W. Joseph Campbell

NYTimes recalls ‘Napalm Girl’ (and other famous ‘pictures of war’); overstates its impact

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Photographs, Scandal on December 15, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Prominently displayed on the front page of today’s New York Times were powerful images of war — the memorable and myth-burdened “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972 among them.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-12-31-42-pmThe wartime images accompanied an essay about the misery of Syria’s battered city, Aleppo, once a rebel stronghold in the country’s prolonged civil war.

“They keep coming,” the essay began, “both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them ….”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert was a passage deeper in the essay that invoked “Napalm Girl“:

“Pictures of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before. … There was Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph from South Vietnam of the naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming, burned by napalm. These pictures drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

Well, not in case of “Napalm Girl.”

The photograph, which showed a cluster of terror-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village northwest of what was then called Saigon, provoked no prolonged conversation in the American press in the days following its publication. It prompted few newspaper editorials.

There’s no evidence, moreover, that “Napalm Girl”  helped “tip the scales of policy.” (The essay in the Times cited none.)

I address the myths of “Napalm Girl” in my book, Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which was  published recently.

“Over the years,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the superlatives associated with the image have edged into hyperbole and exaggeration. Napalm Girl has become invested with mythic qualities and a power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can project.”

Among the myths is that “Napalm Girl” was so arresting and extraordinary that it appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. I present data challenging that notion, reporting in Getting It Wrong that of 40 major U.S. dailies examined, 21 placed the photograph on the front page in the days soon after it was taken on June 8, 1972.

Fourteen of the 21 newspapers displayed “Napalm Girl” above the front-page fold, a newspaper’s most coveted placement.

But 19 newspapers examined either did not publish “Napalm Girl” or placed the photograph on an inside page.

Reservations about front nudity no doubt led some newspapers to decline to publish “Napalm Girl” or give it prominence, I note, although the depth of such reluctance is difficult to measure.

In any event, it is clear that “Napalm Girl” did not drive “news cycles for weeks, months, years,” as the Times’ essay asserted.

Nor did the image drive policy.

It had no discernible effect on the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, which was put in place during the presidency of Richard Nixon and sought to shift the bulk of fighting to America’s South Vietnamese allies.

By June 1972, most American combat troops had been removed from South Vietnam, a drawdown neither slowed nor accelerated by publication of “Napalm Girl.”

This is not to say Nixon was unaware of the photograph, however. He briefly discussed “Napalm Girl” with his top White House aide, H.R. Haldeman, a conversation captured on Nixon’s secret taping system.

The tapes show that Haldeman on June 12, 1972, brought up what he called the “napalm thing.” Nixon replied by saying:

“I wonder if that was a fix” meaning: Was the image staged?

“Could have been,” Haldeman said, adding, “Napalm bothers people. You get a picture of a little girl with her clothes burnt off.”

“I wondered about that,” Nixon replied.

The photograph had no known effect on Nixon’s thinking about the war, I write in Getting It Wrong, pointing out that his attention was soon diverted. On June 17, 1972, burglars linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, the signal crime of what ballooned into the Watergate scandal.

Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary’s links to his campaign — a scheme he discussed with Haldeman in tape-recorded conversation June 23, 1972 — eventually cost Nixon the presidency.

WJC

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  1. […] Wrong includes three new chapters — one of which debunks the myths associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which showed a cluster of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant […]

  2. […] three of the newspapers examined — the Boston Globe, New York Post, and New York Times — printed editorials specifically addressing the photograph and its […]

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