W. Joseph Campbell

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Media myth distorts Chicago Tribune timeline of newspaper history

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

The Chicago Tribune the other day published a timeline of American newspaper history over the past 50 years — a chronology tainted by the inclusion of a prominent media myth.

The Tribune declared “the daily paper remains vital to an informed citizenry” in presenting the timeline, which it said demonstrated “how newspapers expose — and occasionally commit — wrongdoing.”

The myth appears in the timeline entry for 1974, which says: “A corrupt U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is brought down by a newspaper, The Washington Post.”

Brought down by a newspaper.

Now, that may be the popular dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — that the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption that forced Nixon’s resignation.

But it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post embraces.

In fact, Woodward once dismissed such characterizations as “horseshit.” And for good reason.

As I discuss in a chapter in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate demanded the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term had it not been for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the telltale recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

It is interesting to note that the Post in its Watergate reporting did not disclose the existence of the Watergate tapes, nor did the newspaper identify or unravel the coverup of Watergate-related crimes.

To assert that the Post brought down Nixon is, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of this hoary media myth? Why does it persist, despite the evidence that can be arrayed against it?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

The Watergate myth, after all, offers a simplistic, easy-to-grasp interpretation of a scandal that was intimidating in its complexity: The web of misconduct that took down Nixon also landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

Media myths often spring from simplicity, from the desire for tidy and uncomplicated versions of history. Not only that, but the notion that the Post brought down Nixon fits neatly into a timeline.

A feel-good component buoys the Watergate myth, too: The myth affirms the notion that newspapers, beleaguered though they are, really can make a difference in American politics and in American democracy.

Which, itself, is something of a media myth.


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The subtlety of media myths: A ‘New Yorker’ brief and the napalm-attack myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New Yorker, Photographs on November 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Media myths can emerge in blithe and subtle ways, as a brief item in the November 19 issue of the New Yorker testifies.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The myth the New Yorker insinuates is especially pernicious: It suggests U.S. forces dropped the napalm that wounded and terrified a group of Vietnamese children — a moment captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut in one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

In a brief retrospective review of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, the New Yorker said a scene in that movie of “screaming schoolkids fleeing down a lonely road disturbingly presage[d] the iconic news image of Vietnamese children escaping from American napalm attacks.”

The reference to “iconic news image of Vietnamese children” running from “napalm attacks” points unmistakably to Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, which was taken June 8, 1972, not far from the village of Trang Bang, in what was then South Vietnam.

The centerpiece of Ut’s photograph shows a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming in pain and terror as she fled the attack.

The media myth associated with the image is that U.S. forces carried out the aerial napalm attack that terrorized and injured the children near Trang Bang.

But that interpretation — or, perhaps, the reflexive inclination to blame the American military — is in error: The napalm was dropped in a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports of the time made clear.

In the 40 years since, however, the erroneous interpretation has emerged not infrequently.

A notable example came six months ago, in an obituary published in the New York Times that referred to Ut’s photograph and said it depicted “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

For weeks, the Times resisted correcting its error about “American planes” having carried out the attack, torturing logic as it defended its phrasing.

In reply to my email pointing out the error, the correction expert on the Times obituary staff, Peter Keepnews, wrote:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the plane’s manufacturer were of crucial importance to the napalm attack. Which it wasn’t. The Times clearly had meant that American forces were responsible. Which they weren’t.

Finally, in late August, the Times published what I called “a sort-of correction,” invoking Keepnews’ baffling logic in stating:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was a begrudging, less-than-sincere acknowledgement of error.

Independently of my efforts, two senior former journalists for the Associated Press also had pressed the Times to correct the error about the napalm attack. They were Richard Pyle, a veteran AP correspondent who was the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the agency’s photo service. (Pyle directed my attention to the New Yorker brief that alludes to the napalm-attack myth.)

In July, Pyle and Buell sent a joint letter by email to the Times, noting that the error, if left uncorrected, could solidify into wide popular acceptance.

Their fears were hardly unfounded — as the New Yorker’s movie brief suggests, in its blithe, almost casual invoking of the napalm-attack myth.


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

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Newspaper endorsements don’t much matter — except maybe at the margins

In 1897, Newspapers on November 5, 2012 at 6:54 am

Romney endorsed by New York Daily News

It’s long been apparent that newspaper endorsements for high political office are rarely decisive.

Back in 1897, when print made up the mass media, newspapers were shocked when their endorsements had little impact on the outcome of the New York City mayoral election.

The Tammany Hall candidate, an obscure judge named Robert A. Van Wyck, won the election decisively — without giving a speech and without receiving the editorial support of the city’s leading newspapers.

Nowadays, in a world of myriad digital options, many U.S. daily newspapers are but shells of their former selves. Few of them really presume to set an agenda for their communities and their endorsements for high political office are all but irrelevant. More than a handful of newspapers no longer endorse candidates for president.

Still, it is conceivable that newspaper endorsements could make a difference in close elections in a few places in tomorrow’s presidential election. Enough readers could take cues from newspaper endorsements to tip the outcome in very tight races — as perhaps in Iowa and Florida.

It’s speculative, but not implausible.

In Iowa and Florida, prominent newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 are backing Republican Mitt Romney this year. And the Obama-Romney race is close in both states. Polling data compiled and aggregated at RealClearPolitics indicate that Obama leads by three percentage points in Iowa and that Romney is narrowly ahead in Florida.

The largest-circulation newspaper in Iowa, the Des Moines Register, has endorsed Romney, citing his “strong record of achievement in both the private and public sectors.”

In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel have come out for Romney.

The Sentinel asserted in its editorial endorsement: “We have little confidence that Obama would be more successful managing the economy and the budget in the next four years. For that reason, though we endorsed him in 2008, we are recommending Romney in this race.”

And the Sun-Sentinel said: “When President Obama came into office in 2009, the economy was in freefall and though untested, he inspired us with his promise of hope and change. Now, four years later, we have little reason to believe he can turn things around.

“So while we endorsed Obama in 2008, we recommend voters choose Republican Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.”

That those newspapers have turned away from Obama probably matters much only to a few readers. But editorial endorsements that sway even a few readers could make a difference if the statewide race is very close.

This point was made the other day by a leading political analyst and numbers-cruncher, Michael Barone. Writing in the Washington Examiner, Barone said the Des Moines Register’s endorsement “could make a significant difference” in the outcome in Iowa.

Some indirect evidence suggests that newspaper endorsements can signal the outcomes of close races.

Greg Mitchell, formerly editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in a recent commentary at the Nation that just before the presidential election in 2008,  he “went out on a limb and predicted which candidates would win in the thirteen key ‘toss-up’ states based purely on newspaper endorsements in those states — not polls or common sense or anything else.”

Mitchell said he “got them right, except for one.”

Based on newspaper endorsements in swing states this year, Mitchell has predicted that Obama will narrowly defeat Romney. Mitchell’s breakdown has five swing states for Obama, five for Romney, and one (Virginia) undecided, which seems more like a toss-up.

In any case, data compiled by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, show that 12 newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 are supporting Romney this year. They include the New York Daily News, the country’s fifth-largest newspaper, and Newsday of Long Island, the 13th largest daily.

Those endorsements aren’t likely to matter much, though, given that Obama is a sure bet to carry New York State.


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