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.
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.
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 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.
Recent and related:
- The debunking of the year, 2009
- Apocryphal, but still quotable
- Anniversary journalism and media-driven myths in 2011
- A media myth tamed — or at least controlled
- ‘Too early to say’: Zhou was speaking about 1968, not 1789
- That’s not what Zhou meant
- He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Jessica Lynch case
- A debunker’s work is never done
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism