W. Joseph Campbell

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Social-media triumphalism and its myth-busting limits

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 31, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Social media’s capacity to demolish media myths soon after they emerge was impressively on display this week as megastorm Sandy swept ashore in New Jersey and disrupted life throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Got it notably wrong

Erroneous reports were many as the storm reached the East Coast on Monday. As the Guardian of London noted today, “the spread of such misinformation was abetted by journalists, who were once taught the importance of verifying every source.”

Notably wrong was the report on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” news program Monday that Sandy had breached the heart of American capitalism and covered the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan with three feet of water.

But that account and a similar report on the hype-prone Weather Channel were promptly disputed, and soon repudiated, in a barrage of posts on Twitter.

In demolishing the bogus reports, Twitter demonstrated a capacity for “savage self-correction,” as John Herrman declared in a post yesterday at the BuzzFeed online site.

Herrman wrote:

“In response to thousands of retweets of erroneous Weather Channel and CNN reports that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded with ‘three feet’ of water, Twitter users, some reporters and many not, were relentless: photos of the outside of the building, flood-free, were posted. Knowledgeable parties weighed in.”

And the misreporting soon was corrected.

Herrman hailed Twitter as “a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace. To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

His point is well-taken. On more than a few occasions, Twitter has demonstrated a striking capacity to debunk embryonic media myths — including those myths it helped set loose.

The bogus quotation attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King after the slaying last year of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden comes to mind. The made-up passage — “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter before their corrective forces effectively demolished it.

But limits to social-media triumphalism must be noted.  The corrective power of platforms such as Twitter reaches only so far.

Once established, media myths are exceedingly difficult to uproot. These myths have amply demonstrated that they can withstand the power of social media.

Welles and ‘War of the Worlds’

Take, for example, Halloween’s most famous media myth — the notion that Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria. It’s a hoary media myth that’s just too embedded — and too delicious — to be destroyed.

No amount of Tweeting is likely to dismantle this myth, one of 10 that I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. It’s too engrained in popular culture — and in the news media — to go the way of CNN’s botched report about the flooded stock exchange floor.

The 74th anniversary of the original broadcast of The War of the Worlds was yesterday and Twitter percolated with reminders about the program and references to the panic it supposedly created. Tweets challenging the narrative of panic and hysteria were in a distinct minority.

Linked to more than a few Tweets yesterday was a tip sheet describing seven lessons that The War of the Worlds dramatization holds for social media.

The tip sheet seems more than a little convoluted, though. Among its observations was this:

“If you are lucky, the publicity often exceeds the actual event  …. The panic [of The War of the Worlds program] has become legendary, even though there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest it wasn’t nearly as widespread as reported at the time. But, it put the program on the map, and launched a relatively unknown 23-year old name[d] Orson Welles into the public eye.”

Even that’s not quite true. Although he was 23 at the time of the broadcast, Welles’ had already made the cover of Time magazine.


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Debates are over, media myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths on October 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

The runup to the three presidential debates this month inevitably was accompanied by references to the 1960 encounter between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — and to references to the media myth distorts understanding of the historic confrontation 52 years ago.

Debates are over, myth lives on

Even days after the final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the 1960 debate myth still swirls.

The myth has it that television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate of that campaign while radio listeners believed Nixon prevailed.

It’s a dubious bit of political lore that long ago became a defining feature of that debate. And it lives on as a reminder about how appearances supposedly trump substance in American presidential politics.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is implausible for several reasons, including the absence of representative polling data that confirmed such a disparity.

What likely was more decisive than appearance in that debate was Nixon’s willingness to be conciliatory, to concur with Kennedy. In his opening statement, Nixon seemed to second the points raised by Kennedy, who had spoken first.

Nixon said:

“The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. … There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We’re ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you’re in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead. And I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”

But in discussing the debate more than 50 years later, it’s far easier to reach for the myth of viewer-listener disagreement than it is to recall Nixon’s ill-advised tactics.

This was suggested in a lengthy commentary about the Obama-Romney debates, posted the other day at the online site of the liberal American Prospect political magazine.

The commentary invoked the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in stating:

“As for wishing these suckers were serious policy discussions, I can’t think of a single presidential debate that’s ever been decided on those grounds. Even in 1960, when the jousting between Kennedy and Nixon was relatively substantive, JFK triumphed purely on image, one proof being that people who only heard their confrontations on radio famously thought Nixon had cleaned his clock.”

The commentary offered no evidence to support the claim of clock-cleaning-on-the-radio.

That’s because there is no persuasive, contemporaneous evidence to that effect.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished in a journal article published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Their article, published in Central States Speech Journal, noted that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the Kennedy-Nixon debate invariably were anecdotal and impressionistic — and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

The polling organization Sindlinger & Co. did report that its survey respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But as  Vancil and Pendell pointed out, Sindlinger’s sample of radio listeners included just 282 respondents — of whom 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner. The numbers were far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Like many media myths, the notion of listener-viewer disagreement is so delicious that it must have been true.

The New Republic hinted at such sentiment on Monday, the day of the final Obama-Romney debate, in an essay that stated: “[P]erhaps it’s safe to say that 1960 was the year we learned that looks and demeanor, as seen on TV, were just as important as speech when it came to winning over voters.”

In making the claim, the New Republic essay cited an intriguing experiment, reported in 2003, in which 171 summer students at the University of Minnesota either viewed a video of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate or listened to an audio recording of the encounter.

None of the participants had prior knowledge about the Kennedy-Nixon debate, according to the researcher, James Druckman.

He reported finding that television viewers in his experiment “were significantly more likely to believe Kennedy won the debate than audio listeners.”

This, he declared, represented “the first clear empirical evidence consistent with the widespread assertion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

But in a footnote, Druckman reported that 81 percent of the viewers in his experiment thought Kennedy won; so did 60 percent of listeners.

That finding is inconsistent with the central element of alleged viewer-listener disagreement — that Kennedy won among television viewers while Nixon won among radio listeners.

What’s more, participants in Druckman’s experiment skewed Democratic: The “sample did underrepresent Republicans,” he wrote in another footnote. As such, participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the Republican.

Druckman also acknowledged that “younger people”  in the early 21st century may have processed “televised information differently” from viewers in 1960. To be sure, applying the experiment’s results to viewers and listeners of the presidential debate in 1960 is impossible.


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‘We’re trying to toughen you up’: Never happened with Obama and news media

In Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Remember that?

It was nearly six years ago when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made the comment to then-Senator Barack Obama, as his campaign for the presidency was unfolding.

Obama at the debate

Her remark was in reply to Obama’s criticism — uttered perhaps half in jest — about Dowd’s having mentioned his prominent ears. (She wrote in a column in October 2006: “He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and ‘maybe a little blow’ as a young man.”)

“You talked about my ears,” Obama told her later, “and I just want to put you on notice: I’m very sensitive about — what I told them was I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears.”

Dowd said in response:

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Of course, “toughen up” never happened. The mainstream U.S. news media rarely have treated Obama with anything but swooning deference. He and his policies seldom have been exposed to rigorous and critical assessment. Not in any sustained way, and certainly not during the 2012 election season.

As Andrew Klavan wrote recently in City Journal: “No other president could have … presided over such a crippled economy and such universal failures at war and in foreign policy and escaped almost without mainstream blame.”

The upshot of media deference was on vivid display Wednesday night, when Obama’s economic record was eviscerated by Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a debate stunning for its lopsidedness.

Not even Richard Nixon lost so utterly in 1960 in his debates with John F. Kennedy.

For the first time in his presidency, Obama was called to account publicly and prominently for the economic failings of his administration. And he had nothing in rebuttal: Romney’s unrelenting pressure left Obama looking flustered, hapless.

Since then, the mainstream news media have been inclined to blame Obama’s performance on Romney’s having told nothing but lies, on the clumsy moderation of Jim Lehrer of PBS, and (in Al Gore’s telling) on the altitude in Denver, the debate’s host city.

Even now, the mainstream news media are little inclined to “toughen up” Obama, even with two debates ahead and his presidency very much in the balance.

An inevitable reason for all this can be traced to the dearth of intellectual diversity at leading U.S. news organizations. The ideological imbalance in newsrooms is hardly a secret: News organizations themselves have called attention to this defect from time to time.

For example, the then-ombudsman for the Washington Post, Deborah Howell, wrote in a post-election column in November 2008:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives.

“It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

More recently, in his farewell column in August, Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor (or ombudsman), chided the newspaper’s “political and cultural progressivism” which, he said, “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane declared, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

Rather than treat the “overloved and undermanaged” critique as a matter of serious consideration, the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson, rejected it out of hand, dismissing it as obviously erroneous.

