W. Joseph Campbell

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Wasn’t so special: Revisiting the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 44 years on

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on February 27, 2012 at 12:59 am

A legendary moment in network news came 44 years ago tonight, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite pronounced at the close of special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said negotiations might offer a way out.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Cronkite’s report aired February 27, 1968, and examined the Tet offensive that communist forces had launched across South Vietnam four weeks earlier.

At the White House that night, President Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report. Upon hearing the popular anchorman’s downbeat assessment, Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles. The report was, the story goes, an epiphany for the president.

Johnson snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

The report was so singularly and unexpectedly decisive that it has come to be celebrated as the “Cronkite Moment,” a totem of courage and insight, a revered model for broadcast journalism.

Except the “Cronkite Moment” wasn’t so special. Cronkite’s assessment about the war wasn’t novel or particularly insightful.

It was, if anything, a rehash of what other news organizations had been saying for weeks and months. “Stalemate” was much in the news back then.

The New York Times, for example, wrote “stalemate” into the headline over a news analysis about the war that was published on its front page in August 1967 — nearly seven months before Cronkite’s televised report. The Times headline read:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, noted:

“‘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” in the war.

So “stalemate” had been often invoked, and much-debated, by the time Cronkite turned to the word.

Even more damaging to the purported exceptionality of the “Cronkite Moment” was that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired.

As such, the president could not have had the abrupt, visceral reaction that endows the purported “Cronkite Moment” with special power and resonance.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House on February 27, 1968; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either, when Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

The president was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite made his on-air editorial comment, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for— a simple majority.”

As I also discuss in Getting It Wrong, there is no persuasive evidence that Johnson later saw Cronkite’s report on videotape.

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

Not long after the Cronkite report, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, urging “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. The 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.”

Johnson, who died in 1973, did not mention the purported “Cronkite Moment” in his memoir, The Vantage Point.

For his part, Cronkite often described the program in modest terms, likening its effect on U.S. policy to a straw on a camel’s back. He turned to that analogy in writing his memoir, for example.

But in the years immediately before his death in 2009, Cronkite began to interpret the program in a somewhat grander light. He came to embrace the presumptive power of the “Cronkite Moment.”

In an interview with Esquire in 2006, for example, he said:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Interestingly, Cronkite also said he had never discussed the program and his famous editorial comment with Johnson.

According to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, Cronkite said in a teleconference call with a journalism class at Southwest Texas State University in 1997 that Johnson “never brought it up and I certainly never did.”


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

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Liz Trotta mangles Jessica Lynch ‘fairy tale’

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on February 20, 2012 at 10:12 am

Veteran broadcast journalist Liz Trotta went on Fox News yesterday to condemn plans to ease restrictions on women in Army combat positions.

In doing so, Trotta referred to — and mangled — key elements of the saga of Jessica Lynch, the Army private thrust into an international spotlight by a newspaper’s botched report about her battlefield heroics in Iraq in March 2003.

Trotta said in an appearance on the Fox program “America’s News HQ” that “the political correctness infecting the Pentagon has resulted in silly and dishonest fairy tales about female heroism. Has anyone forgotten the Jessica Lynch story?

“A PFC captured by the Iraqis and by all accounts, including her own, not mistreated. Yet the Pentagon saw fit to send in the SEALs to rescue her from a hospital in a videotaped operation that seemed headed straight to Hollywood.”


Let’s call out the errors there: Lynch was mistreated, and videotaping her rescue was routine practice in high-priority military operations —  not done with Hollywood in mind.

By Lynch’s own account — contained in a book by Rick Bragg and titled I Am a Soldier, Too — she was knocked out in the crash of a Humvee in attempting to escape an ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. While unconscious, Lynch “was a victim of anal sexual assault,” the book says, adding:

“The records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage [of the Humvee], or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.”

She was rescued from an Iraqi hospital on April 1, 2003, in an operation that included not only Navy SEALS but Marines and Army Rangers as well.

It was the first rescue of a captured American solder from behind enemy lines since World War II.

I discuss the mythology of the Lynch case in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that the Defense Department’s inspector general found no evidence to support the notion Lynch’s rescue “was a staged media event.”

The then-acting inspector general, Thomas F. Gimble, said in a report to Congress in 2007 that the rescue operation was determined to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

That the rescue was videotaped was not unusual, Gimble said, noting that combat cameramen routinely filmed high-priority operations. In the Lynch case, he said, there was “no indication that any service member was acting for the camera during the rescue mission.”

Gimble also said the extrication team “fully expected to meet stiff resistance” in mounting the rescue.

Trotta’s mangled account was the latest in a succession of erroneous characterizations about the Lynch case, which burst into prominence April 3, 2003, in a sensational, front-page report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and said Lynch, a supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasiriyah, that she had “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her ….”

The Post quoted one of the anonymous officials as saying: “She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

But the report was bogus. Little of it was true.

Lynch, who was not in a combat unit, never fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon jammed.

Not was she shot, as the Post reported. She suffered shattering injuries in the crash of the Humvee.

The Post, moreover, has never adequately explained how it erred so utterly in its hero-warrior story about Lynch, a story that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

More recently, in an interview with Lynch last month, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith claimed without providing evidence that “the government” had made up the tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq.

He ignored the singular role of the Washington Post in placing the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain.


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Carl Bernstein, naive and over the top

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul beset by scandal at his British tabloids, may be the greatest menace to press freedom in world.

So says Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter for the Washington Post, in an over-the-top characterization of Murdoch and what he calls Murdoch’s “gutter instincts.”

Bernstein: Murdoch a press freedom threat

Bernstein was referring to the police and parliamentary investigations into practices at Murdoch’s London tabloids, inquiries that have led to the arrests of numerous employes and the closure last summer of the Sunday News of the World.

The suspected misconduct in Britain also may have consequences for Murdoch’s News Corp. under U.S. anti-corruption laws.

Bernstein, a frequent and frankly sanctimonious critic of Murdoch since the scandals broke in London last year, declared in a recent interview on CNN:

“It’s really ironic that the greatest threat to freedom of the press in Great Britain today, and around the world today perhaps, has come from Rupert Murdoch because of his own excesses.”

What a foolish, misleading, and naive statement: The “greatest threat to freedom of the press …  around the world today perhaps” is Rupert Murdoch.

Sure, Murdoch’s hard-ball tactics and raunchy media outlets are offensive to polite company.

But the 80-year-old mogul is scarcely the world’s leading menace to press freedom. To suggest that he is is to insult the nearly 180 journalists who are in jail because of their work in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The true contenders for the epithet of the world’s leading press-freedom menace are many, and include the ayatollahs in Iran.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran is the world’s leading jailer of journalists: Forty-two of the 179 journalists behind bars in late 2011 were imprisoned in Iran.

Journalists are in jail typically because their reporting in traditional or online media offended power-wielding authorities or violated censorship laws.

In Iran, CPJ points out, the “authorities seem intent on silencing any independent or critical voices.”

Bernstein’s naive remark also ignores Eritrea and China, where, respectively, 28 and 27 journalists were in jail in late 2011, according to CPJ.

The organization notes that other journalists “may languish” in Chinese jails “without coming to the notice of news organizations or advocacy groups.”

Bernstein’s comment about Murdoch likewise ignores the Castro regime in Cuba, which long has been a jailer of journalists. As many as 29 dissident journalists were arrested in 2003 in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. The last of them was released in April last year.

While CPJ counted no Cuban journalists in jail in late 2011, the organization says authorities there “continue to detain reporters and editors on a short-term basis as a form of harassment.”

Bernstein’s comment also ignored the Stalinist regime in North Korea, which ranks dead last in the annual Freedom House ranking of press freedom in the world.

Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic governance, assesses levels of press freedom in more than 190 countries and territories on a scale of zero to 100 points. The more points, the worse the ranking.

Finland ranked first, with 10 points. The United States and Britain were rated “free,” with 17 points and 19 points, respectively.

North Korea ranked last, with 97 points.

The regime in Pyongyang “owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information,” Freedom House noted, adding that all journalists “are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets are mouthpieces for the regime.”

His recent remarks about Murdoch’s threat to press freedom were the latest of Bernstein’s over-the-top characterizations of the mogul whose media and entertainment company has holdings around the globe.

As the tabloid scandal in Britain exploded last summer, prompting the closure of the News of the World, Bernstein likened the misconduct to Watergate, the  unprecedented U.S. constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974.

But Watergate was sui generis. The scandal not only toppled Nixon but sent to jail 19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

What’s more, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.


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‘Accurately, it turned out’? Hardly, in the Jefferson-Hemings allegations

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal on February 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

Media critic Jonathan Alter treated as settled history the other day the disputed and probably dubious claim that President Thomas Jefferson took as a mistress a slave named Sally Hemings.

In a  column for Bloomberg News, Alter wrote:

“Politics has been a contact sport since at least the election of 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson was accused (accurately, it turned out) of having an affair with ‘Dusky Sally’ Hemings, a slave.”

Accurately, it turned out?

That may hew to the dominant narrative about the purported Jefferson-Hemings liaison. But it’s far from proven, far from “accurate.”

Indeed, it’s quite unlikely.

Key evidence in the controversy centers around DNA testing conducted in 1998. The evidence indicated that the former president was among more than two dozen Jefferson men who were in Virginia at the time Hemings’ youngest child, Eston, was conceived in 1807.

Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate.

The DNA results were widely misreported when released, giving rise to the mistaken notion that the tests had confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

However, as a detailed scholarly study published last year points out:

“The problem [in misinterpreting the DNA evidence] lies not only with a news media prone to over simplifying and sensationalizing complex stories.  Numerous prominent scholars have contributed to the misunderstanding by characterizing the DNA study as ‘confirming’ or ‘clinching’ the case for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.”

The scholarly study, an impressive work titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, further notes that the DNA tests “were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.”

The book — which has received scant attention from mainstream American media — presents a circumstantial case pointing to Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph (or his sons), in the question of Eston Hemings’ paternity.

Randolph Jefferson, the book says, was known to have socialized with the slaves at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Randolph Jefferson was a dozen years younger than the president, and the available record offers no evidence that Thomas Jefferson “enjoyed socializing at night with Monticello slaves,” the book says.

The scholars commission that compiled the volume describes the case as closed by no means.

Indeed, the scholars commission writes in The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy that a “more rational conclusion, from the totality of the evidence before us, is that Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s lover, and her children were not his children.”

To assert otherwise — to insist on the accuracy of claims about Jefferson’s purported sexual relationship with a slave — is to indulge in a sort of sloppy, take-it-for-granted kind of reporting.

Sloppy, take-it-for-granted reporting can be a factor in the emergence and durability of media-driven myths, the subject of my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong, for example, that hurried and sloppy reporting propelled the media myth of “crack babies,” in which journalists in the 1980s and 1990s “pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research. And the horrors they predicted, that ‘crack babies‘ would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class — a ‘bio-underclass’ of staggering dimension — proved quite wrong.”

Decidedly wrong.


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Online at BBC News: Recalling the derivation of ‘All the news that’s fit to print’

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

The most famous seven words in American journalism — “All the news that’s fit to print” — took a permanent place 115 years ago yesterday in the upper left corner, or left “ear,” of the New York Times masthead.

On front page for 115 years

And I recalled that occasion in a piece for the BBC News online site, writing:

“The motto appeared on the Times’ front page without notice, commentary, or fanfare. In the years since, the phrase has been admired as a timeless statement of purpose, interpreted as a ‘war cry’ for honest journalism, and scoffed at as pretentious, overweening, and impossibly vague.

“Even the Times hasn’t been entirely consistent in its embrace and interpretation of those seven words. In 1901, at the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Times referred to ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ as its ‘covenant. In 2001, a Times article commemorating the newspaper’s 150th anniversary said of the motto:

“’What, exactly, does it mean? You decide. The phrase has been debated, and endlessly parodied, both inside and outside the Times for more than a century.’

“On occasion, the motto has been taken far too seriously, as in 1960 when Wright Patman, a U.S. congressman from Texas, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ amounted to false and misleading advertising.

“’Surely this questionable claim has a tendency to make the public believe, and probably does make the public believe, that the New York Times is superior to other newspapers,’ Patman wrote.

“The Trade Commission declined to investigate, saying: ‘We do not believe there are any apparent objective standards by which to measure whether “news” is or is not “fit to print.”’

“No matter how it’s interpreted, the motto certainly is remarkable in its permanence. One-hundred fifteen years on the front page has invested the motto with a certain gravitas. It often has been associated with fairness, restraint, and impartiality — objectives that nominally define mainstream American journalism.

“A commentary in the Wall Street Journal in 2001 addressed those sentiments, describing the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.

“Interestingly, the ‘leitmotif’ of American journalism had its origins in marketing and advertising.

“’All the news that’s fit to print’ first appeared on an illuminated advertising sign, spelled out in red lights above New York’s Madison Square in early October 1896. That was about six weeks after Adolph S. Ochs had acquired the newspaper in bankruptcy court.

“Ochs, patriarch of the family that still controls and publishes the Times, had come to New York from Tennessee. His task was to differentiate the Times from its larger, aggressive, and wealthier rivals — notably the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It was a tall order, given the beleaguered status of the Times in New York’s crowded newspaper market.

“Ochs possessed a keen sense of promotion and turned to a number of techniques to call attention to the Times. The illuminated sign at Madison Square was one. An even more successful promotion was a contest inviting readers to propose a better motto.

“In late October 1896, the Times announced it was offering $100 for the phrase of ten words or fewer that ‘more aptly’ captured the newspaper’s ‘distinguishing characteristics’ than ‘All the news that’s fit to print.’

“Hundreds of entries poured in. …  As the contest unfolded in the fall of 1896, the Times amended the rules, making clear it would not abandon ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ but would still pay $100 for the best suggestion. And entries kept coming in.

“A committee of Times staff narrowed the field to 150, which in turn was winnowed to four by the motto contest judge, Richard W. Gilder, editor of The Century magazine. The finalists were:

  • “Always decent; never dull”
  • “The news of the day; not the rubbish”
  • “A decent newspaper for decent people”
  • “All the world’s news, but not a School for Scandal”

“The latter entry, Gilder determined, was the best of the lot, and the Times paid the prize money to the author of the phrase, D.M. Redfield of New Haven, Connecticut.

“What exactly prompted Ochs to move ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to the front page 115 years ago is not entirely clear. But his intent was unmistakable — to throw down a challenge to the yellow press, a challenge that Ochs ultimately won. The Times has long outlived the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

“So the motto lives on as a reminder, as a daily rebuke to the flamboyant extremes of fin-de-siècle American journalism that helped inspire ‘All the news that’s fit to print.'”


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Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2012 at 9:25 am

Celebrities and movie stars rarely make thoughtful, searching media critics, as Barbra Streisand demonstrated in a tedious and predictable essay the other day at Huffington Post.

The actress indulged a bit in the golden age fallacy, recalling broadcast journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as exemplary newsmen whose talents these days are sorely missed.

“Americans,” Streisand wrote, “are busy, working hard to support and provide for their families. They don’t have time to parcel out fact from fiction. They depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them and to hold individuals running for office, especially the highest office in our country, accountable.”

The claim that Americans “depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them” is surely overstated, given evidence that many Americans go newsless and ignore media content altogether.

Streisand went on, extolling media icons of the past:


“Journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow knew it was their duty to know the facts and disseminate them to the public. That responsibility in today’s media world seems to be diminishing.”

Murrow, who came to fame on CBS radio in the 1940s and on CBS television in 1950s, was no white knight, though. He hardly was above the political fray.

As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow privately donated time and expertise in acquainting Adlai Stevenson, the 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, with television.

I cite A.M. Sperber, one of Murrow’s leading biographers, who wrote that Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats” in offering Stevenson tips on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber, who characterized Murrow’s move “a radical departure from his usual practice,” said Stevenson “barely endured” the tutoring.

What’s more, Murrow is the subject of one of American journalism’s more savory and tenacious myths — that he stood up to the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, when no other journalist would, or dared.

Which is nonsense.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow was quite late in confronting McCarthy, doing so long after a number of journalists – including the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson– had become persistent and searching critics of the senator, his record, and his tactics.

Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman from 1963 to 1981, likewise is the subject of a durable media-driven myth — that his editorializing about the war in Vietnam in February 1968 forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to realize the folly of his policy.

Legend has it that Johnson was watching at the White House when Cronkite pronounced the U.S. military “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Cronkite also suggested the negotiations might offer a way out of the morass.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, Johnson supposedly leaned over and snapped off the television set, telling an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions vary, markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program in which Cronkite made his editorial comment.

Johnson in Austin: Didn't see Cronkite show

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally. About the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was joking 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.”

It’s illogical to argue that Johnson could have been much moved by a television report he hadn’t seen.

Granted, Cronkite’s editorial comment about Vietnam — tepid though it was — represented something of a departure for the avuncular anchorman. He usually tried to play it straight, because he had to.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s impartiality was partly a function of the federal “Fairness Doctrine,” which sought to encourage balanced reporting on the air.

Shafer wrote that “between 1949 and 1987 — which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career — news broadcasters were governed by the federal ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion.

“One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy,” which he notes, the three U.S. television networks of the time “often did.”

So, no: Murrow and Cronkite weren’t exactly paragons of play-it-straight journalism. Pining for them while deploring today’s freewheeling media landscape is neither very sophisticated nor very useful.

Nor even fair to the historical record.


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