W. Joseph Campbell

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Disputed? Use it anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on January 24, 2015 at 9:13 am
LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Nothing to say about Cronkite

It’s disputed, but what the heck?

Use it anyway.

That, essentially, is how New York Times today presents the mythical tale of President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to anchorman Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment of the Vietnam War in 1968: The tale is “oft-cited if disputed,” the Times says in an article about a Univision journalist — but it repeats the dubious tale nonetheless.

As if there’s no need to let a media myth stand in the way of a useful anecdote.

The “oft-cited” anecdote centers around Cronkite’s claim, offered February 27, 1968, at the close of a special report on CBS, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out of the conflict.

Supposedly, Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect: Versions vary markedly as to what the president purportedly said.

Here’s how the Times presented the anecdote today, embedded in a report about the influence of Jorge Ramos, news anchor for the Spanish-language Univision network:

“‘Remember what L.B.J. said, “When you lose Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the war”?’ said Matthew Dowd, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, recalling the oft-cited if disputed story that President Lyndon B. Johnson said he lost ‘middle America’ when Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War. Among Latino voters, Mr. Ramos has the sort of influence and audience that Cronkite had more broadly among Americans in his day.”

Let’s unpack that myth-freighted paragraph.

First, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. This is crucial because the power of the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote rests on the immediate and visceral effect that anchorman’s assessment supposedly had on the president. It was, supposedly, an epiphany for Johnson: He suddenly understood the futility of pressing the war in Vietnam (even though U.S. combat troops remained in Vietnam until 1973).

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not at the White House.

He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. And about the moment Cronkite was on television intoning his “mired in stalemate” remark, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Johnson on that occasion (see photo, above) had nothing to say about Cronkite.

Second, it is impossible to square Johnson’s purportedly downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — with his sharply more hawkish remarks made at that time about Vietnam.

Just hours before the Cronkite program aired Johnson, delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he cast the war effort in Churchillian terms, saying at one point:

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed.”

Johnson also declared in the Dallas speech, “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam. “I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further said:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

It is inconceivable that Johnson’s assertive, “no retreat” views about the war would have swung so immediately, and so dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor.

An opinion that was hardly exceptional, novel, or shocking in late February 1968.

By the time of Cronkite’s report, “stalemate” had become an unremarkable — and not uncommon — way to characterize the war in Vietnam.

The Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, notably in a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it, the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Vietnam, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The analysis was published on the Times front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Moreover, even if Johnson later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, it represented no epiphany. If the president later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s analysis, he didn’t take it to heart in his public statements.

Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson was in Minneapolis where he delivered a hawkish, lectern-pounding speech, urging a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice,” Johnson said in the speech, in which he disparaged foes of the war as wanting the country to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

So the Times would do well to offer a correction or clarification: The Cronkite-Johnson tale certainly is “oft-cited,” but it is more problematic than merely “disputed.”

It is illusory. It is mythical.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

WaPo still unable to keep details straight about Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on January 10, 2015 at 2:15 pm

The newspaper that brought us the bogus story about the battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch during the Iraq War has goofed again in recounting details about the case.

Private Lynch

Lynch: Never fired a shot

The Washington Post — which erroneously claimed in early April 2003 that Lynch had fought fiercely despite being shot and stabbed in the ambush of her unit — mistakenly described in a blog post yesterday the circumstances of Lynch’s subsequent rescue from captivity.

Lynch was a supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Company, which was attacked in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Lynch, who never fired a shot in the ambush, was severely injured in the crash of a Humvee as she and four colleagues tried to escape. She was neither shot nor stabbed.

She was taken prisoner and held nine days at an Iraqi hospital before being rescued by a U.S. special operations team on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Post published its bogus, front-page report about Lynch’s purported derring-do on the battlefield, a story that cited otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” and appeared beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

Yesterday, the Post’sCheckpoint” Web log erred in asserting that Lynch was one of several U.S. soldiers “held in captivity for 22 days before being rescued by Marines.” Lynch was not among those prisoners and her rescuers were special operations forces.

The “Checkpoint” post focused on about a talk given at a conference in San Antonio by Shoshana Johnson, who was shot in the ankles in the Nasiriyah ambush and also taken prisoner. Her rescue from captivity came more than a week after the operation that freed Lynch.

Conflating the cases of Lynch and Johnson obviously is not an error as significant as the Post’s report of April 3, 2003, which said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

Still, the erroneous “Checkpoint” report is sloppy, and signals continued inattention to detail about the Lynch case.

One might think, given the embarrassment of the botched “fighting to the death” story, that Post reporters would be especially mindful about the details of the Lynch case.

And yet, the “Checkpoint” writeup wasn’t the first time in recent years that the newspaper has erred in referring to Lynch.

The Post invoked the Lynch case in 2010, in a movie review that disingenuously blamed the Pentagon for the bogus tale about Lynch’s heroics. Nearly seven weeks later, the newspaper published a belated and awkwardly worded correction about the review’s erroneous passage.

It is worth noting that the Post has never fully accounted for its botched hero-warrior story in 2003. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so electrifying that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

The Post’s unwillingness to identify its sources contributed to the tenacity of a toxic narrative that the Pentagon concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude attempt to boost U.S. public support for the war.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline on the Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch, has said unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.

In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb, who then covered the military for the Post, made clear he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said, 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.”

If not Pentagon sources, then who were they? It’s well past time for the Post to identify them.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2014

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

Media Myth Alert marked its fifth anniversary in 2014 and reported periodically during the year on the appearance of prominent media-driven myths.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of 2014, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2014.

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee (posted October 22, 2014): Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, died in October, setting off a wave of tributes that erred or exaggerated in describing the newspaper’s role in the Watergate scandal, which brought the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary said Bradlee, who was 93, had “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Britain’s Economist magazine said the Post under Bradlee “toppled President Richard Nixon.”

And so it went.

But as I pointed out in discussing those erroneous characterizations, Bradlee, himself, had rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. He said in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.)

His comment “that Nixon got Nixon” was in keeping with the tendency of senior figures at the Post to reject the simplistic notion that the newspaper’s reporting — especially that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — uncovered the crimes that led to Nixon’s downfall.

As Woodward once declared:

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

Indeed, it is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes.

It likewise failed to reveal the existence of the White House tapes, which clearly revealed Nixon’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Moreover, the story that Woodward and Bernstein still say they are most proud of was in error on crucial details.

That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — wrongly — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates who were seeking to run against Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda dismissed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome at best “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important in bringing about Nixon’s resignation were the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Maddow wrongly asserts that Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in early June, Rachel Maddow wrongly declared that the Pentagon had “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim about the Pentagon and Lynch, who was an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, and exclusive, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch: Botched WaPo story made her famous

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and said that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

Lynch in fact had not fired a shot. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post had reported. She suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the attack. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who wrote the hero-warrior story about Lynch — which was wrong in its most crucial details — made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and flatly declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb, who then covered the Pentagon for the Post and who now is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also told NPR that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

He also said: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

But none of that vital context was mentioned by Maddow in her commentary on June 3.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary came amid the controversy stirred by the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out for her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a U.S. military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was quoted as saying.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already placed in the public domain.

Thorp, then a Navy captain, was assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. He was following, not fabricating: He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s sensational story about Lynch’s purported heroics, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt had prepared in Washington.

I noted in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Post’s central role in publicizing the bogus narrative, which was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But Maddow ignored the agenda-setting character of the Post’s reporting about Lynch: It didn’t fit her narrative.

Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo (posted May 29, 2014): There’s little doubt that the “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 was among the most memorable and disturbing images of the Vietnam War.

The photograph showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press and formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since, it also has become an artifact of exaggeration, as is evident in a tendency to ascribe powerful effects to the photograph, effects that it never had.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

In May, for example, the Guardian newspaper in London exaggerated the effects of the “napalm girl” image, asserting in an exhibit review that it had “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.”

In fact, “napalm girl” did neither.

U.S. public opinion had turned against the war in Vietnam well before June 1972. For example, nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

So Ut’s photo hardly can be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam; no single image “expedited” its end. The war’s confusing aims and uncertain policy objectives, its duration, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive to its outcome.

Seeking context for Obama’s war, finding media myth (posted September 24, 2014): It is a hoary myth myth that Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968, claiming to have in  mind a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Had that been the case, had Nixon run for president saying he had “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have called attention to such a claim.

But they didn’t, as a search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers makes clear. (The newspapers included the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune.) Searching for “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 that quoted Nixon as touting or promising or describing a “secret plan” for Vietnam.

Still, the old chestnut still circulates, usually invoked as supposed evidence of Nixon’s guile, shiftiness, and venality.

Secret plan? Who me?

Secret plan? Who me?

In September, for example, a columnist for the Washington Examiner summoned the myth in seeking historical context to discuss President Barack Obama’s air war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Obama wasn’t the first president to promise peace and deliver war,” the columnist, Timothy P. Carney, wrote. “Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on keeping America out of the Great War. Nixon promised a secret plan to exit Vietnam quickly.”

As I noted at the time, “Missing from Carney’s discussion were details about when Nixon made such a promise, and what the ‘secret plan’  entailed. Those elements are missing because Nixon never promised a ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam.”

The derivation of the hoary myth can be traced to the presidential primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In reporting on the speech, the wire service United Press International said Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam. But he made no claim about a “secret plan.”

And he was asked about having a secret plan, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times. Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

He also said then: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” Nixon’s comments were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War (posted June 20, 2014): No media myth is hoarier than the notion that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Warmonger?

Hearst: Warmongering publisher?

The claim is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the myth was offered up as fact in a commentary in Politico Magazine in June.

The commentary pointedly criticized the scholar Robert Kagan for having “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in a 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

But in characterizing the war as “the product” of Hearst’s yellow press, Politico erred.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I noted, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which since early 1895 had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion.

In a failed attempt to put down the uprising, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could neither support nor offer supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian nightmare in Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press, including but by no means limited to the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

The yellow press reported on — but certainly did not create — the terrible effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898. It was not the content of the yellow press — and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it — that pushed America into conflict with Spain.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2014:

Christmas Eve 100 years ago: NY Sun catches up with Virginia O’Hanlon of ‘Yes, Virginia,’ fame

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes on December 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

NYSun_21Sept1897One-hundred years ago, a reporter for the old New York Sun caught up with Virginia O’Hanlon who, as an 8-year-old in 1897, had written the letter to the newspaper that inspired American journalism’s most memorable editorial, a paen to childhood and the Christmas spirit titled “Is There A Santa Claus?

The editorial’s most famous lines sought to reassure young Virginia, saying:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

NYSun_25Dec19140000

Virginia and daughter (From New York Sun, December 25, 1914)

Seventeen years later, on Christmas Eve 1914, Virginia O’Hanlon spoke about the editorial and recalled it fondly.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she told the newspaper’s reporter. “I was eight years old then, just at the age when doubts creep in and when most children get their first touch of cynicism.”

She also recalled having told her father in 1897: “‘I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus. If the Sun says there isn’t any I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me” by telling her Santa did not exist.

The interview was conducted at the home of Virginia’s parents at 121 West 95th Street in New York City, a few doors from where she had written to the Sun in 1897, saying: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

At the time of the interview, Virginia was a married woman, 25-years-old. She was wed at her parents’ home in June 1913 to a jeweler named Edwin Malcolm Douglas. They were the parents of Laura Virginia Douglas, who on Christmas Eve was 9-months-old.

The marriage to Douglas was not to last; he eventually left her. And the Sun’s writeup of the interview 100 years ago hinted at strains in the union.

Virginia’s husband was absent that Christmas Eve. His business, the Sun said “takes him away from New York frequently and keeps him away from the city for long periods and the [Douglas] home in Orange, N.J., would be too lonesome for the wife and child.” So Virginia and the baby decamped to her parents’ place.

Douglas “will be home to-night or early in the morning” Christmas Day, Virginia told the Sun’s reporter, “and we will have a lovely Christmas.”

She spoke at some length during the interview about the Sun’s editorial, which was written by Francis P. Church and published September 21, 1897. The newspaper’s reply surprised and elated her, and her parents, Virginia said.

“It used to make me as proud as a peacock,” she said, “to go along in the street in the neighborhood and hear somebody say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial the New York Sun had about her?’ And father and mother were even prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it.”

The day the editorial appeared, her father, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, “hustled out and came back loaded down with [copies of the newspaper] until he looked like a pack mule,” Virginia said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.”

The editorial “was a wonderful thing in my life,” she said “and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her ABC’s it will be the first thing she will read. I’ll help her over the big words and hard spots, but I want her to get the beautiful spirit of it as quickly as she can.”

The writeup of the interview, published in the Sun on Christmas Day 1914, noted that the newspaper had “never quite lost sight of Virginia. … [I]t is impossible to forget the sort of little girl who wrote so sincerely and trustfully as Virginia did. The Sun knew when she left school, knew when she was married, knew when Laura Virginia opened her blue eyes, and remembered yesterday that Laura Virginia was on the eve of her first Christmas.”

I discussed the back story to the famous editorial in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. My writeup three years ago about the Sun’s interview with Virginia O’Hanlon is accessible here.

WJC

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In remarkable reunion, descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon gather at Newseum events

In Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes, Year studies on November 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm

In what likely was an unprecedented public gathering, programs yesterday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., brought together several descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote a letter to the old New York Sun that inspired American journalism’s best-known and most-reprinted editorial.

Is There_NYSunThe remarkable reunion included Virginia’s only grandson, two granddaughters, two great-grandsons, and a great-great granddaughter, who is 8-years-old. Her name is Mehren O’Hanlon Blair, and she recited Virginia’s letter at the central, holiday-themed event of what the Newseum called “Yes, Virginia, Family Day.”

Mehren was followed by one of the great-grandsons, Nick Hromalik, who read the famous editorial, which appeared in the Sun as a reply to Virginia’s letter that implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Both the letter and editorial were published on September 21, 1897, beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial’s most familiar and most-quoted passage is: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

At a panel program that preceded the readings, Hromalik and Jim Temple, who is Virginia’s grandson, spoke about the editorial’s  significance and described how it has left lasting impressions on their families. (I moderated the panel discussion; in the audience were two of Temple’s sisters — granddaughters of Virginia O’Hanlon — as well as another great-grandson.)

Temple recalled how Virginia gladly accepted invitations to speak about the editorial, and would take no money to do so. He said he has followed that practice, as have other descendants of Virginia, who died in upstate New York in 1971 at 81-years-old.

Temple also said he remembered his grandmother was a gifted and imaginative storyteller. She also was an accomplished woman, earning advanced degrees and working more than 40 years as a teacher or principal in the New York school system. Virginia also was essentially a single mother; her husband left her when her only child — Temple’s mother — was just an infant.

Virginia’s letter to the Sun and the newspaper’s reply — written by Francis P. Church, who died in 1906 — have exerted an appeal across generations that is as astounding as it is undying. In my book about 1897, The Year That Defined American Journalism, I characterized the editorial as “a lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.”

It is, moreover, a cheering and reaffirming commentary, one without villains or sinister elements. The editorial also is a searching intellectual discussion that nonetheless is largely understandable to 8-year-olds, as Temple pointed out. (It also has been a way for generations of parents to address skepticism of their children about Santa Claus: They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about Santa’s existence.)

Temple politely took issue with television depictions of the story of Virginia’s letter to the Sun. He said the representations were not entirely accurate .

He may have been too polite.

Temple_Hromalik

Nick Hromalik, left, and Jim Temple (Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie )

The most recent such depiction, an animated TV program released in 2009 and shown on CBS during every holiday season since then, succeeds in distorting all major elements of the back story of the editorial. Notably, Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed girl obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and unrelievedly disagreeable.

Neither portrayal, as I have pointed out, is very convincing. Neither is very accurate.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Appealing across generations of students: The Verne Edwards Mystique

In Journalism education, Newspapers on November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

The following is an expansion of remarks I offered yesterday, at a memorial service in Delaware, Ohio, for Verne E. Edwards, my undergraduate journalism professor and mentor who died this month at 90-years-old. I dedicated my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, to Edwards, who for 33 years taught journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University.

VerneEdwards

Verne Edwards, mid-1970s

How was it that Verne Edwards commanded such respect, such reverence, across generations of students?

He was a professor known for rigorous expectations — and sometimes-stern appraisals. I remember writing a headline for the student newspaper, the Transcript, that referred to Mount Union College (now University of Mount Union) as “Mount Vernon.”

In his weekly markup of the Transcript, Verne circled the errant headline in red pencil and identified it as the worst he had ever seen.

Verne was exacting, and could be quirky; he sometimes addressed his classes in a sidelong manner, not making much eye contact. But he was tough, and honest, and fair. And his students tended to feel terrible when they believed they had let him down. As in mistaking Mount Union for Mount Vernon.

The question of Verne Edwards’ appeal across generations has personal dimension and relevance: I have taught at American University for 17 years and know few faculty who command the kind of respect, indeed the reverence, that Verne so clearly won from generations of students. I have puzzled about the qualities and attributes that gained for Verne Edwards such esteem.

It is a puzzle; I call it the Verne Edwards Mystique, and I cannot claim to have fathomed all its sources.

The Verne Edwards Mystique surely sprang, in measure, from the authority borne of high standards and relevant experience. Verne was a print journalist. At one time or another, he wrote editorials or edited copy at such newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Toledo Blade. He wrote the textbook, too — Journalism in a Free Society, which he required in his classes for years.

It was little exaggeration that Ohio Wesleyan’s journalism program was known, to some of us, as “Vernalism.”

The Verne Edwards Mystique was rooted, too, in a deep and abiding interest in students, and a dedication to staying in touch. Verne would keep up on the accomplishments of his former students, and would welcome them back to campus.

Year after year, for many years, Verne prepared an annual alumni newsletter that he filled with details and updates about his students from across the generations. His newsletter was a highlight of the end-of-year holidays. And it created bonds among his former students, even for those who had never met one another.

What may best explain the Verne Edwards Mystique, though, is modesty, a decided modesty.

Verne was no self-promoter. He could have been, surely, given the awards and the recognition he received during his career. But his ego was kept under wraps and under control; his was a modesty that’s rather rare in the academy.

Students sensed that, too. Verne, they knew, was the real deal. And he didn’t flaunt it.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Five years on: The best of Media Myth Alert, Part II

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on October 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Media Myth Alert revisits its top-ever posts today in observing its fifth anniversary.

The blog went live October 31, 2009, and its objective was, and remains, twofold: Calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out in 2010.

This is the second of a two-part review of the 10 top posts published at Media Myth Alert, home over the years to more than 640 essays and commentaries. The top posts shared these elements: All were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all represented disclosures exclusive to Media Myth Alert.

■ Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19, 2011): It is sometimes said, erroneously, that bra-burning “never happened,”  that such reports were little more than hostile exaggerations by journalists.

Toronto bra burning_1979

Toronto, March 1979

Bra-burning never occurred?

Not quite.

Credible, first-hand accounts are cited in Getting It Wrong that bras and other items were set afire, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American pageant. And in Toronto in March 1979, a demonstration was capped by a bra-burning, intended as a way to attract media attention. A photograph of the Toronto bra-burning is at right.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February 2011 with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper. I had doubts about its authenticity, given the periodic claims about no bras ever having been burned at a feminist protest.

The Toronto image, I thought at first, might have been faked — or unethically altered somehow.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said that “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police. (The report said that of 337 rapes investigated, 140 were “unprovoked.” The report also said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.)

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-aware and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Toronto newspapers the next day reported on the protest — but did not mention the bra-burning.

Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in June 2014, Rachel Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim, made while revisiting at some length the hero-warrior tale about Lynch, an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

PFC Lynch: Fired not a shot

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and declared that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003. Lynch suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee in Nasiriyah. She was taken prisoner by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on the hero-warrior story — which was wrong in its important details — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

None of that vital context was acknowledged by Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case on June 3, 2014.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary was inspired by controversy surrounding the release a few days before of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out on her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was additionally quoted as saying.

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.

Thorp, then a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing — he was following. He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s story already in circulation and quickly gaining international attention.

I wrote in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that “it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story.” But Maddow ignored the Post’s exclusive role in pushing the botched Lynch story into the public domain.

The Post did so by relying on sources it has never disclosed.

It ought to.

Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch? (posted April 27, 2012): The Washington Post’s Watergate content from the 1970s is freely available and readily accessible online.

But try finding online the Post’s famously wrong reporting about Jessica Lynch’s derring-do in Iraq, notably the electrifying front-page report that appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

Lynch_headline_PostThat story — which said Lynch had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner — was in error in all important details. You won’t find it online at any Washington Post site. (The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Nor will you find freely available online the scathing reviews of the Lynch story published by the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, in April and June 2003.

All of which suggests digital scrubbing of embarrassing content — conduct of the sort the Post criticized in 2012, in noting that Vogue magazine expunged the online version of a fawning profile of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Post at that time said Vogue had taken “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization” and had committed “a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

But had the Post not committed a similar “violation” in excising the digital reminders of the embarrassing Lynch case, a dramatic story that it had thoroughly and exclusively botched?

Rather looks like it.

I asked the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about the apparent digital scrubbing of the Lynch content.

Pexton took weeks to reply, finally stating in an email that he had found “nothing nefarious about this.” He said the Post since 2003 “has gone through several changes of content management systems,” by which articles are posted online.

He noted that the “fighting to the death” story about Lynch and related content are available in the Post’s fee-based archive.

But why not make the “fighting to the death” story freely available? Why not remove the fee to allow access to a singularly memorable article of the Iraq War, a mistaken report that made Jessica Lynch something of a celebrity and gave rise to persistent and misguided claims and suspicions that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale and somehow fed it to the Post?

“Restoring the digital version of the article of April 3, 2003, would represent a contribution to the record about the case of Jessica Lynch, which the Post is solely responsible for having placed in the public domain,” I wrote in an email to Pexton.

He never replied before leaving the position in 2013, when his two-year term as ombudsman expired. He was not replaced.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4, 2012): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency in 2012 prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign memorable for an astonishingly clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most scathing putdowns in American political history.

But my research found that the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

The gaffe was committed in late August 1967 by George Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In an interview with a Detroit television reporter, Romney referred to a visit he had made to South Vietnam in 1965 and said:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested gullibility, muddled thinking, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His run for the presidency never righted itself; he quit the race at the end of February 1968.

A witty putdown attributed to Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy ensured that Romney’s gaffe would remain unforgettable. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, all Romney needed was a “light rinse.”

So incisive was McCarthy’s quip that it is said to have “essentially finished Romney” as a candidate for president.

But unclear is where, when, and even whether McCarthy made the “light rinse” comment.

A search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward. (The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.)

It seems improbable that American journalists in 1967 or 1968 would have failed to report a retort as deft and delicious as McCarthy’s.

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 claims.

American Melodrama, a hefty book published in 1969, described McCarthy’s remark as off-hand and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say where McCarthy made the comment, when, or specifically to whom.

Such vagueness invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. It also sounds a bit too perfect — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13, 2013):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post has moments of sheer arrogance.

This was apparent in late summer 2013, when the newspaper refused to acknowledge and correct an inarguably erroneous reference to Richard Nixon’s supposed “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The wrong-headed reference to Nixon’s “secret plan” 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_HThomas obit_2013

The Post’s obit of Thomas

The Post’s obituary was glowing and, as if to suggest Thomas’s impressive assertiveness, claimed that she once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

Trouble is, there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question, point-blank or otherwise.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. That’s probably what the obituary writer had in mind.

But Thomas had asked about Nixon’s peace plan, not a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error in the obituary had broader dimension, in that it suggested an embrace of the persistent notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 touting a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House on a “secret plan.” The belief that he did circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Patricia Sullivan, said as much, telling me in response to an email query:  “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 Douglas Feaver, who had been designated the Post’s reader representative, a sort of ombudsman-lite position set up months after Pexton’s departure.

I noted to Feaver that if the Post could identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if the newspaper could back up the claim in its obituary, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing if 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, then, I wrote, a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than  two weeks to reply to my query, and when he did, he absolved the Post of error. “I see nothing here that deserves a correction,” he wrote.

How obtuse.

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary about Thomas, 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.”

Sure: Quickly and completely. Just as it did in its mistaken reference to Nixon’s “secret plan.”

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

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

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

The death of Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, touched off  a wave of tributes that erroneously cited the newspaper’s central role in the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Bradlee, himself, had rejected the simplistic and mythical notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.

But as news spread yesterday that Bradlee had died at age 93, adulatory tributes poured in, many of them blithely invoking the media myth of Watergate.

USA Today, for example, said Bradlee “led” the Post’s “Watergate coverage that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The Los Angeles Times declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary about Bradlee stated that he “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.” (The print edition of the Times is less sweeping if not more accurate, saying Bradlee “presided over The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”)

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Similarly, the German news service Deutsche Welle said “Bradlee oversaw the journalistic investigation that brought down US president Richard Nixon.” (The new service also claimed the Post’s reporting “led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon”: Not only was the Post’s reporting a marginal factor in Nixon’s resignation, which he submitted before he could be impeached.)

And so it went.

Even the Post, which over the years had largely refrained from embracing the Watergate myth, went all in, saying on its front page today that Watergate was “a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting.”

The scandal, in fact, was touched off by a burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and investigative authorities quickly tied the crime to Nixon’s reelection committee and to White House operatives. Watergate hardly was “touched off by the Post’s reporting”; nor did the Post contribute significantly to the scandal’s unraveling.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s reporting failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It also failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, which were crucial to the scandal’s outcome.

Their existence was disclosed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In their book All the President’s Men, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, said they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

But according to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and thus missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

The Post went hagiographic in its editorial page tribute to Bradlee, describing him as “the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.”

The editorial continued, saying, “There was nothing like working for him …. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain ‘creative tension’ was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.”

And so on.

Surely it is not churlish to point out that the editorial failed to mention Bradlee’s greatest failure as editor — the fraud of “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that the Post published in 1980. The article was so compelling that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

But soon after the award was announced, it was revealed that Janet Cooke, the author of “Jimmy’s World,” had falsified key elements of the biography submitted to the Pulitzer board, claiming among other credentials a degree from Vassar and a command of six languages.

The exposure of those lies forced the Post editors to confront Cooke about “Jimmy’s World,” and she soon confessed to having made it all up.

The extensive back story to “Jimmy’s World” was reported by William Green, then the Post’s ombudsman, in 1981; his writeup is available here and, 33 years on, it still makes absorbing reading.

WJC

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The Wategate myth that offers something for everyone

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 27, 2014 at 1:47 pm

The heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate — the mythical and simplistic notion that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is one of those rare tales that commands appeal across the political spectrum.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon got Nixon

Conservative commentators sometimes invoke the narrative in bashing the news media as agenda-driven and untrustworthy. Left-wing outlets are known to embrace the meme as an ostensible example of crusading journalism that made a difference.

Both impulses were in evidence this week.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, referred to Woodward and Bernstein during his show yesterday, saying they exemplified a tendency in American journalism to lust after career-shattering exposés.

“If you take somebody out,” Limbaugh said, according to a transcript of his program, “if you expose a fraud or a cheat — or if you just take out somebody that you don’t like who has a lot of power — if you as a journalist are instrumental in doing that, then you are considered worthy of advancement in that industry, and it’s best exemplified by Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein and getting Nixon, forcing Nixon to resign.”

Earlier in the week and across the spectrum, the New York Times profiled the Post’s new publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., and took the occasion to recall one his predecessors, Katharine Graham. She was, the Times article noted, the publisher during the Watergate period who “famously stood up to the White House and helped bring down a president.”

Left unsaid by the talk show host and by the Times was just how the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and Graham led to Nixon’s ouster in the Watergate scandal, which broke in June 1972 with a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Truth is, their work didn’t lead to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Or much contribute to his fall.

As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Watergate-era executive editor, once put it in referring to the secret White House tapes that demonstrated the president’s culpability in attempting to cover up the burglary:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Bob Woodward has said, in earthier terms:

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

Or as Katharine Graham herself said at the 25th anniversary of the Watergate breakin:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham was quite right: Unraveling a scandal of the density and complexity of Watergate required, as I wrote in media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, subpoena power and “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.”

And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the White House tapes — the disclosure of which was made not by Woodward and Bernstein but by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, during questioning before a Senate select committee investigating the scandal.

The heroic-journalist trope is a simplified version of the scandal that cuts through complexities and intricacies to make Watergate accessible. It offers a narrative that’s appealing, memorable, and easy to grasp.

And it offers something for everyone.

WJC

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