W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Internet’s uneven capacity to expose media fakes

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on July 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the online magazine Salon, hailed yesterday the corrective capacity of the Internet, noting how quickly a purported column by Bill Keller, one-time executive editor of the New York Times, was exposed over the weekend as an imaginative fake.

In pressing the argument, though, Greenwald offered up a hoary media myth that has survived quite well in the age of the Internet.

Greenwald wrote: “For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just … compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism.

“Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells [sic] (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic.”

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization set off “mass panic” is a delicious tale.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s also a tenacious media-driven myth “that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I point out that “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But there is no evidence their fright rose to anything approaching “mass panic” or nationwide hysteria.

Indeed, most listeners recognized Welles’ program for what it was— an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

But newspaper reports the following day advanced the notion that “mass panic” had swept the country.

“These reports,” I point out, “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

But newspapers in 1938 “simply had no reliable way of testing or ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they made about the radio show,” I write.

Nonetheless, the purported “panic-broadcast” offered U.S. newspapers “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I write.

The overwhelmingly negative commentary in the American press, helped frame and solidify the erroneous impression that The War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria.

The debunking of the myth is told not only in Getting It WrongI’ve blogged about the dubious “panic broadcast,” too, as posts here, here, here, and here indicate. I’ve also written about The War of the Worlds myth for the BBC online. Others have discussed the myth in blog posts as well, notably Michael Socolow in a fine dissection in 2008.

So why does the myth live on in the digital age? Why is it resistant to the Internet’s capacity, which Greenwald extols, to detect errors and swiftly banish them?

Obviously, the notion of the “panic broadcast” became entrenched in media lore long before the digital age. Indeed, it began taking dimension the day after Welles’ clever show.

Once a myth becomes thoroughly entrenched, it may be beyond the Internet’s power ever  to dismantle. (See also, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the supposed “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the misleading dominant narrative of Watergate.)

What’s more, the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were abruptly pitched into “mass panic” one night long ago remains a perversely appealing and irresistible tale. Its retelling affirms in a way the reassuring view that Americans these days are hardly the gullible rubes their ancestors were, back when broadcast media was emergent.

The mythical “panic broadcast” also offers a timeless anecdote with which to bash the media. The tale, after all, does suggest that when circumstances are just so, the media can spread fear and disruption, profoundly and unexpectedly.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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ABC needs to explain how, why Brian Ross so badly erred

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 24, 2012 at 11:59 am

Brian Ross’ stunning error last week linking the suspected Batman-movie shooter to the conservative Tea Party movement has been roundly and appropriately condemned — from Mother Jones to Rush Limbaugh, from the comedian Jon Stewart to the NewsBusters blog.

What’s missing, though, is a thorough, candid, and transparent accounting of what led Ross to proclaim on air that someone sharing the suspected shooter’s name, James Holmes, belonged to the Colorado Tea Party.

Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, declared in a brief segment Friday morning, hours after the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross said, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”

Ross and the network apologized later Friday morning for the error. In a statement posted online, ABC said:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

It was a vague and empty apology that said nothing specifically to the misidentified Jim Holmes — and offered little insight into circumstances that gave rise to a towering error.

Still unexplained is what prompted Ross — whose online biography says he’s one of America’s “most honored and respected journalists” — to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted.”

So there ought to be a very public explanation for breaching such a fundamental protocol of professional journalism. Ross, and ABC News, ought to clarify, in detail, the circumstances that produced such a staggering lapse.

In a telephone conversation with me this morning, a spokesman for ABC News, Jeffrey W. Schneider, resisted engaging in a detailed discussion about Ross’ error.

“It was a mistake,” Schneider said. “We made it plainly clear it was a mistake. I think there’s been all kinds of speculation about how and why. It was simply an error. We made a human error.”

But why is such a broad acknowledgement of error not enough?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

By not explaining the back story to the error, Ross and ABC News have left themselves open to suspicions that political bias immediately and instinctively drove them to suspect a Tea Party connection to the shootings that left 12 people dead.

Rightly or wrongly, that conclusion has been reached often in the days since the shooting.

For example, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune  wrote in a column Sunday: “How long does it take for a major American television news network to politicize mass murder and blame conservatives for the blood of innocents?

“Not long.”

What’s more, by not specifying the circumstances that led to the stunning lapse, Ross and ABC News have effectively deprived serious-minded journalists and media audiences of an opportunity to understand the derivation of error and misjudgment of the kind that can blight the coverage of major breaking stories.

There is more than thumbsucking interest in understanding, at a granular level, why and how the news media get it so badly wrong.

Error-plagued coverage happens often enough: Consider, as another recent example, the wrongheaded early reports by CNN and FoxNews about the Supreme Court’s frankly baffling ruling on the constitutionality of ObamaCare.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, news reporting in the first hours of a dramatic event often is in error, owing in part to the swirl of rumor and confusion that typically accompanies a major breaking story.

And as Kass wrote, “when you add political bias to the rush of breaking news, as seems to have happened here, things get stinky.”

And worse.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Slow to learn: Lesson for journos in Brian Ross’ egregious error on ABC

In Debunking, Media myths, Television on July 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Brian Ross’ appalling error linking the Tea Party movement to the suspected Batman-movie shooter in Colorado demonstrates anew how slow journalists can be in grasping an elementary lesson of disaster coverage: Resist temptation to report more than you can immediately verify.

In the hours just after a disaster, journalists tend to be especially prone to error and imprecision, as Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, amply demonstrated in declaring today on Good Morning America:

“There is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year.

“Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes,” Ross added, “but it is a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colo.”

The suspect arrested in the shootings early today at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, is named James Holmes. But he is not the “Jim Holmes” to whom Ross referred, and the suspected killer has no known connections to the grassroots Tea Party movement, which advocates restraints in government spending.

It soon was clear that Ross’ speculative remarks associating the killer with the Tea Party were in error. ABC News offered an apology — an apology that raised important unanswered questions:

“An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.”

But how did that happen? How did Ross — a veteran television reporter whose ABC biography unabashedly declares him “one of the most honored and respected journalists in the country” — come to disseminate “information before it was properly vetted”?

ABC’s apology didn’t say.

It may have been that Ross was excessively eager to be first in reporting a linkage to a conservative political movement. He may have been unable to restrain his ideological inclinations. He may have been misled by a producer.

Whatever the reason, his error on a television program that attracts 4.5 million viewers was inexcusable — and eminently preventable.

In the swirling uncertainty that invariably marks the hours after a disaster, journalists are well-served to show deliberation and restraint, to be mindful that error and distortion often blight the first reports of dramatic events.

I discuss this phenomenon in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting that “it is a near-certainty that erroneous reports will circulate in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong:

“By recognizing that implausible rumors and exaggerated casualty tolls almost always are among the first effects of major disasters, journalists may spare themselves considerable embarrassment and their audiences great confusion.”

Getting It Wrong revisits the badly flawed news reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans in 2005 — which offers enduring if unlearned lessons for journalists about the near-certainty of error in disaster coverage.

The reporting about Katrina’s destructive assault, I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I note:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated.

Other examples of erroneous news reports about unfolding disasters are not difficult to find.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. This happened in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, offering a ready point of reference for reporters covering Katrina’s aftermath. The initial estimates of 10,000 deaths in New York were considerably overstated.”

Early reports about the attacks of September 11, 2001, also were distorted by error — by accounts, for example, of a car bombing at State Department, of military aircraft downing a hijacked plane near Camp David.

All too often, the news media are disinclined to revisit their disaster-coverage lapses and account for the errors. Such was the case in Katrina’s aftermath, when news organizations offered at best feeble and one-off explanations for their flawed and exaggerated reporting.

Ross and ABC News owe their viewers nothing less than a thorough and candid accounting for their error today.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews on July 9, 2012 at 7:29 am

The New York Times lined up Chris Matthews, voluble host of cable television’s Hardball program, to review Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite, the new biography about legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite.

LBJ wasn’t watching Cronkite’s report

Matthews turned in a fluffy review, published yesterday, that invoked one the American journalism’s best-known media myths — the claim that President Lyndon B. Johnson was dramatically moved by Cronkite’s on-air assessment about the war in  Vietnam.

“Cronkite never shied away from telling hard truths,” Matthews writes in his review. “Recall his half-hour ‘Report From Vietnam’ on Feb. 27, 1968, in which he declared the Vietnam War a ‘stalemate.’ It was a verdict the veteran war correspondent didn’t relish delivering, but Cronkite, who had recently returned from reporting on the Tet offensive, now believed that the war was unwinnable and indefensible.”

Matthews then repeats Brinkley’s thinly supported claim that Cronkite’s “stalemate” pronouncement had “seismic” effects.

Matthews adds, presumably as evidence of such an effect: “President Johnson reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever uttered such a remark.

Indeed, the president’s purported comment is defined by what I call acute version variability. That is, there is no agreed-upon version of what Johnson supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment.

Other versions include:

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

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”

And so on. (The Richmond Dispatch in a review published yesterday of Cronkite said Johnson exclaimed: “My God, if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”)

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, if anyone’s words should be captured with precision, they ought to be the president’s. Especially on matters as critical as support for war policy. The wide variance as to what Johnson supposedly said is, then, a marker of a media myth.

Even more injurious to the case that Cronkite’s pronouncement was of great significance is that Johnson didn’t see the program when it was broadcast.

The president was not at the White House on February 27, 1968; nor was he in front of a television set when Cronkite’s program aired.

And about the time Cronkite intoned his “stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Texas Governor John Connally (see photo, above).

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

I further note in Getting It Wrong that there is no compelling evidence that Johnson saw the Cronkite program later, on videotape.

Even if he had, Cronkite’s characterization of the was as a “stalemate” would have come as old news to the president. What Cronkite said about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, hardly earth-shaking, stunning, or original.

In no way did it alter the course of the war or influence American policy.

If anything, Cronkite’s observation about a “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.

For example, the Times said in a news analysis published July 4, 1967:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in a report from Saigon that appeared on August 7, 1967, the Times 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.”

So why bother calling out Matthews for casually invoking the central component of the mythical “Cronkite Moment”?

Doing so serves to highlight how insidious the myth has become, how blithely it is marshalled to support the notion that courageous and motivated journalists can do marvelous things.

Doing so also demonstrates anew that not even prominent and presumably fact-checked news organizations such as the Times are resistant to the intrusion of hoary media myths.

And doing so indicates that at least some high-profile contemporary journalists possess a shaky command of the history of their field.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Renewing the Hearst-Remington association in a $200,000 grant

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 8, 2012 at 10:10 am

The most tenacious myth in American journalism tells of a purported exchange of telegrams in January 1897 between  newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington.


Supposedly, in answering Remington’s telegram, Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain, which broke out 15 months later, in April 1898.

Despite repeated efforts to debunk it, the tale about Hearst’s reckless vow lives on — a story just too delicious to be discarded.

So I found intriguing the news the other day that the Hearst Foundations — which Hearst set up in the 1940s — have agreed to a $200,000 grant to the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Most of the money, $150,000, is to put toward extensive restoration work on the museum’s main building, which dates to 1810. The remainder, $50,000, is for educational purposes, if matched by the museum before year’s end.


The grant — the foundations’ second to the Remington museum since 2009 — represents a reminder and a renewal of sorts of the long ago Hearst-Remington association.

In early 1897, Remington and the writer Richard Harding Davis arrived in Cuba on assignment from Hearst’s New York Journal to cover the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, the conflict that gave rise to the Spanish-American War.

It was a coup for the Journal to have lined up talent such as Remington and Davis, who were paid handsomely for what was to be a month-long assignment.

It was during that assignment when the purported exchange of the telegrams supposedly took place — an exchange described by neither Hearst nor Remington, but by James Creelman, a Hearst correspondent who was in Madrid at the time.

The tale of Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Among the reasons (typically overlooked) is that Hearst denied having sent such a message. Remington, apparently, never discussed the anecdote, which Creelman recounted, without documentation, in a memoir published in 1901.

Further reason for doubting the tale is that Spanish authorities controlled incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic from Havana. They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message to Remington, had it been sent.

Additionally, the anecdote rests on irreconcilable illogic. As I write 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.

“Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

Hearst’s Journal gave prominent display to Remington’s sketches beginning in late January 1897, following the artist’s return to New York after a stay in Cuba of just six days.

