W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Media myths and radio’ Category

Not so fast about that fading media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on November 10, 2018 at 5:57 pm

So there I was, waxing hopeful the other day that The War of the Worlds panic myth was fading away.

A passage in a commentary today in the New York Times rather dashes that optimism.

From today’s NYTimes

The myth has it that on the eve of Halloween in 1938, a Sunday night radio dramatization about Martians invading the eastern United States, a tale adapted from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, pitched Americans by the thousands into panic and mass hysteria.

And the Times’s commentary repeats the myth, stating: The “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

That all makes for a good story, but it’s thinly documented — as the Times itself made clear just last week. At the show’s 80th anniversary, the Times posted online a commentary that said the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

It’s too bad the Times did away with its “public editor”; I’d love to know what an in-house critic like Liz Spayd (who was dismissed when the position was abruptly scrapped) would say about such incoherence in the commentary section.

In any event, the notion the broadcast triggered panic and hysteria is a false narrative. There was no mass panic, no hysteria. And that conclusion comes from a variety of scholars who periodically over the past 25 years or so have considered the broadcast’s presumed effects and found them missing.

While some listeners that long ago night may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the show’s audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized it for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween. The program was aired on CBS radio in its familiar time slot and featured familiar voices, notably that of 23-year-old Orson Welles, the show’s director and star.

For American newspapers, though, the presumptive panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” as I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Newspapers were eager to reprimand radio and their “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans,” I wrote.

The Times participated in the dressing-down 80 years ago, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

The story of nationwide panic quickly faded from the front pages in 1938, which surely wouldn’t have been the case had the program stirred nationwide turmoil: Such an extraordinary event would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

My recent optimism about the panic myth’s fading away was buoyed by the comparatively few naive references to the myth in the run-up to the 80th anniversary. “News reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years,” I wrote, adding that I was hopeful about the myth’s dissolving in the face of repeated debunkings.

I also noted, “It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.” And I might well have closed the blog post there. Instead, I wrote:

“But it may be that ‘panic broadcast’ myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.”

Guess not.

WJC

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The fading of a media myth?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2018 at 8:08 am

Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?

The question arises because in the run-up to Halloween, news reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years. (See here and here for a couple of head-shaking exceptions.)

Orson Welles

The question is especially intriguing because tonight marks the 80th anniversary of what has been called the “panic broadcast.” It’s one of those round-number anniversaries that could be expected to bring fresh reminders that the hour-long radio show supposedly sent panic-stricken Americans into the streets across the country.

But the anniversary this year has brought comparatively few such naive references in the news media — certainly nothing akin to the PBS “American Experience” program that aired five years ago and embraced the dubious assumptions about the “panic broadcast.”

In a time of keen awareness about “fake news,” is The War of the Worlds media myth flickering out? Could it be that repeated debunkings over the years have finally taken hold?

Possibly.

Media Myth Alert — which was launched nine years ago with a post about The War of the Worlds — hopes so.

To be sure, the myth always has been something of a stretch.

It centered around the hour-long, Sunday night show on CBS radio called “Mercury Theatre on the Air” that starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. The program on October 30, 1938, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic that was published in 1898.

Welles and his troupe made imaginative use of mock but urgent-sounding news bulletins to report that Martians wielding deadly heat rays had invaded rural New Jersey and were swiftly making their way to New York City. The broadcast supposedly was so vivid, fast-paced, and seemingly authoritative that Americans supposedly were scared out of their wits, believing the country had fallen under alien attack.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Chicago Herald Examiner front page, Halloween, 1938

That’s what many American newspapers reported the day afterward: Panic had gripped the country. Or, as the Washington Post asserted (without offering much evidence): “For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.”

But as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, newspaper accounts of radio-produced panic and hysteria “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

While some listeners to Welles’ show that night were briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

For American newspapers, though, the purported panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I wrote. Newspapers were eager to chide their broadcast rival, and the “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans.”

For example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and American declared that the program had caused hysteria that “was NATIONWIDE and literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL.” It “goes without saying,” the Journal and American said in an editorial, “that if the [radio] industry, or irresponsible units within the industry, cannot guard against incidents of this nature … it will not long be free from more drastic forms of censorship than it has yet known.”

The New York Times also reprimanded radio, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

Indirectly, though, newspaper reports effectively challenged the notion that Welles’ program had caused widespread chaos.

“Had mass panic and hysteria swept the country that night,” I noted in Getting It Wrong, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries. But the newspaper reports were notably silent on casualties.” No accidental deaths, and no suicides, were linked to the program.

The story of nationwide panic soon faded from the front pages, which wouldn’t have been the case had the program indeed stirred nationwide turmoil. Such an extraordinary and unprecedented event surely would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

Instead, news coverage turned quickly from The War of the Worlds broadcast to such events as the celebrated horse race on November 1, 1938, between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Beyond the flawed newspaper reports and commentary, what solidified the panic myth was the work of Hadley Cantril, a psychology professor at Princeton University. He investigated public reaction to the performance and in 1940 published a thin volume titled The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.

In it, Cantril wrote, “Long before the broadcast had ended people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from Martians.”

He estimated that least 1.2 million listeners were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by The War of the Worlds dramatization. That number represents a fraction of the audience’s size, which Cantril figured to have been at least 6 million people.

Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fears, however. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, feeling “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” is hardly synonymous with being panic-stricken or hysterical.

Even so, Cantril’s book propelled the panic myth. That it did was perhaps unsurprising: Like most media myths, The War of the Worlds tale is delicious, easily remembered and easily retold.

What’s more, the myth became infused over time with something akin to a third-person effect — namely, that while media consumers back in the ’30s must have been quite gullible, we’re too media-savvy these days ever to fall for such a broadcast prank.

Several scholars, working independently over many years, contributed to unraveling the “panic broadcast” myth.

An early challenge was posed by Robert E. Bartholomew who in 1992 reported “a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated.” Only “scant anecdotal evidence,” Bartholomew said, exists “to suggest that many listeners actually took some action — such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in cars after hearing the broadcast.”

Similarly, Erich Goode wrote in 1992 that relatively few people “actually did anything in response to the broadcast, such as drove off in panic or hid in a cellar. … It becomes clear that whatever the public reaction to The War of the Worlds radio broadcast was, it did not qualify as an instance of mass hysteria.”

In 2000, Jeffrey Sconce noted in his book, Haunted Media, “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in an actual panic over the broadcast is … limited at best.”

Michael Socolow, a media scholar at the University of Maine, has contributed impressively to the debunkings. He wrote in 2008 in the Chronicle of Higher Education that panic linked to The War of the Worlds dramatization “was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

At the 75th anniversary of the Welles broadcast, Socolow and Jefferson Poole noted in an essay for Slate.com: “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary … almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”

They further noted: “If War of the Worlds had in fact caused the widespread terror we’ve been told it did, you’d expect CBS and Welles to have been reprimanded for their actions. But that wasn’t the case.”

And in an essay posted at today’s Washington Post, Socolow and Poole wrote that The War of the Worlds “episode provides a clear example of the process by which fake news can quickly become ingrained deeply in American culture.”

Brad Schwartz, author of Broadcast Hysteria, also has contributed to the debunking, writing that newspapers in “sloppiness and haste … created a compelling yet inaccurate narrative: that War of the Worlds threw the entire country into chaos, causing untold numbers of listeners to act bizarrely and irrationally.”

Belatedly, a few newspapers have been coming around. London’s Daily Telegraph revisited the “panic broadcast” a couple of years ago and declared it a myth.

It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.

But it may be that “panic broadcast” myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.

WJC

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Media myths of Watergate, ’60 debate circulate as campaign enters closing days

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Watergate myth on November 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm
'Nixon did in Nixon'

Nixon’s resignation: Not the media’s doing

Coinciding with the closing days of this year’s wretched election campaign has been the appearance of prominent media myths about the Watergate scandal and the first televised debate in 1960 between major party presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The myths, respectively, have it that the dogged reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974, and that television viewers and radio listeners reached sharply different conclusions about the debate outcome, signaling that image trumps substance.

Both myths have become well-entrenched dominant narratives over the years and they tend to be blithely invoked by contemporary journalists.

Take, for example, the lead paragraph of an Atlantic article posted a couple of days ago; it flatly declared:

“The Watergate Scandal was a high point of American journalism. Two dedicated young reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down President Richard Nixon for his role in the coverup of the 1972 attempted break in of the Democratic Party headquarters by Republican operatives.”

In an otherwise thoughtful analysis posted today about the new media’s failings in this year presidential campaign, David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun invoked the Watergate myth, stating:

“And how was Nixon forced to resign if not through the old-school, legacy standards of dogged investigative journalism?”

Zurawik referred to Bernstein as “[o]ne of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down.”

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmAs I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — a second edition of which recently was published — the Washington Post was at best a marginal contributor to Nixon’s fall.

Unraveling a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, the seminal crime of Watergate.

Most senior figures at the Post during the Watergate period — including Woodward, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, and Publisher Katharine Graham — scoffed at claims the newspaper’s reporting toppled Nixon.

Woodward, for example, told American Journalism Review in 2004:

“To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

The myth about the 1960 debate was invoked almost casually in a column the other day in Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper. The writer asserted:

“The televised debates were said to give the nod to the telegenic Kennedy, while radio listeners believed Nixon the victor.”

But as I point out in the new edition of Getting It Wrong, the notion of viewer-listener disagreement is “a dubious bit of political lore”  often cited as presumptive “evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement, I also point out, “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Vancil and Pendell, writing in Central States Speech Journal, reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — just 282 of whom said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

In the second edition of Getting It Wrong, I seek to build upon the work of Vancil and Pendell, offering contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries published in those newspapers in the debate’s immediate aftermath turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement, I write, adding:

“None of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries [examined] made specific reference” to the supposed phenomenon of viewer-listener disagreement. “Leading American newspapers in late September 1960 spoke of nothing that suggested or intimated pervasive differences in how television viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate.”

And they were well-positioned to have done so, given the keen interest in, and close reporting about, the first debate between major party candidates.

WJC

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Memorable late October: A new edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ and more

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Photographs, Quotes, Television on October 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmLate October makes for memorable times in media-mythbusting.

The anniversary of the mythical panic broadcast — Orson Welles’ clever radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria in 1938 — falls this evening.

Today also marks the seventh anniversary of the launch of Media Myth Alert.

And late October this year brought the publication of an expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, my award-winning mythbusting book, published by University of California Press.

The second edition includes a new preface, and three new chapters that discuss:

  • The myth of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — notably that television viewers and radio listeners reached dramatically different conclusions about who won the encounter. In Getting It Wrong, I characterize the notion of viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.” I also present reasons why the debate of September 26, 1960, was at best a small factor in the outcome of the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-01-49-pm
  • The myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam in June 1972, which shows a cluster of children burned or terrorized by an errant napalm attack. I note the photograph has given rise to a variety of media myths — notably that American warplanes dropped the napalm. The attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force. Related myths are that the photograph was so powerful that it turned U.S. public opinion against the war, that it hastened an end to the war, and that it was published on newspaper front pages across the country. (Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph; many abstained.)
  • The spread of bogus quotations via social media and the Internet.  Among the examples discussed in the new edition is this phony quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” The utterance, I point out, is found in none of Jefferson’s writings. And there is no evidence the third U.S. president smoked hemp or other substances, including tobacco. Even so, the obviously preposterous quote — like many others attributed to important men and women of the past — “is too alluring and oddly amusing to drift away as so much historical rubbish,” I write.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong also explores the tenacity of prominent media myths, calling attention to the roles of celebrities and luminaries — authors, entertainers, and social critics, as well as politicians and talk show hosts — in amplifying dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power.

The upshot of the celebrity effect, I write, is scarcely trivial: The prominence of luminaries helps ensure that the myths will reach wide audiences, making the myths all the more difficult to uproot. The importance of the celebrity effect in the diffusion of media myths has become better recognized, and better documented, in the years since publication in 2010 of the first edition of Getting It Wrong, I point out.

Myth-telling luminaries include Vice President Joe Biden, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, former President Jimmy Carter, humorist Garrison Keillor, and author and TV commentator Juan Williams.

I further note that for journalists, media myths “are very seductive: They place the news media at the epicenter of vital and decisive moments of the past, they tell of journalistic bravado and triumph, and they offer memorable if simplistic narratives that are central to journalism’s amour propre.

“They also encourage an assumption that, the disruption and retrenchment in their field notwithstanding, journalists can be moved to such heights again.”

WJC

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Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ out soon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio on September 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

The runup to Monday’s debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican foe, Donald Trump, has been accompanied by news accounts about the first debate 56 years ago between major party candidates — and more than a few references to a hoary and tenacious media-driven myth.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmThe myth has it that television viewers and radio listeners disagreed sharply as to the winner of the debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and his Republican foe, Richard M. Nixon. TV viewers, it is said, thought Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave their nod to Nixon.

I take up the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in one of three new chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking The Greatest Myths of American Journalism. Other new chapters discuss the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph and the reach and velocity of Internet-driven bogus quotations.

The second edition, to be published by University of California Press, is due out in about a month’s time.

In the book, I characterize viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

It is, I add, “described often and nonchalantly in books about American presidential politics, in news articles recalling the 1960 debate, and in commentaries ruminating about the legacies and lessons of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter.”

In news articles, for sure.

Today’s “Saturday essay,” a prominent section front of the weekend Wall Street Journal, invoked the viewer-listener myth declaring, quite nonchalantly and without attribution:

“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference.”

Today’s New York Daily News published a look-back at the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate that stated:

“Following the debate, most TV viewers believed that Kennedy had been the victor. Conversely though, radio listeners found that Nixon had a slight edge over Kennedy. And this, arguably, began the process of presidential candidates and their camps being completely obsessed with a perfect TV image.”

Similarly, an article posted the other day at the online site of Voice of America asserted:

“[W]hat the 1960 debates showed was how television was changing politics. In the first debate, radio listeners said Nixon won. Those who watched on television said Kennedy was the better debater.”

Pacific Standard magazine offered a waffling, diffident embrace of the myth, stating:

“According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.”

In this case, “conventional wisdom” is a media myth: The notion of viewer-listener disagreement is, I write, “a dubious bit of political lore.”

I note in the new chapter that the myth of viewer-listener disagreement “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

I seek in the second edition of Getting It Wrong to build upon the fine work of Vancil and Pendell and present contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries of those newspapers turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-7-56-07-am“Even the oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were vague and few,” I write, adding:

“The most proximate reference to the purported phenomenon appeared two days after the debate in a column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill wrote that he had arranged for ‘a number of persons [to] listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.'”

While intriguing in its prescience, I point out that McGill’s experiment “was more speculative than revealing. His column did not report how many people he had recruited to listen to the debate on radio, nor did it describe their party affiliations or where they lived. It was not a representative sampling; obviously, it was not meant to be.”

Rather, I write, it was an opportunity “to ruminate about the novelty of television as an instrument of political campaigns.” McGill called the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate “a triumph for television,” which it was. But it produced no significant disconnect among television viewers and radio listeners.

WJC

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The mythical ‘panic broadcast’: Tired cliché of Halloween

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2015 at 9:16 am
Welles_monument

Welles and The War of the Worlds

The days around Halloween can be among the most myth-indulgent of the year, given the many media reminders about The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that aired 77 years ago tonight.

The hour-long show, which aired on CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles, was so vivid in telling of the invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays that tens of thousands of Americans supposedly were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

Or as the Indianapolis Star put it the other day, “Pandemonium swept the nation that evening” in 1938.

Or as the Louisville Courier-Journal said about the program, “unsuspecting listeners reacted in horror while listening to descriptions of a devastating landing of ‘ferocious Martian invaders.'”

And so it goes: Late October brings predictable references to the “panic broadcast” of 1938 and to the upheaval it supposedly caused. It’s so predictable as to have become a cliché.

That the program set off widespread panic and mass hysteria also is a hoary media myth, a myth that offers deceptive messages about the influence radio wielded over listeners decades ago and about the media’s capacity to sow terror and alarm. There is scant evidence that The War of the Worlds had such effects: Whatever fright there was that night 77 years ago did not reach nationwide proportions.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had panic spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s supposed panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with a long ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely hyped and overblown?

It is, for starters, famous, or infamous, for what it suggests about the presumptive dark power of mass media.

It is, moreover, a deliciously clever story, one well-suited for retelling at Halloween.

Indeed, the show is often rebroadcast, or re-enacted, this time of year — which serves to reintroduce and celebrate the performance, keeping it fresh in the popular consciousness.

The “panic broadcast” also lives on because it allows contemporary media consumers to indulge, if quietly and privately, in a bit of smugness — that we would never be so gullible as to believe such a media hoax; we are too media-savvy. But back then, in the 1930s when radio was still new, they weren’t so sophisticated: They were more naïve, more easily duped by exaggerated media messages.

This is known as the third-person effect, the belief that others are more credulous, or more susceptible to media influences, than we are.

Such smugness has helped keep alive the tired Halloween cliché of The War of the Worlds.

WJC

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The hero-journalist trope: Watergate’s go-to mythical narrative

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced America’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

And yet, because Watergate was such an intricate thicket of lies, deceit, and criminality — and because it unfolded more than 40 years ago — a sure understanding of the scandal can be defiantly elusive. Collective memory about the many lines of investigation that unwound Watergate and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency has inevitably grown faint.

What endures is the heroic-journalist trope, Watergate’s dominant popular narrative, which rests on the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s criminal misconduct and forced his resignation. It has become the go-to explanation about how Watergate was exposed, and it is an endlessly appealing interpretation.

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

Which takes us to a movie review posted today at the online site of WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

The review discusses the perversely named Truth, a new motion picture that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used fraudulent documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. (Because it stars Robert Redford in Rather’s role, Truth has invited comparisons — not all of them favorable — to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film in which Redford played Woodward of the Post.) 

The WTOP reviewer has little truck with the Truth story line, saying it “would have been far better … to paint the characters as fallen figures who admit they screwed up, rather than misunderstood scapegoats who were taken down by The Man.”

Fair enough. But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and declares:

“If Woodward and Bernstein ran the story too early — before they had actual proof from reliable sources — Nixon would have stayed in office, the Watergate would simply be a fancy hotel, and ‘All the President’s Men’ would not exist.”

The reference to “the story” is puzzling, given that the reporting of Watergate went far beyond a single article in the Washington Post. The scandal produced extensive news reporting over many months, from the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington to the resignation of Nixon in August 1974, following disclosures that he had approved a plan to cover up the break-in.

And to assert that “Nixon would have stayed in office” if not for Woodward and Bernstein is to be decidedly in error — and to indulge in a powerful myth of American journalism.

It is a tempting trope, to be sure. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

He’s right: Woodward and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their reporting did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein did not break the most crucial stories of Watergate.

They did not, for example, disclose the extent to which the Nixon administration covered up of the crimes of Watergate. Nor did they reveal the existence of the secret White House audio tapes, the contents of which were decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The so-called “Smoking Gun” tape captured Nixon’s approving a plan on June 23, 1972, to divert the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. The tape’s release sealed the president’s fate.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his term.

WJC

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Hearst, Garrison Keillor, and ‘furnish the war’: Celebrities and media myths

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Quotes, Spanish-American War on April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

Wasn’t I just blogging about celebrities pushing media myths?

Today brought another entry to that dubious lineup.

Keillor_WritersAlmanac

On his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, Garrison Keillor blithely retold the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The occasion for Keillor’s myth-indulgence was the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth in San Francisco.

“In 1898,” Keillor smugly told listeners, “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 tale is one of the best-known in American journalism. And it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons discussed in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Let’s revisit some of the many reasons.

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial usually overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never discussed it.

Hearst

Hearst: Denial ignored

What’s more, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message, had it been sent.

The sole original source for the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

Nor did he say exactly when the presumed Remington-Hearst exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule.

The rebellion was the antecedent to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The timing of Remington’s trip to Cuba in early 1897 further undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote: It presents an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

As Keillor’s podcast suggests, the “furnish the war” anecdote is a delicious tale, easy to retell, and easy to believe. Like nearly all media myths, it resides on the cusp of plausibility; it corresponds well to the superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as the unscrupulous newspaper publisher who fomented the Spanish-American War.

And that, too, is a tenacious media-driven myth.

WJC

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NYTimes review offers up myth about radio listeners and the 1960 debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Television on March 16, 2015 at 9:08 am
Kennedy and Nixon_1960

Kennedy, Nixon at the debate

Because he looked poised and confident, it is often said that television viewers felt Senator John F. Kennedy won the first-ever U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Radio listeners, perhaps put off by Kennedy’s New England accent, thought his Republican foe, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, performed better.

The notion there was marked disagreement among viewers and listeners is dubious but hardy — and it popped up yesterday in the New York Times, in a review of an art exhibition at Hofstra University Museum.

The exhibition includes, the review said, a “video clip from the televised presidential debate between Vice President Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960,” a clip that “seems to show the handsome, youthful Kennedy trouncing a visibly sweating Nixon. (Those who caught the debate on the radio thought Nixon trumped Kennedy.)”

Well, not really: There’s no solid, persuasive evidence to support the notion that radio listeners felt that Nixon had “trumped” Kennedy, or that listeners sharply disagreed with television viewers about who did better in the debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.

That there must have been such an effect is appealing on many levels, notably because it suggests that appearance can trump substance in politics.

But the notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate is a media myth — a media myth that endures despite being thoroughly dismantled nearly 30 years ago in research published by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

In an article in Central States Speech Journal  in 1987, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 11.35.11 PM

They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.

The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.

Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents. Of that number, only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, which was far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.

Vancil and Pendell’s article also questioned the notion that Nixon’s haggard and sweaty appearance during the debate was necessarily decisive to views about who won the encounter.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” they wrote, “but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”

They added: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.”

It is important to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary declared the Kennedy-Nixon encounter — the first of four debates during the 1960 campaign — to have been a draw, or nearly so.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote:

“Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”

Writing in the old New York Herald Tribune, columnist John Crosby stated:

“I think Kennedy outpointed Nixon. I think it was a close fight and perhaps a disappointing one. … Both candidates were awfully cautious, as if they’d been warned that a mistake could cost them the whole prize.”

The Washington Post saw it another way, stating in a post-debate editorial:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Right after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press news service conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported finding that most respondents said they weren’t influenced by the exchanges.

“Only a few persons,” the AP reported, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”

A Gallup poll taken in the week after the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate; 23 percent thought Nixon was better, and 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

The survey, moreover, detected no marked, post-debate shift of support to Kennedy. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

“The prudent reader can see,” wrote George Gallup, the head of the polling organization, in reporting those results, that polling “has not reached the degree of accuracy required to say with certainty which candidate is ahead in a close race such as the present one.”

Kennedy narrowly won the election, receiving 49.72 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55 percent.

WJC

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Marking five years: The best of Media Myth Alert

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Scandal, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 31, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Media Myth Alert today marks its fifth anniversary — an occasion fitting to revisit the top posts since the blog went live on October 31, 2009, with the objectives of calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Here are the top five of the more than 640 posts at Media Myth Alert. (A separate post today will revisit five other top items posted at Media Myth Alert.)

The top posts all were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all were represented disclosures found only at Media Myth Alert.

Krakauer quietly retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11, 2011): This post disclosed the walk-back by author Jon Krakauer from claims in his 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003.

Krakauer book coverThose claims were unattributed in the book — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory.

It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve pointed out that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the botched story about Lynch has allowed for the emergence not only of bogus allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a tenacious false narrative that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq in the first days of the Iraq War.

Walters was taken prisoner by Iraqi irregulars, and shot and killed.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3, 2012): The “napalm girl” photograph was one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — and remains a source of media myth.

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning image (AP)

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press on June 8, 1972, and showed terror-stricken Vietnamese children running from an errant aerial napalm attack. The central figure of the image was a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming from her burns.

So powerful was the photograph that it is sometimes said — erroneously — that it hastened an end to the war. Another myth is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. aircraft, a version repeated by the New York Times in May 2012, in an obituary of an Associated Press photo editor, Horst Faas.

The Times’ obituary claimed that the “napalm girl” photograph showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack, and I pointed this out in an email to the Times. I noted that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

An editor for the Times, Peter Keepnews, replied, in what clearly was a contorted attempt to avoid publishing a correction:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

Of course the aircraft’s manufacturer was not at all relevant as to who carried out the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former senior Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted for weeks before publishing an obscure sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a muddled and begrudging acknowledgement of error — hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, who had asserted in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29, 2013): The first-ever post at Media Myth Alert was a brief item about Orson Welles’ clever and famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938. Welles’ show, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, supposedly was so terrifying that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

That’s a media myth, one that circulates every year, at the approach of Halloween.

Welles_monument

Orson Welles

In 2013, at the 75th anniversary of Welles’ program, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds in a much-anticipated “American Experience” documentary that turned out to be quite a disappointment. PBS managed not only to make The War of the Worlds seem snoozy and tedious; it missed the opportunity to revisit the well-known but much-misunderstood radio program in fresh and revealing 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.”

The PBS program failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

And it failed to consider the growing body of scholarship which has impugned the conventional wisdom and has found that The War of the Worlds program sowed neither chaos nor widespread alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of Welles, the program’s 23-year-old star.

My critique was endorsed 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.’”

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18, 2011): Few media myths are as enduring as the hero-journalist trope about of Watergate. It holds that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post — guided by Woodward’s clandestine source, code-named “Deep Throat” — exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

It’s an easy-to-remember tale that cuts through the considerable complexity of Watergate and, as such, has become the dominant narrative of the scandal.

But it’s a history-lite version of Watergate, a media-centric version that the Post itself has mostly eschewed and dismissed over the years. (Woodward once put it this way: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Watergate marker_cropped

Marker with the error

A measure of how engrained Watergate’s dominant narrative has become can be seen in the historical marker that went up in August 2011 outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Woodward conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his “Deep Throat” source.

The marker, as I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

That’s not so.

Such obstruction-of-justice evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did.

But Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) did not share it with Woodward.

The “Deep Throat” garage is to be razed to permit the construction of two commercial and residential towers, the Post reported in June 2014. Interestingly, the Post’s article about the planned demolition repeated nearly verbatim the key portion of the marker’s description, stating:

“Felt … provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which is still wrong, even if printed in the newspaper.

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17, 2011): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University used to feature a quotation attributed to Murrow — a quotation that was only half-true.

Soon after I asked the dean about the provenance of the suspicious quotation, it was taken down.

The quotation read:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow: It was a passage in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow in 1954

 Not Murrow’s line

The second sentence of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In mid-February 2011, I noted that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s first appearance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak, who said he believed the Web page containing the suspect quote had been developed before his arrival at Washington State in 2009, referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the ‘loyal opposition’ quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

The bogus Murrow quote about “the loyal opposition” has popped up before.

For example, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq, Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage — and claimed Murrow was its author.

WJC

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