, I noted, are “all well-known—they are often taught in schools, colleges, and universities. They’re all delicious tales about the power of the news media to bring about change, for good or ill.”

And I proceeded to explain why all of them are media-driven myths–dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual. “They can be thought of as the junk food of journalism,” I noted. “Tasty and alluring, perhaps, but in the end, not terribly healthy or nutritious.”

The surprise of the evening came in discussing the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” in which President Lyndon Johnson supposedly realized U.S. policy in Vietnam was doomed, given the on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite that the war was “mired in stalemate.”

Among the reasons the “Cronkite Moment” is a media myth, I said, is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired on February 27,  1968.

Johnson was not in Washington; he was not in front of a television set. He was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, who that day turned 51.

“At about the time Cronkite was intoning his ‘mired in stalemate’ commentary,” I said at the Tattered Cover, “Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, saying: ‘Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.'”

And with that, the audience burst into laughter.

Never before had the line prompted so many laughs. For some reason last night, it did.

The audience was attentive and inquisitive. Questions were raised about the media myth associated with coverage of the Jessica Lynch case and of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast five years ago this month.

Another question was about the cinema’s capacity to promote and propel media myths. It was a good observation, one that I wished I had emphasized earlier in my talk.

A telling example of the how cinematic can solidify media myths is to be found in the 1976 film All the President’s Men, an adaptation of the book by the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about their Watergate reporting.

As I write in Getting It Wrong the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

I noted in my talk that Bernstein and Woodward did not uncover the defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the burglars arrested at Democratic national headquarters in June 1972, the signal crime of Watergate. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, which proved decisive in forcing the president’s resignation.

The Tattered Cover was a wonderful venue–comfortable, inviting. Its staff is exceptionally courteous and professional, and the hour-and-a-half went by extremely quickly.



Photo credit: Ann-Marie C. Regan

‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds, Watergate myth on August 4, 2010 at 8:47 am

My interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN’s Q&A program aired Sunday evening and early Monday–and the show looked better on the tube than I thought it would.

The interview was taped two weeks earlier and, afterward, I didn’t feel that it had gone all that well.

But I was mistaken.

Lamb, who is a real gentleman and is supported by a courteous and highly professional staff, led me through a brief discussion of each of the 10 prominent tales about American journalism which I address and debunk in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

We subsequently zeroed in on the myths of Watergate, Murrow-McCarthy, the Cronkite Moment, and the War of the Worlds radio dramatization.

Toward the end of the interview, which lasted nearly an hour, Lamb asked what might be next in my research. Maybe a sequel to Getting It Wrong, I replied, adding that universe of media-driven myths isn’t confined to the 10 addressed in the book.


Lamb, who had read Getting It Wrong closely, surprised me a few times with his questions, including his query about this passage in the book’s closing chapter:

“American journalism loves giving prizes—to its own.”

That passage (which is true, of course) was a way of setting up the conclusion to the chapter discussing the highly exaggerated, over-the-top news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast five years ago this month.

Among the many awards given for reporting about the hurricane was the Mongerson Prize for Investigative Reporting on the News. That award, I note in Getting It Wrong, “was initiated in 2001 to recognize journalists who set the record straight on inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading news stories. The Mongerson Prize was administered by Northwestern University and had a five-year run. It never attracted much attention, certainly nothing approaching the prominence of the Murrow Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes.”

The Mongerson Prize was given for the last time in 2006 and the winners that year were Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. They were honored for the report they prepared in late September 2005 that examined exaggerated accounts of mayhem in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Four weeks after the storm,” Thevenot and Russell wrote, “few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of murdered bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines assert that, while anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.”

In announcing the winners, Northwestern said Thevenot and Russell had “exposed the dangers of pack journalism in a difficult reporting environment.”

A telling point.

I write in Getting It Wrong that Katrina’s aftermath “was no high, heroic moment in American journalism. The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said 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: No shots fired at rescue helicopters, no child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no sharks.”

Thevenot’s candor about the Katrina coverage was refreshing, in measure because he acknowledged that he, too, had gotten it wrong in some of his reporting.

In an article for American Journalism Review titled “Mythmaking in New Orleans,” Thevenot wrote that “in the worst of the storm reporting, tales of violence, rapes, murders and other mayhem were simply stated as fact with no attribution at all.

“I am among those who committed this sin,” he conceded, referring to his description of the Convention Center in New Orleans, where many people dispossessed by the hurricane took refuge, as “a nightly scene of murders, rapes and regular stampedes.”



None of those reports was verified or substantiated: No shots fired at rescue helicopters,[i] no child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no sharks

[i] See A Failure of Initiative, 169.

Long reach of the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking on August 1, 2010 at 8:33 am

The long reach and international appeal of the mythical Cronkite Moment–when in 1968 the words of Walter Cronkite supposedly altered U.S. war policy in Vietnam–is reconfirmed by the anecdote’s appearance today in a Sri Lankan newspaper.

Johnson in Austin

I’ve periodically noted at MediaMythAlert how media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the American news media, often find application in contexts abroad. The Sri Lanka newspaper, the Nation, invoked the “Cronkite Moment” in a commentary about last week’s WikiLeaks disclosure of military documents about the war in Afghanistan.

The commentary stated:

“When anchor and newsman Walter Cronkite, called the most trusted man in America, reported from Vietnam in 1967 [sic] that the war cannot be won, JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’

“The WikiLeaks revelations may not have a similar effect on the war in Afghanistan,” the commentary adds, “but it would surely make the task of victory, or even honourable withdrawal, even more difficult for the United States and its coalition partners.”

The Nation commentary certainly is on target about the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosure: Its effect has been notably modest.

But, then, so was the impact of the “Cronkite Moment,” when the CBS anchorman asserted in a special report broadcast February 27, 1968, that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking media-driven myths, Cronkite’s assessment about the U.S. predicament in Vietnam was scarcely original or exceptional in early 1968.

The New York Times’ television critic, Jack Gould, noted in a review of the Cronkite’s program that the anchorman’s assessment “did not contain striking revelations” but served instead “to underscore afresh the limitless difficulties lying ahead and the mounting problems attending United States involvement.”

The power of the “Cronkite Moment” flows from its purported effect on Lyndon Johnson who, as the Nation commentary says, supposedly watched the program and as it ended uttered something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

A more common version has Johnson saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But the accounts of what the president said vary markedly.

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

Moreover, I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Even if he later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it was no epiphany for Johnson. Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

Johnson’s change of heart on Vietnam, I note in Getting It Wrong, “came about through a complex process in which Cronkite’s views counted for little. Among the forces and factors that influenced Johnson’s thinking … was the counsel of an influential and informal coterie of outside advisers known as the ‘Wise Men.’

“They included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former National security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson; George Ball, a former under-secretary of state; Douglas Dillon, a former treasury secretary; General Omar Bradley, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Abe Fortas, a U.S. Supreme Court justice and friend of Johnson.

“The ‘Wise Men’ had met in November 1967, and expressed their near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.”

Largely, though not unanimously, the “Wise Men,” expressed opposition to escalating the war in Vietnam. And Johnson appeared shaken by the advice.

The counsel of the Wise Men represented a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek“peace in Vietnam through negotiations. And in a speech March 31, 1968, the president announced a limited halt to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam as an inducement to the communist government in Hanoi to enter peace talks.

He also announced then he would not seek reelection to the presidency.



%d bloggers like this: