W. Joseph Campbell

The insidious media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on July 29, 2018 at 11:31 am

The most powerful media myths are insidious, worming their way deep into popular consciousness where they gain resistance to debunking.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

That’s certainly the case with the award-winning “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken by an Associated Press photographer in June 1972, during the Vietnam War.

The black-and-white image shows a cluster of fear-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village, Trang Bang. The photograph’s central figure is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming in terror.

The image offers a timeless statement about war’s indiscriminate effects. And it has given rise to media myths, those false, dubious, or improbable tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

Most notable of the myths associated with the photograph is that U.S.-piloted aircraft carried out the napalm attack.

That version has been invoked so often and so blithely as to become insidious. An essay posted yesterday at the Milwaukee Independent, an online news magazine, suggests as much.

The essay recalled the career of John G. Morris, a once-prominent photo editor for the New York Times and other news organizations who died a year ago at 100.

The essay invoked the myth that Americans were responsible for the napalm drop at Trang Bang, stating:

“It was at Morris’s insistence that graphic images of the Vietnam war taken by two Associated Press photographers made the front page of the New York Times: in 1968, Morris challenged official policy and the supposed requirements of good taste with Eddie Adams’s image of a Vietcong prisoner at the moment of his execution by a South Vietnamese police officer; and in 1972 he used a similarly arresting image by Huynh Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, of a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing the US napalm attack that had burned off her clothes.”

But it was no “US napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

Christopher Wain of Britain’s ITN television network, who saw the attack, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

Fox Butterfield of the New York Times reported from Trang Bang that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm on his troops and a cluster of civilians.”

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

I address, and debunk, the media myths of the “Napalm Girl” in a chapter in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong. I close the chapter by considering why the photograph has been so often mischaracterized as showing the effects of “U.S. napalm” or a “U.S. air strike.”

Perhaps it is mostly a case of error repeated so often that it is accepted without second thought.

Or perhaps, as I write in Getting It Wrong, it is a representation of what Shelby Steele “has termed ‘poetic truth’ — the bending of ‘the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant.'”

The “Napalm Girl” photograph long has been associated with a narrative that the U.S. role in Vietnam was amoral and foolhardy, that Kim Phuc’s burns were, in the words of the Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott, “the collateral damage of a war we made.”

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop at Trang Bang has served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.

But to make such a connection, I write, “is to misrepresent the photograph, distort its meaning, and garble the circumstances of its making.” It is to allow narrative to obscure fact.

WJC

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