Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.
■ PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.
But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.
PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.
“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.
Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.
My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:
“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment: ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”
■ Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.
Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.
Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:
“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”
Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”
How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.
Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.
In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.
What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.
■ London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.
In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch’s] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”
But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.
Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.
Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”
Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:
“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”
The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.
And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.
■ WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13): Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.
This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.
The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.
WaPo’s Thomas obit
The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”
But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”
The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.
Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.
The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email: “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”
In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”
He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”
I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.
If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.
Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”
Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:
“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”
If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.
■ Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”
At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.
The documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was fast-paced but superficial.
The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.
The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.
The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.
The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.
Other memorable posts of 2013: