W. Joseph Campbell

A media myth convergence: Erroneous claims about ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Sometimes media myths converge.

On occasion, a variety of news outlets independently invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at about the same time. It’s an occurrence that confirms wide familiarity with prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The most recent manifestation of a media myth convergence centers around the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut, a photographer for the Associated Press.

Ut’s image showed a cluster of young children, screaming in terror as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, whose clothing had been burned away by the napalm.

The myths surrounding the “Napalm Girl” image are tenacious, as I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes, that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and that it hastened an end to the conflict.

Variations of those erroneous characterizations were invoked in recent days by the National newspaper in Scotland; by Quartz, which styles itself an online site “for business people in the new global economy”; by the left-wing site Truthdig, and by the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa.

That variety of outlets is a reminder of the portability of prominent media myths — they can travel far — and confirms anew how readily myths can be harnessed to underscore some larger point.

Consider the National newspaper, which invoked “Napalm Girl” as evidence of the potential power of photographs in directing attention to illegal trafficking in wildlife. The article began by stating:

“When Nick Ut’s harrowing image of the Napalm Girl was splashed across newspapers in 1972, it dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War. Even today, the image is a shivering reminder of the innocent millions caught up in warfare; proof of the enduring power photography holds.

“Now, a group of photojournalists is employing a similar approach to communicate the ills of the illegal wildlife trade, a battle being fought on behalf of hundreds of species worldwide,” in a book, Photographers Against Wildlife Crime.

The Quartz essay make a somewhat similar claim about Ut’s photograph, saying it “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig is more vague, declaring the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.”

Ut’s image won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 but evidence is scant that it did much to change “public attitude” — or “shift the understanding” — about Vietnam. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, U.S. public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972.

I pointed out that slightly more 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted in May 1971 — more than a year before the napalm bombing that Ut photographed — said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. Thirty-one percent of respondents in May 1971 said no, it had not been a mistake.

When Gallup next asked the question, in a survey in January 1973, about the time the United States and North Vietnamese reached a peace agreement, the results were essentially unchanged: 60 percent of respondents said sending U.S. forces to Vietnam had been a mistake, 29 percent said it had not.

That poll question was a proxy for gauging Americans’ views about the war. It was first asked in August 1965, when only 24 percent of respondents said it had been a mistake to send troops to Vietnam; 60 percent said it had not been a mistake.

Additionally, Ut claimed in an interview in 2012 that publication of his image sparked “anti-war protests all over the world” — including London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. But there is no evidence — specifically no news reports — that such protests took place.

I wrote in Getting It Wrong:

“A review of the front pages of leading U.S. newspapers reveals no reports of antiwar protests of the sort that Ut described in the interview. Disturbing though it was, ‘Napalm Girl’ did not prompt Americans to take to the streets in rallies or demonstrations against the war.

“It is no doubt asking too much of a still photograph to stir far-reaching protest,” I observed.

The Sunday Times presented a particularly pernicious element of the “Napalm Girl” myths, saying the photograph was made following a “US napalm strike.”

The newspaper made that erroneous assertion in a tribute, published today, to Sam Nzima, a self-taught South African photographer.

Nzima, who died this month, was best known for the image of a dying young victim being carried away from student protests in Soweto in 1976.

In its tribute, the Sunday Times likened Nzima’s photograph to “Napalm Girl,” stating:

“In terms of impact and effect it was in the same league as Associated Press photojournalist Nick Ut’s picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road in agony after being caught up in a US napalm strike, which changed American perceptions of the war.”

‘Evening Bulletin,’ June 8, 1972

As often is the case in discussing the presumed influence of “Napalm Girl,” the Sunday Times’ claim about “changed American perceptions of the war” is backed by no evidence or documentation.

More significantly, the napalm that severely burned Kim Phuc was dropped not by U.S. warplanes but by an A-1 Skyraider of the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports at the time made quite clear (see image of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article nearby).

The New York Times, for example, reported on June 9, 1972, the day after the errant attack, that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm right on his troops and a cluster of civilians.” The Chicago Tribune told of “napalm dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

It was no “US napalm strike.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Advertisements
  1. […] I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the […]

  2. […] A media myth convergence: Erroneous claims about ‘Napalm Girl’ photo […]

  3. […] version has been invoked so often and so blithely as to become insidious. An essay posted yesterday at the Milwaukee Independent, an […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: