W. Joseph Campbell

In essay about fake news, ‘Vox’ offers up media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on July 6, 2017 at 9:15 pm

In a lengthy essay posted yesterday about “fake news,” the online site Vox summoned a persistent media myth — that of the evocative “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam 45 years ago.

The essay invoked the photograph in discussing how remedies for “fake news” can be worse than the malady.

It ruminated about “potential unintended consequences of cracking down on fake news” and noted the controversy last year over “Facebook’s mishandling of the iconic photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War. After a Norwegian author published the photo as part of a commentary on the evils of war, Facebook took the photo down, saying it violated standards regarding nudity on the site.”

Indeed, Facebook goofed up thoroughly in that episode.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s passage about “the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

That’s an erroneous reference to a misguided aerial bombing on June 8, 1972, during which napalm was dropped near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Nick Ut of the Associated Press took the memorable photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc and other terror-stricken children fleeing the attack. Kim’s arms were outstretched and her face was contorted in agony. Her clothing had been burned away.

The napalm attack was carried out not by the United States but by Skyraider warplanes of the South Vietnamese Air Force, attempting to roust communist forces dug in near the village.

Contemporaneous news accounts were quite clear about who dropped the napalm.

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service, “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.” Donald Kirk of the Chicago Tribune reported the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

The headline on the New York Times dispatch from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.” And the Boston Globe declared: “”S. Viet error kills 20 in napalm inferno.”

The fight at Trang Bang was — as I point out in the new edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — “an all-Vietnamese encounter.” The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned Kim Phuc and others is false, but  enduring.

It is one of a number of myths attached to the “Napalm Girl” photograph.

Other myths are that the photograph was so raw and compelling that it hastened an end to the war (in fact it went on until April 1975) and that the image galvanized American public opinion against the conflict (Americans’ views about the war had turned negative in early 1968).

Another myth is that the “Napalm Girl” image appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere in the United States.

Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph soon after it was distributed by Associated Press. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it showed frontal nudity.

Of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers included in a review I conducted with a research assistant (all 40 were Associated Press subscribers), 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers examined — more than one-third the sample — did not publish the photograph at all. These titles included the Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Des Moines Register, Detroit Free Press, Newark Star-Ledger, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Just three of the newspapers examined — the Boston Globe, New York Post, and New York Timesprinted editorials specifically addressing the photograph and its significance.

The editorial in the New York Post asked: “When will this bloodiest and most bestial of wars also be recognized as the monstrous mistake that it is? The picture of the children [fleeing the napalm attack] will never leave anyone who saw it….”

WJC

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