W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2011

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 31, 2011 at 4:45 am

Reviewing the year in media-mythbusting reveals a number of memorable posts. Here are the Media Myth Alert five top writeups of 2011, with a roster of other mythbusting posts of note:

Krakauer retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11): This post revealed author Jon Krakauer’s quiet retreat from claims in a 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her supposed battlefield heroics in the Iraq War in 2003.

The claims in Krakauer’s book were unattributed — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory. It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve noted that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the Lynch story has allowed for the emergence not only of false allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a false narrative that the military concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative  also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit.

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18): A handsome historical marker went up in August outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Bob Woodward of the Post conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his stealthy Watergate source, “Deep Throat.”

The marker, I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which just isn’t so.

Such evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did, in August 1974.

Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) didn’t share it with Woodward.

I noted in my post about the marker that All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting, says Woodward’s conversations with “Deep Throat” were intended “only to confirm information that had been gathered elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19): I ascertained in this post that an image of a bra-burning protest in Toronto in 1979 was no hoax, that the photograph was authentic.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper.

I had doubts about the photo’s authenticity — given the periodic claims that no bras ever were burned at a feminist protest. The Toronto image, I suspected, might have been unethically altered.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said it “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-savvy and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University contained a quotation attributed to Murrow that’s only half-true.

Murrow

The quote reads:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

As I’ve reported previously, the first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow, in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

The second part of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In February, I found that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s provenance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the 'loyal opposition' quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon (posted March 12): Joe Biden, the hapless U.S. vice president, repeated the dominant but misleading narrative about the Watergate scandal in March by telling an audience in Moscow that the Washington Post had “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The gaffe-prone Biden told his audience:

“In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

It’s a version of scandal that few serious historians accept. Not even the Washington Post buys into such a myth-encrusted interpretation.

Indeed, principals at the Post from time to time have sought to distance the newspaper from that misleading assessment.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, said in 1997, at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the scandal:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

More recently, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Such comments are not the expressions of false modesty. Instead, they represent a more accurate reading of the history of Watergate than Biden offered up in Moscow.

Even so, in the run-up to the scandal’s 40th anniversary in 2012, the Watergate myth — the heroic-journalist trope — is sure to emerge often and insistently.

But the Post and its reporting of Watergate assuredly did not bring down Nixon, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my latest book which was published in 2010.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Other memorable posts of 2011:

The debunking of the year, 2011

In Debunking, Media myths on December 29, 2011 at 5:15 am

Freeman (Middle East Policy Council)

The nod for the most notable debunking of 2011 goes to retired U.S. diplomat Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr. for puncturing the popular tale about Zhou Enlai’s remark in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be of the French Revolution.

Freeman told a panel in Washington, D.C., in June that the Chinese premier was referring to the turmoil in France in 1968, not the years of revolutionary upheaval that began in 1789.

His remarks debunking the Zhou misinterpretation were first published by London’s Financial Times.

Zhou’s “too early” comment was made during President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972. Freeman, then 28-years-old, was the president’s interpreter on the trip and heard Zhou’s remark.

Freeman said during the panel discussion in June that the misinterpretation “was too delightful to set straight” at the time.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the conversation that Zhou’s comment was a reference to the turmoil of 1968.

Freeman described Zhou’s remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

(In an oral history interview in 1995, Freeman said Zhou possessed  “enormous grace and charm.”)

The conventional interpretation of Zhou’s “too early” comment lives on because it suggests that Chinese leaders are inclined to a long and patient view of history.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Indeed, it did. The misinterpretation persists — and even has been invoked when it’s acknowledged as apocryphal.

The puncturing of the Zhou misinterpretation rates as the “debunking of the year” not only because of its significance but because of its relevance to busting media myths, those delicious but dubious tales that masquerade as factual and offer distorted views of historical events.

In designating Freeman’s disclosure as the “debunking of the year,” I’m reminded of high-minded observations offered in 1998 by Max Frankel, formerly the executive editor of the New York Times.

In observations that go to the heart of the importance of busting media myths, Frankel wrote:

“What’s wrong with a little mendacity — so goes the theory — to give a tale velocity? It is unforgivably wrong to give fanciful stories the luster of fact, or to use facts to let fictions parade as truths.”

Puncturing the Zhou misinterpretation seems in keeping with that objective. The debunking, moreover, offers us a more accurate, more telling, and more realistic view of history and historical figures.

Media Myth Alert‘s first “debunking of the year” went in 2009 to the Spanish researchers who challenged the authenticity of Robert Capa’s iconic “Falling Soldier” image, taken in September 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Capa’s photograph purports to show a charging loyalist militiaman at the instant he is fatally death.

No “debunking of the year” was designated in 2010, the year of publication of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which punctures 10 prominent media-driven myths.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

Apocryphal, but still quotable

In Debunking, Media myths, Quotes on December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am

Apocryphal, but still quotable.

That’s the takeaway from a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation. The commentary invoked Zhou Enlai’s misinterpreted comment about the upshot of the French Revolution.

Zhou supposedly said in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be. But Zhou was speaking about the political turmoil in France in 1968, not the years-long upheaval that began in 1789.

The Nation’s commentary, “The Soviet Union’s Afterlife,” tried to have it both ways with Zhou’s remark; the opening paragraph asserted:

“Asked to evaluate the French Revolution nearly 200 years later, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was famously reported to have replied, ‘Too early to say.’ Though apocryphal, the long perspective attributed to Zhou is better informed than the certitudes of American commentators about the causes and consequences of the end of the Soviet Union only twenty years ago.”

If it’s apocryphal, then why invoke it? To do is to distort and confuse and even mislead.

The temptation to invoke telling quotes of dubious derivation can be too powerful to avoid. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Craig Silverman, author of Regret The Error and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, has likened dubious quotes to “little gems that supposedly tell a story in just a few words. They lodge themselves in our culture and consciousness.”

So it is with Zhou’s remark, which was made during President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972.

The conventional interpretation — which the Nation commentary invoked — is that the comment stands as evidence of the sage and far-sighted ways of Chinese leaders.

But we know from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W. (Chas) Freeman, that Zhou in his talks with Nixon in 1972 was taking a decidedly shorter and more immediate view of turmoil in France.

Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter during the trip and was present when Zhou made the “too early” comment.

Freeman has said that Zhou’s remark came during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The revolutions cited, Freeman said, included the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was clear from the context that in saying it was “too early to say,” Zhou was speaking about the events in France in May 1968.

How Zhou’s “too early” remark came to be so badly misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” he said, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

First to report Freeman’s debunking was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert writing for London’s Financial Times.

As I’ve pointed out, the appeal and tenacity of Zhou’s misinterpreted remark is reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Hearst’s reputed vow  supposedly was made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, 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 Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

“Like many media-driven myths,” I further note, the purported Hearstian vow “is succinct, savory, and easily remembered.

“It is almost too good not to be true.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

Virginia (of ‘Yes, Virginia’) tells of her famous letter, 97 years ago

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers on December 23, 2011 at 4:55 am

Young Virginia O'Hanlon

In a newspaper database of the Library of Congress, I found a long-overlooked interview conducted 97 years ago with Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote the letter that prompted the most famous newspaper editorial in American journalism.

O’Hanlon said in the interview on Christmas Eve 1914 that she had sent her letter despite her father’s admonition:

“A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl.”

The editorial that became a classic was published in the old New York Sun, in response to Virginia’s imploring: “Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in its timeless reply reassured young Virginia as well as generations of children who have read the editorial, which memorably declares:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial’s closing passages were similarly reassuring in saying:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

In the interview with the Sun 97 years ago, Virginia O’Hanlon discussed her motivation in writing to the newspaper and her proud reaction when the essay was published — comments that offer revealing insight about the back story to the famous editorial.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she said in the interview.

Virginia O’Hanlon was then 25-years-old and had been married 18 months to Edwin Malcolm Douglas. Her only child, Laura Virginia Douglas, was nine months old.

O’Hanlon said in the 1914 interview that she decided to write to the Sun in part because of its importance in her family’s household.

She said her father, Philip, “was always talking about the Sun and how you could always find what you wanted in the Sun, and how mother, who loved whist, wrote letters to the whist editor.”

O’Hanlon recalled telling her father: “I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus,” whose existence her schoolmates had scoffed at.

She added: “If the Sun says there isn’t any [Santa Claus] I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me.

“Father laughed,” she recalled, quoting him as saying:

“The Sun is too busy writing about Presidents and Governors and important people, Virgina. … A newspaper has no time to waste on a little girl. Write if you want to, but don’t be disappointed if you never hear from your letter.”

“Well,” Virginia said, “I sat down and wrote a short letter, trying to say just what was in my heart. Day after day I looked for a letter in reply. I never for a minute thought the Sun would print a long editorial mentioning me by name and using my whole letter.

“Father teased me now and then,” she said, “but I kept hoping and finally” her letter was answered, in an essay published September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns of editorials.

(O’Hanlon indicated on another occasion that she wrote her letter shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897. “My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,” she told an audience of Connecticut high school students in 1959. “I think I was a brat.”)

Word that the newspaper had published an editorial to answer her letter prompted Philip O’Hanlon to rush from their home on West 95th Street in Manhattan to buy a stack of that day’s Sun.

“Father hustled out and came back loaded down like a pack mule,” she said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.

“And me? It spoiled me for a while until I was big enough to understand that I, Virginia O’Hanlon, didn’t count for much in the editorial but that the important thing was the beautiful thoughts expressed by Mr. Church and the charming English in which he put his philosophy.”

She was referring to Francis P. Church, a veteran journalist who wrote the essay in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling it would become a classic.

His authorship was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death in April 1906.

The Sun’s editorial, O’Hanlon said in the interview, “was a wonderful thing in my life, and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her A B C’s, it will be the first thing she will read.”

The comment anticipated the commitment of her descendants who, over the years, have embraced the obligations associated with the much-remembered and often-reprinted editorial.

O’Hanlon’s grandchildren, notably, have become what the New York Times last year described as “ambassadors of the Christmas spirit, crossing the country to appear at events honoring her, and reading the letter and the response to children in schools and to their own children at home.”

Virginia O’Hanlon was 81 when she died in 1971. The Times reported her death on its front page.

But by then, though, the Sun had ceased to exist as an independent publication. It was merged with another New York newspaper, the World-Telegram, in January 1950.

WJC

Recent and related:

‘Salon’ offers up repudiated Lynch-source claim

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Washington Post on December 21, 2011 at 8:47 am

The fallout is unending from the botched Washington Post story about Jessica Lynch’s heroics early in the Iraq War.

The online news and commentary site Salon offered up the other day the discredited claim that the hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch was the work of a former White House communications official named Jim Wilkinson.

Salon asserted, without attribution, that Wilkinson was known “for inventing the false story of Jessica Lynch,” a 19-year-old Army supply clerk whom the Post erroneously said had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit in Iraq in March 2003.

The Post’s electrifying report was published April 3, 2003, and picked up by news organizations around the world. The story soon proved utterly wrong in its most important details, notably that Lynch had never fired a shot in the attack.

Salon’s claim about Wilkinson was an echo of a since-repudiated assertion in Jon Krakauer’s 2009 book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

Krakauer claimed — without attribution — that Wilkinson was the Post’s source on the Lynch story. Krakauer asserted that Wilkinson was  “a master propagandist” and “the guy who deserved top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

Wilkinson — who at the time was director of strategic communications for the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Tommy Franks — vigorously denied he was the newspaper’s source.

The Post has never identified the sources who led it so badly awry on the Lynch report.

Wilkinson said he discussed corrections with Krakauer late last year. The unflattering claims about him were removed in a recent paperback printing of Where Men Win Glory, which included a footnote, saying:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

Salon’s claim about Wilkinson was included in a commentary posted Monday, that scoffed at speculation that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might seek the Republican nomination for vice president.

Asked by email about Salon’s claim about his “inventing” the Lynch hero-warrior tale, Wilkinson replied:

“Craziness! Wish they would leave me alone.”

The author of the Salon commentary, Alex Pareene, said by email yesterday that he had relied on Krakauer’s book in offering the claim about Wilkinson.

Pareene also said:

“I was unaware of Krakauer’s correction, and it’s worth an explanatory note.”

He later appended a footnote to his commentary, citing Krakauer’s rollback and stating that Wilkinson “apparently isn’t responsible for falsifying [Lynch's] actions or leaking that false story to the press.”

So now, how about some transparency from the Washington Post?

By disclosing the identities of its sources on the Lynch case, the Post would help put an end to the erroneous speculation of the kind that has injured Wilkinson’s reputation.

Disclosing its sources also would puncture the false narrative that the U.S. military concocted the story about Lynch’s heroics in a cynical and devious attempt to bolster popular support in the United States for the war in Iraq.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, one of the Post reporters on the botched report about Lynch has said flatly, “Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

What’s more, public opinion polls in the early days of the Iraq War showed “there was little reason for morale-boosting among Americans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“It may be little-recalled now, but the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was widely supported by the American public. Polling data from March and April 2003, the opening days and weeks of the war, show an overwhelming percentage of Americans supported the conflict and believed the war effort, overall, was going well.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Lynch blames ‘military, media’ for bogus hero story, ignores WaPo

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on December 19, 2011 at 8:09 am

Jessica Lynch has blamed the “military and the media” for the bogus story about her battlefield heroics in the opening days of the Iraq War — but ignored mentioning the Washington Post, which was solely responsible for circulating the erroneous if electrifying tale.

Lynch’s remarks were made in an as-told-to article posted yesterday at the Daily Beast, an online site affiliated with Newsweek magazine.

“Though I didn’t know it at the time,” she said, “the military and the media labeled me a hero. They said I’d gone down guns blazing, like Rambo, when really my rifle had jammed and I hadn’t shot a soul.”

She was referring to the hero-warrior tale the Washington Post thrust into the public domain in a sensational, front-page report on April 3, 2003.

The Post said Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, at Nasariyah in March 2003.

The botched hero-warrior story

The Post referred anonymously to “U.S. officials” in reporting that Lynch shot several enemy soldiers” in the ambush and “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the fighting.

The hero-warrior tale — published beneath the headline “‘She was fighting to the death’” — made terrific copy, and news organizations around the world picked up the story.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Lynch became the best-known Army private of the war.

But the story soon proved thoroughly in error. Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush. She was neither shot nor stabbed. She suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it attempted to flee the ambush.

The bogus story clearly wasn’t the work of multiple news organizations. It was the Post’s story, exclusively.

The Post has never fully explained how it got the dramatic story about Lynch so utterly wrong; nor has the newspaper disclosed the identity of its sources on the bogus story.

Its silence about the sources has allowed a false narrative to fester and spread — namely, that the military concocted the story about Lynch’s heroics and fed it to the Post in a cynical attempt to bolster popular support in the United States for the war in Iraq.

That version, though quite vague, has proved very popular, as suggested by Lynch’s comments posted at the Daily Beast.

But we know from one of the Post reporters on the botched hero-warrior story that the Pentagon wasn’t the newspaper’s source.

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, told NPR in mid-December 2003: “Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said in the NPR interview that military officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.

“I’ve never believed that at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

Loeb said that “we basically told our readers that day what basically the U.S. intelligence community was telling senior members of the U.S. government. It just kind of goes back to the old adage, you know, that initial reports from the battlefield are almost always wrong.”

It bears repeating: Responsibility for spreading the erroneous account lies neither with the “military” nor with the “media”; it rests solely with the Washington Post.

WJC

Recent and related:

ABC News invokes false narrative of Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on December 17, 2011 at 10:22 am

ABC News yesterday invoked the false derivation of the hero-warrior myth about Jessica Lynch, declaring that “the U.S. government portrayed her as a fearless heroine who had gone down fighting” early in the Iraq War.

Not so. The Washington Post did that.

The Post — alone — placed the bogus tale about Lynch and her battlefield derring-do into the public domain in April 2003, in an electrifying, front-page article that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

The “U.S. government” — specifically, the Pentagon — was loath to embrace the tale about Lynch and her heroics.

Indeed, as one of the Post reporters on the botched report about Lynch later said:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

The reporter, Vernon Loeb, also said in an interview on NPR: “They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb and another Post reporter, Susan Schmidt, had reported on April 3, 2003, that Lynch fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, on March 23, 2003. Neither Loeb nor Schmidt was with Lynch’s unit; no journalist was.

Loeb and Schmidt wrote that Lynch “shot several enemy soldiers” and  “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

Loeb and Schmidt quoted a source, to whom they referred as a “U.S. official,” as saying:

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

Though dramatic, and even cinematic, the Post report was utterly wrong.

Lynch had not fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon jammed. Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed; she suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to escape the ambush.

The Post has never fully explained how it botched the hero-warrior story about Lynch. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources that led it so badly awry on the Lynch story.

The murkiness of the newspaper’s sourcing has not only encouraged the rise of the false narrative, which ABC News cited in asserting, without attribution, that the “U.S. government portrayed” Lynch as a hero.

The Post’s obscure sourcing also has given rise to false allegations. The author Jon Krakauer, for example, wrongly accused Jim Wilkinson, a communications official in the administration of President George Bush, of having “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the Lynch hero-warrior tale.

Krakauer called Wilkinson a “master propagandist” who “deserves top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

Krakauer has since quietly rescinded those allegations, which he had included in his 2009 book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.

Another upshot of the false narrative is that it has obscured wide recognition of a real hero at Nasiriyah, a sergeant in Lynch’s unit named Donald Walters.

Sgt. Walters

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Walters’ battlefield heroics were likely misattributed to Lynch, owing to mistranslation of Iraqi radio transmissions from the battlefield.

“During the ambush in Nasiriyah,” I write, “… Walters either stayed behind, or was left behind, to lay down covering fire as his fellow soldiers tried to make their escape. Walters fought his attackers in a fashion that the Post attributed to Lynch.”

I point out that the most detailed account of Walters’ bravery appears in Richard Lowry’s fine study of the fighting at Nasiriyah, Marines in the Garden of Eden.

Lowry wrote that Walters killed “several Iraqis before he was surrounded and captured” by Iraqi irregulars, the Fedayeen, and executed.

“We will never really know the details of Walters’ horrible ordeal,” Lowry wrote. “We do know that he risked his life to save his comrades and was separated from the rest of the convoy, deep in enemy territory.

“We know that he fought until he could no longer resist.”

The Post, though, has shown scant interest in Walters’ heroism.

A database search of Post articles published since April 2003 revealed just four stories in which Walters was mentioned. None of those articles discussed in any detail his bravery at Nasiriyah.

WJC

Recent and related:

WaPo still dodging responsibility in Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Washington Post on December 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Lynch in 2003

The Washington Post – the newspaper that brought the world the bogus hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War — placed at its Web site today a wire service report about Lynch’s completing an education degree at the University of West Virginia at Parkersburg.

The 900-word report made no mention about the Post’s singular role in pressing the hero-warrior tale into the public domain but instead invoked the false narrative that the U.S. military made up the account about Lynch’s battlefield heroics to bolster support at home for the war.

“To make her seem more heroic and rally public support for the war,” said the report by the Associated Press, which the Post placed online, “the military claimed she’d gone down firing — when, in fact, her rifle had jammed.”

How arrogant: It was the Post that reported Lynch had “gone down firing,” that she had fought ferociously in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, at Nasariyah in March 2003.

It was the Post — citing otherwise unnamed “U.S. officials” — that presented the electrifying tale that Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers” in the ambush.

It was the Post that reported Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the fighting.

It was the Post that said Lynch also suffered stab wounds in the ambush.

But none of it was true.

Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq. Her weapon jammed during the ambush.

She suffered shattering injuries not in battling Iraqi soldiers but in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush.

As I discuss in a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Post has never fully explained how it got the Lynch story so badly wrong.

It has never disclosed the anonymous sources it cited in presenting the bogus hero-warrior tale.

Indeed, the Post has largely sidestepped accountability for the bogus hero-warrior narrative, which has allowed the false narrative about the military’s concocting the Lynch story to take hold and proliferate.

We know it’s a false narrative from one of the Post reporters whose byline appeared on the botched Lynch story, which was published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

Vernon Loeb, a veteran journalist whose byline appeared on that report, said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said in the interview:

“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.”

Loeb said the Post based its story on the accounts of “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., adding:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

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

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

Loeb also was quoted in the commentary as saying that “the sources for this information [about Lynch's derring-do] were apparently Iraqis, both Iraqi informants and intercepts.”

Loeb’s disclaimers notwithstanding, the notion that the Pentagon’s made up the story to bolster domestic U.S. support for the war makes little sense. The American public, after all, supported the Iraq War in overwhelming numbers in its early days and weeks, as I point out in Getting It Wrong.

But it’s clear that if not for the Post’s erroneous reporting, the bogus tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroism never would have circulated as widely and as profoundly as it did.

WJC

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‘Yes, Virginia’: History does trump TV animation

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths on December 9, 2011 at 11:28 am

CBS is to air tonight its vapid Christmas season special, “Yes Virginia,” which is based on the old New York Sun’s timeless editorial reply to an 8-year-old girl, who in 1897 inquired about the existence of Santa Claus.

The charmless, animated CBS program takes great liberties with the real back story to the “Yes, Virginia” editorial, which was published in the Sun on September 21, 1897, in the third of three columns on editorials.

The Sun’s editorial was a response to young Virginia O’Hanlon who shortly after her 8th birthday in July 1897 wrote to the newspaper, imploring:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Francis P. Church

The Sun’s reply, written by a retiring editorial writer named Francis P. Church, said in part:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

In the CBS interpretation, Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and strangely obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus.

Church, the editorial’s author, is depicted as scowling, abrupt, hard-hearted.

Neither portrayal is convincing, neither is realistic.

Church is cast as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church wasn’t editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun of 1897 was no tabloid.

What’s more, the CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

Not so.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia wrote the letter in the summer of 1897. The Sun published its editorial-reply on page 6 of its issue of September 21, 1897.

What became the famous essay in American journalism was, in its first appearance, inconspicuous and obscure: It certainly was not introduced with large headlines on the front page, as the CBS show has it.

Its headline posted a timeless question:

“Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial was no instant sensation. It was not an immediate hit. And the Sun did not reprint the editorial every year at Christmastime, as is commonly believed.

Indeed, it took years for the newspaper to embrace “Is There A Santa Claus?”

As I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism, it wasn’t until the mid-1920s when the Sun began routinely publishing the essay in its editorial columns at Christmastime.

What helped kept the editorial alive were the newspaper’s readers.

They found it memorable. They found joy, solace, and inspiration in the passages of “Is There A Santa Claus?”

In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.

A letter-writer told the newspaper in 1926 that the editorial offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the essay to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

The CBS program hints at none of that. It offers no indication that the editorial’s fame rests at least in part on generations of readers who, collectively, proved to be far more perceptive than editors of the Sun in identifying the essay’s significance and enduring appeal.

If anything, the tedious CBS show demonstrates anew that history’s back story is often far richer, and far more interesting, than TV fare.

There’s of course little surprise in that observation. As Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in a terrific essay about movies and history:

“There are, after all, times when the facts speak far more dramatically than any fictionalized account of them ever could.”

WJC

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Cronkite, Johnson, and the deceptive ‘yardstick’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on December 7, 2011 at 11:25 am

Cronkite: Wasn't watching Cronkite

The Huffington Post blog bit on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” yesterday, declaring it “a yardstick for how much things have changed.”

That is, how news media once were trusted and respected and influential. Nowadays, not so much.

But if the “Cronkite Moment” is a yardstick of any kind, it’s a measure of how profoundly the media myth has become embedded in the lore of American journalism.

The purported “Cronkite Moment” was on February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations ultimately might offer a way out.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, as the myth has it, watched the Cronkite report at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Or something to that effect.)

The Huffington Post essay invoked the president’s purported comment in referring to the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” asserting:

“LBJ famously commented, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,’ after the beloved journalist called the war ‘unwinnable.’ Several weeks later, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection as president.”

That paragraph embraces some of the most prominent myths and misunderstandings that have grown up around the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” Let’s peel them back.

First, Cronkite did not declare the war in Vietnam “unwinnable.” He said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” — which hardly was a novel or stunning assessment in early 1968. Many news organizations in fact had used “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program to characterize the war.

Second, Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 had nothing to do with Cronkite’s program. Indeed, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967, or even earlier, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency.

Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Third, and perhaps most important, is that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time wasn’t at the White House but at a black-tie party in Austin, Texas, marking the 51st birthday of Governor John Connally.

The president wasn’t agonizing that night over the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support; he wasn’t lamenting having “lost Cronkite.”

Instead, Johnson was offering light-hearted comments about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, there’s no evidence Johnson saw the Cronkite program at a later date, on videotape.

Even if he had, it made no difference to his thinking about Vietnam.

Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, where he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That speech was given March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

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

Under scrutiny, then, the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” dissolves as illusory. And not  surprisingly so.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace. Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence. So it was in Vietnam, where the war ground on for years after the “Cronkite moment.”

WJC

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