W. Joseph Campbell

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2017

In 'Napalm girl', Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2017 to the appearance of a number of well-known media-driven myths, which are prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a rundown of the five top posts of the year at Media Myth Alert, which was established at the end of October 2009, a few months before publication of the first edition of Getting It Wrong. An expanded second edition of the mythbusting book came out in late 2016.

Vox offers up myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ in essay about ‘fake news’ (posted July 6): “Fake news” was much in the media in 2017, and in addressing the phenomenon, the online site Vox invoked one of the media myths associated with the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of June 1972.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Vox  asserted that the image showed “a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

It was not a U.S. bombing. As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports made quite clear at the time.

For example, a veteran British journalist, Christopher Wain, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned the girl and others is false, but enduring.

And Vox has not corrected its error.

The photographer who took the “Napalm Girl” image, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, retired from the news agency at the end of March 2017.

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy (posted February 23): We are certain to hear fairly often about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in 2018, especially around the 50th anniversary in February of the on-air editorializing by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment is said to have been so powerful and shocking that it came as an epiphany for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was in tatters.

It’s a compelling story of media influence. But it’s hardly what happened.

Not only did Johnson not see Cronkite’s special report when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks afterward, mounting an aggressive and outspoken defense of his policy while making clear he had not taken the Cronkite’s message to heart — if he was aware of it at all.

Just three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

In mid-March 1968, Johnson told a meeting of business leaders in Washington: “We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

A few days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So at a time when Cronkite’s view about Vietnam should have been most potent and influential, Johnson remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war. On several occasions, the president effectively brushed aside Cronkite’s assessment and encouraged popular support for the war effort.

Johnson’s assertiveness at that time is little remembered, while the “Cronkite Moment” remains one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media myths.

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews (posted October 14): Long before its release in late September 2017, Peter Landesman’s biopic of Watergate’s mythical and most famous secret source, W. Mark Felt, was ballyhooed in the Hollywood press as a “spy thriller.”

The movie was grandiose in its title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But its script was a tedious mess that offered no coherent insight into Watergate or what really toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Felt, who was played by Liam Neeson, was a top official at the FBI who in 1972 and 1973 conferred periodically with Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal. In All the President’s Men, a book about their Watergate reporting for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to Felt as “Deep Throat.”

Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward took place in a parking garage in suburban Virginia and became the stuff of legend — not to mention media myth.

About the time he was conferring with Woodward, Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins — known at the FBI as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of fugitives of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for approving illegal entries and searches. He was tried with an FBI colleague; both were convicted and ordered to pay fines. They were pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

A far better biopic about Felt could have been developed around his criminal misconduct in investigating the Weather Underground. Such a movie could have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt wielded for a time at the FBI. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding cinematic treatment that was rewarded with no better than modest receipts at the box office.

WaPo’s media writer embraces Watergate myths (posted October 7): The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years — until Felt and his family revealed in 2005 that he had been the secret source. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, took the occasion to offer an important reminder about Watergate and the forces that had ended Nixon’s presidency.

Getler wrote in a column in June 2005 that “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

In October 2017, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, revisited the lessons of Watergate in an essay in Columbia Journalism Review — and embraced the trope that the Post and Woodward and Bernstein were central to bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

In her essay, Sullivan declared, without documentation, that Woodward and Bernstein had “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.’”

Woodward and Bernstein most certainly did not uncover Nixon’s obstruction. That was revealed in 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president can be heard approving a scheme to divert the FBI’s investigation into the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — the signal crime of Watergate.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account that the Columbia Journalism Review published in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

Deep in that article was a passage noting that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up: “It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew.

We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was hardly decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

And Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review remain uncorrected.

Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret planfor Vietnam (posted November 14): About two weeks before Minnesota Public Radio dismissed him for inappropriate workplace behavior, storyteller Garrison Keillor wrote an essay in which he imagined paying a return visit to New York City of 1961.

The thought was “unbearable,” he wrote, because “I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Were he somehow to make a return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Certainly not as a campaign pledge for the presidency in 1968 when, as a hoary media myth has it, Nixon cynically proclaimed having a “secret plan” to end the war.

But in fact, Nixon pointedly disavowed such a claim.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he also was quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But it was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year, and that is clear in reviewing search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search period was January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, and search terms were “Nixon” and “secret plan.” No articles were returned in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Had Nixon touted a “secret plan” during his campaign, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Keillor’s odd musings about returning to the ’60s were not the first time he’s indulged in media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor asserted that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst “sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, featuring Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war,” is one of the best-known in American journalism. But it is apocryphal, for reasons addressed in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2017:

 

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