The Journal gushed over Remington’s work, introducing his sketches with extravagant headlines such as:

“War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal, Describes with Pen and Pencil Characters That Are Making the War Famous and Infamous.”

Remington, though, grumbled that his work did not reproduce well in Hearst’s newspaper.

The artist returned to Cuba for Hearst in June 1898, to cover the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War. He did not distinguish himself.

Overweight and ailing, Remington suffered in the Cuban summer. He seldom was near the front and became what biographers Peggy and Harold Samuels termed “the chronicler of the battle’s rear.”

Remington died in 1909. The museum devoted to his work was established in Ogdensburg in 1923.

The museum’s executive director, Ed LaVarnway, said by phone yesterday that the Hearst Foundations’ grants to the museum weren’t made in recognition of the late 19th century association between Hearst and Remington.

But Hearst representatives knew about those connections and about the anecdote about the purported exchange of telegrams, he said.

Vital to securing the latest grant, LaVarnway noted, was Gilbert C. Maurer, a Hearst Foundations director and a benefactor of St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., Remington’s hometown. Canton is 18 miles from Ogdensburg.

He “was in the museum’s corner,” LaVarnway said of Maurer, formerly the chief operating officer of Hearst Corp., which William Randolph Hearst established 125 years ago.


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10 weeks on: Still no word from WaPo about apparent digital scrubbing of Lynch articles

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on July 6, 2012 at 7:45 am

Where’s the digital version?

The Washington Post ombudsman noted in a column last month that it is “increasingly difficult for iconoclastic, questioning voices to be heard, whether left, right or center.”

The ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, urged the Post and other news organizations “to seek out and cover the unconventional and outsider voices — whether citizen or expert, whether right, center or left. They’re out there; we just have to listen.”

Trouble is, Pexton, himself, doesn’t always much care for “questioning voices” — such as the questions that I’ve raised with him periodically for the past 10 weeks.

Those questions relate to the apparent digital scrubbing of the Post’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch and her purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

The Post on April 3, 2003, published a stunning report on its front page (see above) about the supposed heroism of Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, during an ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

The Post’s report said Lynch had fought fiercely 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, which took place March 23, 2003.

The electrifying report — which the Post headlined “She was fighting to the death” — was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But soon it became apparent that the Post’s hero-warrior story was utterly wrong in all important details. Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq; she was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post had reported, but badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush.

The botched hero-warrior story is unavailable at the Post’s online site. Until a few weeks ago, clicking on a link to that report did turn up the story’s headline, byline, and publication detail. But otherwise, it was an empty link: It contained no content.

Now, not even the headline, byline, and publication date are available. The link opens to a page that declares in large headlines: “Page Not Found” and “We’re unable to locate the page you requested.”

So changes recently have been made that expunge any reference to the hero-warrior story.

I pointed this out in an email to Pexton a week ago. He has not replied.

In his most recent correspondence with me, an email sent May 30, Pexton wrote:

“This is a stickier problem than I initially thought. It could be as innocent as the Post has moved masses amount of files three times in the past ten years to different servers. Or it could be deliberate.  …  I have one newsroom employee researching this and an IT person checking on it. When I have an answer, I’ll let you know.”

Pexton turned prickly in that email, making clear he did not appreciate my turning to social media to call attention to this matter.

He expressed objections to the Twitter message I sent on May 25, calling attention to a blog post of the same day that four weeks had passed and the Post had offered no explanation for the apparent scrubbing of the Lynch  content.

“Tweeting about your frustration over the time it is taking is a disincentive for me to push harder on it,” Pexton wrote in his email of May 30. “Most readers are polite and understanding. Why should I put your request ahead of others when you choose to coerce and bully?”

Coerce and bully? C’mon. My inquiries about the Lynch stories are much more akin to the “questioning voices” that Pexton has encouraged the Post to seek out and embrace.

More than five weeks have since passed he sent that prickly email. Pexton has offered no explanation as to why the Lynch content has been excised from the Post’s online site.

“I will get an answer for you if it is obtainable and I will let you know when I do,” he wrote on May 30. “That’s the best I can do. If that’s not to your liking, then I apologize but that is your issue, not mine.”

