W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

On bra-burning, Erica Jong is wrong

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on March 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Bra-burning in Toronto, 1979 (Bettmann/Corbis)

The writer Erica Jong asserts in a rambling commentary posted yesterday at the Daily Beast that bra-burning “never actually occurred.”

The mischaracterization of bra-burning was an element of Jong’s defense of feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Jong wrote in the commentary:

“The fact that the so-called mainstream press reduced our valid struggles to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and bra burning (which, btw, never actually occurred) was their attempt to further disempower us. And they surely prevailed.”

It’s not an infrequent claim, that feminist bra-burning was a media trope, a media myth. That it “never actually occurred.”

But there were at least a couple of documented occasions when feminist protesters set fire to bras.

One occasion came 33 years ago this month, when members of Women Against Violence Against Women demonstrated outside Toronto City Hall. As the demonstration neared its end, a protester named Pat Murphy dropped a white bra into the hungry flames of a burn barrel (see photo, above).

The demonstration in Toronto on March 8, 1979, coincided with International Women’s Day and was aimed at denouncing a report on rape prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

The police report said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.

The Women Against Violence Against Women group assailed the report as outrageous and “dazzling in its illogic.” Protesters carried signs saying: “Take a Rapist to Lunch — Charcoal Broiled” and “Hookers Who Wink Go to the Clink! Men Who Rape Escape.”

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the protesters lighted “a fire in a garbage can, to the obvious annoyance of about a dozen watchful constables, [and] shouted: ‘Burn the rapists, burn the city, burn the OPP,’” acronym for Ontario Provincial Police.

The newspaper’s account did not specifically mention bra-burning which, one participant has told me, “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest.

But bra-burning did happen there.

Another participant has recalled that “weighing in on the stereotype of ‘feminist bra-burners’ was actually an effective way [for protesters] to say: Women will control our own bodies, thank you!

“The bra burning,” she said, “was a way to entice the media as well as [offer] a critique of the police report.”

A little more than 10 years before the demonstration in Toronto, some 100 women gathered on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest the 1968 Miss America pageant. The demonstration was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women and was an early manifestation of the women’s liberation movement.

In Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out in 2010, I offer evidence that bras were set afire, briefly, during the demonstration at Atlantic City.

The evidence is from two witness accounts, one of which was published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, on September 8, 1968, the day after the protest.

Boucher (1949 photo)

That account appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

Boucher’s article referred to the burn barrel that demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

That published account was buttressed by recollections of the writer Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City newspaper. Katz was on the Atlantic City boardwalk the day of the protest, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s sidebar didn’t mention the fire in the “Freedom Trash Can.”

But in correspondence with me, Katz stated:

“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.”


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

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The ‘seismic cultural shifts’ of the 1960s: Protests, assassination — and bra-burning?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on March 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

Feminist “bra-burning” of the late 1960s was more media myth than sustained reality.

But a commentary in today’s Washington Post places “bra-burning” among the “[s]eismic cultural shifts” of the late 1960s.

A column that promoted a media trope

Yes, “bra burning.”

This bizarre and baseless claim appears in a commentary that ruminates about the Mad Men television series.

The opening paragraph says:

“On ‘Mad Men,’ the AMC television show that returns for its fifth season Sunday night, booze, cigarettes, unprotected sex, cholesterol-rich foods and negligent parenting play starring roles in a surprisingly accurate and yet idealized picture of a New York ad agency in the mid-1960s. Seismic cultural shifts — Vietnam War protests, bra-burning and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — are just over the horizon.”

The show, the Post’s commentary avers, “gives us a window into the mind-sets of our parents and grandparents.”

Oh, sure it does.

But even frivolous ruminations can bring opportunities for myth-busting, and bra-burning was hardly a “seismic” event of the late 1960s.

It hardly signaled “cultural shift.”

In fact, feminist “bra-burning” was mostly a non-event.

I call it a “nuanced myth” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

The derivation of the nuanced myth can be traced to September 7, 1968, and the women’s liberation protest against the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J. The protest was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women.

The demonstrators included about 100 women who traveled to the Atlantic City boardwalk to denounce 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.”

The harsh rhetoric notwithstanding, the daylong protest on the boardwalk wasn’t very raucous. A centerpiece was what the demonstrators called the “Freedom Trash Can,” into which they tossed “instruments of torture” such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan.”

One demonstrator held a girdle over the Freedom Trash Can, according to the New York Times, and chanted:

“No more girdles, no more pain. No more trying to hold the fat in vain.”

The protest’s organizers had let it be known in advance of the demonstration that they planned to set fire to bras and other items at Atlantic City. But once there, plans supposedly were abandoned in favor of what of was called a “symbolic bra-burning.”

And through the years, the demonstration’s organizers have been adamant that no bras were burned during the protest.

Nonetheless, newspaper columnists writing in the demonstration’s aftermath offered highly imaginative accounts of “bra-burning” at Atlantic City.

Notably, Harriet Van Horne wrote in the New York Post that a highlight of the demonstration “was a bonfire in a Freedom Trash Can.”