Brisbane’s observations, the product of two years as the newspaper’s ombudsman, deserved a reception far more thoughtful and serious-minded than that. Especially given the newspaper’s mostly forgotten internal report in 2005 which said in part:

“Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel we are missing stories because the staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faith.” (Emphasis added.)

The critique of the news media’s ideological imbalance is more than impressionistic, more than “perception”: A survey in 2008 of journalists for national news publications reported that 8 percent identified themselves as “conservative,” 32 percent as “liberal,” and 53 percent as “moderate.”

Such imbalance has given rise to the occasional vague promise to promote intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

But nothing much changes.  As I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “Viewpoint diversity is an issue not much discussed” in American newsrooms — “places that sometimes seem to be bastions of group-think.”

In that regard, I quoted Michael Kelly, former editor of National Journal, who once observed:

“Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Obama has thrived for years within the reassuring confines of the media cocoon which, when ripped away as it was Wednesday night, makes for dramatic theater. But it does little for the news media and their sagging credibility.


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1960 myth ricochets around the media in advance of Obama-Romney debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Television on October 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Kennedy, Nixon at their mythical debate

In the hours before tonight’s encounter between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the beguiling myth of the first-ever presidential debate — the notion that image trumped spoken word — has ricocheted across the U.S. news media.

News organizations of all types have been invoking the myth, which has it that television viewers overwhelmingly felt John F. Kennedy won the first televised debate in 1960 while radio listeners thought Richard M. Nixon had the best of it.

Here are a few examples of media indulgence in that fable:

  • The Boston Globe:  “According to those listening on the radio, Nixon won the debate or it was a draw. But most Americans watched it on TV, and they overwhelmingly were impressed by the … collected performance” of Kennedy.
  • The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant:  “Famously, those who listened to the radio thought that Nixon had defeated Kennedy in their famous first debate in 1960. By contrast, those watching on television thought that the dapper and cool Kennedy had won.”
  • Entertainment Weekly: “Radio audiences thought Nixon won the debate, but those who watched on television were convinced that Kennedy dominated.”
  • Huffington Post: “Richard Nixon’s haggard appearance vs. John F. Kennedy’s vigor is widely cited as contributing to a Kennedy victory in the first 1960 debate. But polls showed that was true mostly for those who watched it on TV, while those listening to the radio generally picked Nixon as victor.”
  • NBC Channel 5 in Chicago: “Pollsters found that people who listened to this debate on the radio thought that Nixon, the vice president, beat Kennedy. But those who followed on television … sided with Kennedy, who won the election.”
  • A blog of the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s voice abroad: ” Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup did not hurt him with those listening on the radio. They gave him the edge.  But Kennedy had the advantage with TV viewers and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Make that bad history.

There is quite simply no persuasive evidence to support the notion that television viewers and radio listeners decisively disagreed about the outcome of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.

That such an effect did occur — or must have occurred — is attractive for a number of reasons: It acknowledges the presumptive power of the televised image. It renders uncomplicated the intricacies of an important political moment of long ago. And it offers an enduring though misguided lesson that content matters less than appearance.

Significantly, the broad media embrace of the debate myth ignores the powerful dismantling published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

In their article in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell noted that one “of the most perplexing legacies of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is the claim that radio listeners and television viewers came to opposite conclusions about the debate winners.”

They proceeded to explode that notion, pointing out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and impressionistic — hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.

The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.

Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents — of whom only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and several other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.

It should be noted that the run-up to tonight’s debate has brought some faint recognition about the mythical character of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate.

For example, the latest Washington Examiner column of political commentator Michael Barone reads as if he had consulted recent posts at Media Myth Alert.

Barone wrote:

“It is generally held that television viewers felt Kennedy won the first debate, while those listening on radio, unaware of Nixon’s improvised makeup, felt Nixon won. That’s probably overstated. Contemporary [news] accounts suggest most viewers felt both candidates did well, while the single poll of radio listeners had a small sample possibly tilted toward pro-Nixon rural areas lacking TV reception.”

Such observations, however well-reasoned, likely are to be of scant effect in countering the present contagion of the 1960 debate myth.

Like many media-driven myths, it is after all almost too delicious not to be true.


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