Woah. It’s not important to him whether the Post has scrubbed digital reminders of an acutely embarrassing story?

The Post, after all, called out Vanity Fair in April for digitally scrubbing a flattering profile of the wife of  Bashar al-Asad, Syria’s dictator. At that time, the Post described Vogue’s removal of the digital version of the profile as “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization.”

Interestingly, some Lynch-related content from 2003 remains freely available online — notably this article, at the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive.

I’ve asked Pexton: Would the Post and its readers not be better served by being consistent about its Lynch-related content?

And I have suggested to him that “my request can be distilled thusly:

“Why is some Lynch-related content from 2003 freely available online (see here), while content more embarrassing to the Post (see empty links here, here, and here) not available? Shouldn’t those empty links be restored, and added to the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive, where Lynch’s name and image already appear?”

He has given no direct responses to those questions.

So what’s to be concluded, 10 weeks after my initial inquiry to Pexton?

Not unlike Vanity Fair, the Post appears to have scrubbed the digital reminders of an embarrassing misstep, of a high-profile story that the newspaper got utterly wrong.

It’s also pretty clear the Post has no interest in making freely available online its botched reporting about Jessica Lynch.

It’s pretty clear, too, that Pexton doesn’t eagerly follow through on his rhetoric about the value and importance of “iconoclastic, questioning voices.”


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

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‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on July 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The “critic at large” essay in the latest number of the New Yorker includes references to my myth-busting latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite: His ‘moment’ wasn’t so special

The essay by Louis Menand is largely a searching review of Cronkite, the recent, so-so biography about legendary CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

Menand calls the book “long and hastily written.”

He discusses in detail the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the Vietnam War was stalemated supposedly was so powerful that it influenced American war policy and moved American public opinion. The Cronkite biography says as much.

But Menand scoffs at the notion the “Cronkite Moment” was very important at all, writing:

“The trouble with this inspiring little story is that most of it is either invented or disputed.”

He specifically refers to Getting It Wrong in dismissing the supposed effects of Cronkite’s pronouncement about the war — notably, that Cronkite’s assessment prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Menand notes that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report about Vietnam when it aired, pointing out that the president was in Austin, Texas, “attending a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally. … There is no solid evidence that Johnson ever saw the show on tape, either, though the White House did tape it.”

Further drawing on Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter debunking the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” Menand writes that even after Cronkite “stalemate” assessment, “Johnson’s speeches on Vietnam … were as hawkish as ever.

“Not only is there little evidence that the broadcast had an effect on Johnson; there is little evidence that it had an effect on public opinion.” And that’s certainly true.

Menand also notes that the author of the Cronkite biography, Douglas Brinkley, “implies that it was Cronkite’s commentary that emboldened the [Wall Street] Journal to criticize the war, but the Journal editorial appeared four days before the broadcast.”

The Journal’s editorial of February 23, 1968, said “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat [in Vietnam] beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The editorial was strong stuff. And it undeniably preceded Cronkite’s on-air assessment which, given the times, was tepid and unoriginal. Leading U.S. news organizations such as the New York Times, had taken to calling the war a “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program.

As Menand observes: “In 1968, you did not need an anchorman to know which way the wind blew” on Vietnam.

Menand’s essay also challenges the notion that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” dissecting a 1972 survey that rated the anchorman more trustworthy than the leading national politicians of the time. Not much of a comparison, that. As media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009, shortly after Cronkite’s death, the anchorman’s score in the survey “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Menand touches on Edward R. Murrow’s famous program in 1954 that addressed the smears and bullying tactics of the red-baiting U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. Menand notes that Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow’s televised assessment of McCarthy came “very late in the day.” By 1954, Menand writes, “McCarthy had been hunting witches for four years….”

He also offers a thoughtful and telling assessment about why media myths take hold.

“Journalism and history,” Menand writes, “are about getting things right. But the past has many uses, and one of them is to inspire the present. … More honorably, if not necessarily more accurately, we imagine our predecessors as nobler and braver than our small selves — as men and women who stuck up for principle and, by their righteousness, moved the world.”

That’s well said, and offers revealing insight about the tenacity of such myths as the “Cronkite Moment.”


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