Van Horne, who was not at the Atlantic City protest, also wrote:

“With screams of delight they consigned to the flames such shackling, demeaning items as girdles, bras, high-heeled slippers, hair curlers and false eyelashes.”

Nationally syndicated humor columnist Art Buchwald also picked up on the bra-burning meme, writing with tongue in cheek that he was “flabbergasted to read that about 100 women had picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City against ‘ludicrous beauty standards’ that had enslaved the American woman.’”

Buchwald also wrote: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”

And a media myth took hold.

What nuances the myth are witness accounts, discussed in Getting It Wrong, that bras were set afire, if briefly, during the protest.

Boucher, 1949 photo

One witness account appeared in the Press of Atlantic City the day after the protest. The newspaper’s first-hand report, written by a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher, included this passage:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Also covering the demonstration was Jon Katz, then a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press. In my research into bra-burning, Katz told me:

“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.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, these accounts that bras were burned in the “Freedom Trash Can” cannot be “taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

At the same time,  I write, the witness accounts “offer no evidence to corroborate a widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

There was no mass bra-burning at Atlantic City, no feminists twirling flaming bras over the heads. Fire at most was a modest and fleeting aspect of the protest on that long ago September day.

It was, to be sure, no seismic event.


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How’s that? ‘Bra-burning’ influenced mid-1960s fashion?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on March 22, 2012 at 4:50 am

The notion that “bra-burning” was a widespread element of feminist protest is a media myth that’s probably too engrained, and euphonic, ever to be thoroughly debunked.

Fashion statement? (Press of Atlantic City)

It’s a notion that’s given rise to much hyperbole since the late 1960s. An Associated Press report yesterday added to the overstatement reflex with this astounding and wrong-headed passage about “bra-burning“:

“Culturally, beatniks were becoming mods, rock ‘n’ roll was taking hold, and the move from stockings to pantyhose — and eventual bra-burning — all influenced mid-’60s fashion.”

The AP report was about how the Mad Men television series has reflected “the evolution of fashion” during the 1960s.

But it wasn’t such froth that caught the attention of Media Myth Alert: It was the absurd claim that “bra burning … influenced mid-1960s fashion.”

Left unsaid by the AP report was how — how “bra-burning,” even if it were a frequent manifestation (which it wasn’t), could have  influenced fashion of that time.

The AP claim was especially puzzling because the “bra burning” meme did not even emerge until the late 1960s, when it came to be associated with the Miss America protest at Atlantic City on September 7, 1968.

A centerpiece of the 1968 protest was the “Freedom Trash Can,” into which demonstrators deposited so-called “instruments of torture” — including brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, and copies of magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

Organizers of the demonstration have long insisted that no bras were set afire that day — that there was only a “symbolic bra burning” at Atlantic City.

But “bra-burning” is a nuanced media myth — as I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I discuss in the book two previously overlooked witness accounts that bras were burned, briefly, during the protest at Atlantic City, which often is credited with marking the rise of the feminist movement of the late 20th century.

One of the witness accounts was published the day after the protest in the Press of Atlantic City, beneath the headline:

Bra-burners Blitz Boardwalk.”

The newspaper report, written by a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher, included this passage:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

The other witness account discussed in Getting It Wrong was that of Jon Katz, a writer who covered the 1968 protest as a young reporter for the Atlantic City newspaper.

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt,” Katz told me, adding:

“It is my recollection that this burning was planned, and that a number of demonstrators brought bras and other articles of clothing to burn, including, I believe some underwear.”

These witness accounts offer fresh dimension to the legend of bra-burning: They represent evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 protest in Atlantic City.

“This evidence,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

I also point out, though, that neither witness account lends  “support to the far more vivid and popular imagery that many bras went up in flames in flamboyant protest that September day. [The] accounts offer no evidence to corroborate a widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

The reference in the AP report to “bra burning” as a fashion-molder is not only wrong; it suggest the insidious nature of media myths — how they can be invoked so readily and casually, without reference to any supporting evidence or detail.

They’re often treated as if they’re common knowledge, widely accepted.

And “bra-burning” is a media myth with a sting. The term often has been employed casually, as derogatory epithet, to ridicule feminists and dismiss their objectives as trivial and insignificant. As such, “bra-burning” underscores the potential of media myths to feed and promote stereotypes.

Not to mention misleading impressions of fashion history of the 1960s.


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NYTimes blog embraces ‘March Madness’ myth, claims ‘Zero Productivity Zone’

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm

The productivity myth of March Madness has kicked around for years, apparently immune to the most thorough of debunkings.

As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament opened today, the New York Times college sports blog, “The Quad,” embraced the myth with a headline warning that U.S. workplaces were entering the “Zero Productivity Zone.”

“It is officially time to celebrate the two days a year when American productivity goes in the toilet and it’s a good thing,” a post at the blog declared, adding:

“Thursday and Friday are like a little escape hatch from the usual grind, with N.C.A.A. tournament games going non-stop and while the Puritans of the business world can wring their bony hands over paying people who are suddenly obsessed with the fate of Virginia Commonwealth, the proper response is: tough noogies.”

Sure, some of that’s meant tongue in cheek. Or faintly snarky.

But, still: Media Myth Alert is tempted to say “tough noogies” in calling out a blog post that so blithely repeats the dubious claim and contributes to perpetuating a hardy seasonal myth. And one that does so without data or documentation.

A quick LexisNexis search finds other media outlets indulging in the productivity myth, too.

The Christian Science Monitor, for example, reported the other day:

“According some employment specialists, the next two or three weeks often rank low for productivity, as employees either keep one eye on the scoreboard or just try to cope with less sleep. Even leading up to the second round, which starts Thursday, many employees spend a lot of company time ‘researching’ teams to compete in their office pools or in ‘bracketology’ showdowns online.”

To support such assertions the Monitor article turned to estimates by the Chicago outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which over the years has propelled the myth with outlandish claims about productivity loss.

This year, the firm is a bit coy about projecting productivity losses. It claims in a news release that U.S. employers today and Friday may end up paying $175 million in wages to workers distracted by the games.

But Challenger proceeds to dismiss its own estimate, saying it’s not to be taken seriously.

On the second page of its news release, Challengers advises taking the estimate “with a grain of salt, as it is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek look at how technology continues to blur the line between our professional and personal lives.

“Ultimately,” the statement says, “March Madness will not even register a blip on the nation’s economic radar and even the smallest company will survive the month without any impact on their bottom line.”

Not even a blip.

Which makes one wonder why the company offers such outlandish estimates in the first place, given that they inject fresh life into a myth that deserves disposal on the slag heap of statistical imprecision. Is it so eager for free publicity?

And as Carl Bialik, the Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy, asked in a column seven years ago, “why does the press report studies whose authors don’t take them that seriously?”

Why, indeed?

No doubt because they’re simplistic and easily accessible. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, among the most tenacious media myths are those that “minimize or negate complexity” and “offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.”


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Assessing the propellant effect: Was Watergate a powerful stimulant to journalism?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 10, 2012 at 4:34 am

The April number of Vanity Fair brushes against an entrenched media myth in declaring that the cinematic depiction of the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting stimulated great interest in careers in journalism.

Vanity Fair, April 2012

Alas,Vanity Fair offered no data or documentation to support its claim.

Instead, the magazine referred broadly to “the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein in All the President’s Men,” saying the movie which came out in 1976 “prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism.”


Anecdotally, it’s not uncommon to hear that the movie, or Woodward and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting for the Post, did inspire boomers to become journalists.

But beyond impression and anecdote, what supports the claim that Watergate reporting — or All the President’s Men — was a powerful stimulant for career-seeking in journalism?

Not much, as it turns out.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter on what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was a propellant.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies, in that they would have captured heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging in college enrollments.

But the evidence is not there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs also wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

I write in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy endures “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

The presumed stimulus on journalism is an appealing yet simplistic story, easy to grasp and easy to understand.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to understand — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.


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James Fallows and ‘furnish the war’: Indulging in a media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on March 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

Young Hearst

In deploring “carefree talk” about pre-emptively bombing Iran’s nuclear installations, Atlantic correspondent James Fallows invokes the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 1890s.

The “furnish the war” anecdote can be just too delicious to resist, as Fallows demonstrates in a rambling commentary posted yesterday at the Atlantic online site.

In it, Fallows writes that “only twice before in my memory, and maybe thrice in American history, has there been as much carefree talk about war and unprovoked strikes as we’ve had concerning Iran in recent months ….

“The twice in my experience were: during the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, and in the ‘bomb ’em back to the stone age’ moments of the early Vietnam era.

“The time that even I don’t remember was the ‘you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war’ yellow journalism drumbeat before the war with Spain in 1898. This is not good company for today’s fevered discussion to join.”

The line, “you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war,” was attributed to Hearst more than 110 years ago. But as decades passed, no compelling evidence ever emerged to support or document the tale.

Indeed, it’s often overlooked that Hearst denied making such vow, which he purportedly included in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment to Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The telegram to Remington has never surfaced. And Remington apparently never discussed the anecdote, which was recounted first in 1901, in a brief passage in memoir by James Creelman, a blowhard journalist known for frequent exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain how he learned of the “furnish the war” tale which, as I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost surely apocryphal.

Not only does story live on despite the absence of supporting documentation; it lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.

That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Cuba in early 1897 was the theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had dispatched nearly 200,000 troops in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Spanish authorities controlled and censured international cable traffic to and from Cuba. They surely would have intercepted — and called attention to — Hearst’s bellicose message, had it been sent. There is little chance the cable would have moved unimpeded from Hearst in New York to Remington in Cuba.

But despite the compelling evidence arrayed against it, the vow attributed to Hearst lives on, and on.

That’s because it has, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.

“It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Which is what Fallows does.


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