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