W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Photographs’ Category

For the media, Harvey was no Katrina redux; here’s why

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on September 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

Twelve years ago today, newspaper headlines across the United States told of chaos and anarchy that supposedly was sweeping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Katrina churns, 2005

“Anger, Anarchy, Desperation,” declared the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of  September 2, 2005.

“Crisis to Chaos,” said the Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona. “Toward Anarchy,” cried the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut. “Descent into Chaos,” asserted the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Snipers fired on cops and rescue workers” in New Orleans, reported the New York Daily News. “Gangs of looters took anything that wasn’t nailed down.”

In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune newspaper (see image nearby) declared on its front page of September 2, 2005, that “chaos and lawlessness rule the streets.”

The horror and mayhem that news organizations so widely reported 12 years ago proved highly exaggerated, but it had the effect of tainting a city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism, despite some attempts to characterize it as such.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall,” I wrote, “news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. … They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported that roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome [where hundreds of storm evacuees took shelter], raping and killing. They said that children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

“None of those reports was verified or substantiated.” Little of it was true.

D-minus was a grade none too severe for the post-Katrina coverage.

“Americans depend on timely and accurate reporting, especially during times of crisis,” a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives later said in a 600-page report about the hurricane’s aftermath, adding that “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted,” the report declared, “it was the media. Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

It is useful now to recall the erroneous and exaggerated coverage of Katrina’s aftermath because the destructive sweep of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas at the end of last month gave rise to little such egregious misreporting and produced few if any examples of the media having “rioted” in their storm coverage.

For news organizations, Harvey was no Katrina.

Here are some reasons why:

• Reasonably competent public officials. In Texas, state and local officials — including the mayor of Houston — were more credible, knowledgeable, and restrained than were senior public officials in New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, and Eddie Compass, the then-police commissioner, were sources for some of the most gruesome yet erroneous reports of lawlessness in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the Superdome. The mayor said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass spoke of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” the police commissioner said of the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were widely reported — but were almost completely without foundation. (Months later, Compass said he passed along rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”)

By contrast, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, projected an image of even-tempered authority. He spoke often to the news media, typically in measured and sedate tones. He didn’t preen for the cameras, and certainly didn’t mischaracterize his city as having been seized by violence and lawlessness. The only significant controversy to swirl around Turner was whether he should have ordered a mandatory evacuation as Harvey approached from the Gulf of Mexico.

No narrative-shifting surprises. Katrina’s aftermath marked by a surprising and decisive turn after the storm had passed: Not long after it appeared the city had been spared the hurricane’s worst effects, levees protecting the city began to fail, sending floodwaters across much of New Orleans. That development abruptly shifted news coverage of Katrina from having escaped a close call to something more grim and devastating. New Orleans was mostly under water and rumors of social disintegration, many of which made their way into news reports, soon were circulating.

Harvey was forecast to drop upwards of 50 inches of rain on parts of southeastern Texas, predictions that proved largely accurate. Journalists, at least in broad terms, knew what to expect; the absence of a narrative-altering surprise allowed them to keep story lines trained on storm victims, rescues and evacuations, without having to chase bleak rumors of mayhem and violence.

Principal controversies that arose about post-Harvey coverage focused on questions of media ethics — whether it was appropriate for a reporter to send Twitter messages about what he considered looting, and when a reporter should pull back from an on-camera interview of a clearly distraught storm victim.

Dubious memes were quickly debunked. An image of a shark plying floodwaters in Texas received a brief and apparently credulous mention on the Fox News Channel, but the photograph soon was exposed as fake. For a time, the Washington Post’s “Intersect” blog kept a running list of storm-related hoaxes and exaggerations that appeared on social media. Such compilations helped keep a lid on the over-the-top stuff.

Social media platforms — most of which hadn’t been developed in 2005 — seemed to have performed fairly well, overall. Notably, Facebook and Twitter became in Harvey’s aftermath lifelines for storm victims and their families.

Stirring images. Some of the most memorable photographs of Harvey were not of agony and grim misery (like the Times-Picayune front page of September 2, 2005) but were heartening — such as the one of a Houston police SWAT officer striding in knee-deep flood water, carrying woman who was cradling her 13-month-old son. The image was taken by an Associated Press photographer and became “a symbol of the storm and rescue efforts,” as a Houston television station described it.

AP photo/David J. Phillip

The AP photographer, David J. Phillip, captured another memorable image of the storm — a panorama of a flooded Houston boulevard where a swarm of human forms confronted the waters in a tableau of evident grit, resilience, and aquatic rescue. The photo at once testified to turmoil the hurricane had created and to an absence of turmoil in response.

The post-landfall coverage of Harvey may not have been magnificent, but in all it didn’t merit a D-minus.

I’d give it a B, at least.

WJC

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In essay about fake news, ‘Vox’ offers up media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on July 6, 2017 at 9:15 pm

In a lengthy essay posted yesterday about “fake news,” the online site Vox summoned a persistent media myth — that of the evocative “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam 45 years ago.

The essay invoked the photograph in discussing how remedies for “fake news” can be worse than the malady.

It ruminated about “potential unintended consequences of cracking down on fake news” and noted the controversy last year over “Facebook’s mishandling of the iconic photo of a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War. After a Norwegian author published the photo as part of a commentary on the evils of war, Facebook took the photo down, saying it violated standards regarding nudity on the site.”

Indeed, Facebook goofed up thoroughly in that episode.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s passage about “the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

That’s an erroneous reference to a misguided aerial bombing on June 8, 1972, during which napalm was dropped near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Nick Ut of the Associated Press took the memorable photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc and other terror-stricken children fleeing the attack. Kim’s arms were outstretched and her face was contorted in agony. Her clothing had been burned away.

The napalm attack was carried out not by the United States but by Skyraider warplanes of the South Vietnamese Air Force, attempting to roust communist forces dug in near the village.

Contemporaneous news accounts were quite clear about who dropped the napalm.

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service, “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.” Donald Kirk of the Chicago Tribune reported the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

The headline on the New York Times dispatch from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.” And the Boston Globe declared: “”S. Viet error kills 20 in napalm inferno.”

The fight at Trang Bang was — as I point out in the new edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — “an all-Vietnamese encounter.” The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned Kim Phuc and others is false, but  enduring.

It is one of a number of myths attached to the “Napalm Girl” photograph.

Other myths are that the photograph was so raw and compelling that it hastened an end to the war (in fact it went on until April 1975) and that the image galvanized American public opinion against the conflict (Americans’ views about the war had turned negative in early 1968).

Another myth is that the “Napalm Girl” image appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere in the United States.

Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph soon after it was distributed by Associated Press. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it showed frontal nudity.

Of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers included in a review I conducted with a research assistant (all 40 were Associated Press subscribers), 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers examined — more than one-third the sample — did not publish the photograph at all. These titles included the Arizona Republic, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Des Moines Register, Detroit Free Press, Newark Star-Ledger, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Just three of the newspapers examined — the Boston Globe, New York Post, and New York Timesprinted editorials specifically addressing the photograph and its significance.

The editorial in the New York Post asked: “When will this bloodiest and most bestial of wars also be recognized as the monstrous mistake that it is? The picture of the children [fleeing the napalm attack] will never leave anyone who saw it….”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Napalm Girl’ photograph ‘changed us and our stomach for war’: But how?

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on March 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm

The Associated Press photographer who took the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is retiring this month, a development that prompted yet another exaggerated claim about the image and its supposed effects.

Nick Ut in 2016

The photographer is Nick Ut, who in June 1972 made the photograph of a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village in what then was South Vietnam. The image is regarded as among the most memorable of the war and won for Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Over the years, the photograph has become embroidered with media myths — notably the erroneous notion that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes. As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the attack at Trang Bang was carried out by the 518th Fighter Squadron of the South Vietnamese Air Force.

The other day, a Los Angeles television station contributed to the hyperbole associated with “Napalm Girl” by declaring the photograph was so powerful that it “changed us and our stomach for war.”

But how?

How did Ut’s black-and-white photograph — emotionally powerful though it was — change “us and our stomach for war”?

The report, by KABC TV, didn’t say, didn’t back up what was a sweeping and dubious claim.

Instead, the report reviewed Ut’s career, much of which was spent in Los Angeles for AP, after the Vietnam War.

To direct attention to the blithe KABC claim is not to be excessively fastidiousness. Indeed, calling out the assertion that the photograph “changed us” is to underscore how “Napalm Girl” has, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “become invested with mythic qualities and suffused with power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can realistically project.”

The myths and exaggerations that have taken hold about “Napalm Girl” also include claims that that the photograph hastened an end to the Vietnam War and that it galvanized American public opinion against the conflict. Those claims are inaccurate; neither can be sustained by dispassionate assessment of the relevant evidence.

The war went on nearly three years after the photograph was taken, ending in April 1975 with North Vietnam’s military conquest of South Vietnam. And U.S. public opinion had shifted against the conflict long before 1972.

As for having little “stomach for war” after 1972 — the United States has been engaged in numerous conflicts since Vietnam, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions or air strikes in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

So why does it much matter to confront and debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” a photograph taken nearly 45 years ago?

Debunking those myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “is vital for a number of reasons, not the least of which is insisting on a more complete understanding of a prominent visual artifact of a bitter and prolonged war.

“Confronting the myths [also] serves to puncture the post hoc causality commonly associated with the image, and to deflate the notion that a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict. To assert such an argument is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2016

In 'Napalm girl', Bay of Pigs, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

Media Myth Alertscreen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm called attention in 2016 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases discussed in a new, expanded edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, which was published in October.

Here is a rundown of Media Myth Alert’s five top posts of the year, followed by references to other notable mythbusting writeups of 2016.

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures (posted August 22): The new edition of Getting It Wrong includes three new chapters — one of which debunks the myths associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which showed a cluster of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village northwest of Saigon.

Most prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. forces — a claim the Los Angeles Times repeated in a profile in August about Nick Ut of the Associated Press, who took the photograph on June 8, 1972. The profile described how “Ut stood on a road in a village just outside of Saigon when he spotted the girl — naked, scorched by American napalm and screaming as she ran.”

Shortly after Media Myth Alert called attention to the erroneous reference to “American napalm,” the Times quietly removed the modifier “American” — but without appending a correction.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years.

The notion of American responsibility for the napalm attack took hold in the months afterward, propelled by George McGovern, the hapless Democratic candidate for president in 1972. McGovern referred to the image during his campaign, saying the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America.”

That metaphoric claim was “plainly overstated,” I write, adding:Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

“The napalm was dropped on civilians ‘not in the name of America’ but in an errant attempt by South Vietnamese forces to roust North Vietnamese troops from bunkers dug at the outskirts of the village. That is quite clear from contemporaneous news reports.”

The Los Angeles Times placed the “napalm girl” photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby); the caption made clear that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

So why does it matter to debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl”?

The reasons are several.

“Excising the myths … allows the image to be regarded and assessed more fairly, on its own terms,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Debunking the myths of ‘Napalm Girl’ does nothing to diminish the photograph’s exceptionality. But removing the barnacles of myth effectively frees the photograph from association with feats and effects that are quite implausible.” That’s a reference to other myths of the “Napalm Girl,” that the image was so powerful that it swung public opinion against the war and hastened an end to the conflict.

But like the notion of American culpability in the errant attack, those claims are distortions and untrue.

NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ Bay of Pigs coverage (posted November 26): Fidel Castro died in late November and the New York Times in a lengthy obituary called the brutal Cuban dictator “a towering international figure.” The Times obituary also invoked a persistent media myth about its own coverage of the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The obituary said that the Times, “at the request of the Kennedy administration, withheld some” details of the invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the administration of President John F. Kennedy “asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.”

What I call the “New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth” centers around the editing of a single article by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times. Eleven days before the invasion, Szulc reported from Miami that an assault, organized by the CIA, was imminent.

Editors at the Times removed references to imminence and to the CIA.

“Imminent,” they reasoned, was more prediction than fact.

And the then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that he “was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.” So references to CIA were replaced with the more nebulous term “U.S. officials.”

Both decisions were certainly justifiable. And Szulc’s story appeared April 7, 1961, above-the-fold on the Times front page (see image nearby).

NYT_BayofPigs_frontAs the veteran Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

What’s rarely recognized or considered in asserting the suppression myth is that the Times’ reporting about the runup to the invasion was hardly confined to Szulc’s article.

Indeed, the Times and other news outlets “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write, noting that the newspaper “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs” on April 17, 1961.

Suppressed the coverage was not.

Smug MSNBC guest invokes Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam (posted May 3): Donald Trump’s shaky grasp of foreign policy invited his foes to hammer away at his views — and one of them, left-wing activist Phyllis Bennis, turned to a tenacious media myth to bash the Republican candidate.

Bennis did so in late April, in an appearance on the MSNBC program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.MSNBC logo

Trump during his campaign vowed to eradicate ISIS, the radical Islamic State, but wasn’t specific about how that would be accomplished.

Bennis, showing unconcealed smugness, declared on the MSNBC show that Trump’s reference to ISIS “was very reminiscent of Nixon’s call when he was running for president [in 1968] and said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’ The secret plan of course turned out to be escalation.”

In fact, the “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

He didn’t campaign for the presidency by espousing or touting or proclaiming a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

That much is clear from the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, if Nixon had campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, as Bennis so snootily claimed, the country’s leading newspapers would have publicized it.

Nixon did publicly confront the notion he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon also said on that occasion:

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

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim was not a feature of his campaign.

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’ (posted December 18): The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Confirmation of its zombie-like character was in effect offered by Politico in December, in an essay about the “long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico cited, as if it were true, the fake tale of Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert post about Politico‘s use of the mythical quote:

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of ‘fake news‘ that have masqueraded as fact for years.”

The tale, I write in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, begun in 1895 — was the very reason Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba at the end of 1896.

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter is accessible here.

NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies (posted January 3): Watergate’s mythical dominant narrative has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the crimes that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

The dominant narrative (the heroic-journalist trope, I call it) emerged long ago, and Hollywood — specifically, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — is an important reason why.

The movie, All the President’s Men, was released to critical acclaim 40 years ago and unabashedly promotes the heroic-journalist interpretation, that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling Watergate and bringing down Nixon.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured” — as was suggested by a New York Times in an article in early January.

The article, which appeared beneath the headline “Journalism Catches Hollywood’s Eye,” embraced the heroic-journalist myth in referring to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Their reporting had no such effect, however much All the President’s Men encouraged that simple notion.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions “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, 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 in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s notable that principals at the Post declined over the years to embrace the mediacentric interpretation.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, for example:

“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.”

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The January article was not the first occasion in which the Times treated the heroic-journalist myth as if it were true.

In an article in 2008 about Woodward’s finally introducing Bernstein to the high-level Watergate source code-named “Deep Throat,” the Times referred to the “two young Washington Post reporters [who] cracked the Watergate scandal and brought down President Richard M. Nixon.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2016 :

NYTimes recalls ‘Napalm Girl’ (and other famous ‘pictures of war’); overstates its impact

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Photographs, Scandal on December 15, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Prominently displayed on the front page of today’s New York Times were powerful images of war — the memorable and myth-burdened “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972 among them.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-12-31-42-pmThe wartime images accompanied an essay about the misery of Syria’s battered city, Aleppo, once a rebel stronghold in the country’s prolonged civil war.

“They keep coming,” the essay began, “both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them ….”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert was a passage deeper in the essay that invoked “Napalm Girl“:

“Pictures of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before. … There was Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph from South Vietnam of the naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming, burned by napalm. These pictures drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

Well, not in case of “Napalm Girl.”

The photograph, which showed a cluster of terror-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village northwest of what was then called Saigon, provoked no prolonged conversation in the American press in the days following its publication. It prompted few newspaper editorials.

There’s no evidence, moreover, that “Napalm Girl”  helped “tip the scales of policy.” (The essay in the Times cited none.)

I address the myths of “Napalm Girl” in my book, Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which was  published recently.

“Over the years,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the superlatives associated with the image have edged into hyperbole and exaggeration. Napalm Girl has become invested with mythic qualities and a power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can project.”

Among the myths is that “Napalm Girl” was so arresting and extraordinary that it appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. I present data challenging that notion, reporting in Getting It Wrong that of 40 major U.S. dailies examined, 21 placed the photograph on the front page in the days soon after it was taken on June 8, 1972.

Fourteen of the 21 newspapers displayed “Napalm Girl” above the front-page fold, a newspaper’s most coveted placement.

But 19 newspapers examined either did not publish “Napalm Girl” or placed the photograph on an inside page.

Reservations about front nudity no doubt led some newspapers to decline to publish “Napalm Girl” or give it prominence, I note, although the depth of such reluctance is difficult to measure.

In any event, it is clear that “Napalm Girl” did not drive “news cycles for weeks, months, years,” as the Times’ essay asserted.

Nor did the image drive policy.

It had no discernible effect on the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, which was put in place during the presidency of Richard Nixon and sought to shift the bulk of fighting to America’s South Vietnamese allies.

By June 1972, most American combat troops had been removed from South Vietnam, a drawdown neither slowed nor accelerated by publication of “Napalm Girl.”

This is not to say Nixon was unaware of the photograph, however. He briefly discussed “Napalm Girl” with his top White House aide, H.R. Haldeman, a conversation captured on Nixon’s secret taping system.

The tapes show that Haldeman on June 12, 1972, brought up what he called the “napalm thing.” Nixon replied by saying:

“I wonder if that was a fix” meaning: Was the image staged?

“Could have been,” Haldeman said, adding, “Napalm bothers people. You get a picture of a little girl with her clothes burnt off.”

“I wondered about that,” Nixon replied.

The photograph had no known effect on Nixon’s thinking about the war, I write in Getting It Wrong, pointing out that his attention was soon diverted. On June 17, 1972, burglars linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, the signal crime of what ballooned into the Watergate scandal.

Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary’s links to his campaign — a scheme he discussed with Haldeman in tape-recorded conversation June 23, 1972 — eventually cost Nixon the presidency.

WJC

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Media myths: Prominent cases of ‘fake news’ masquerading as fact

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm

The mainstream media’s recent panic about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore a critical element: The media themselves often have been purveyors of bogus stories.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are examined in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently by University of California Press.

The book addresses and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated.

Media myths can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” or shoddy interpretation that have masqueraded as fact for years. Or decades.

Take, for example, the often-told tale that television viewers and radio listeners had sharply different impressions about who won the first-ever televised debate in September 1960 between major party candidates. The media myth is that John F. Kennedy looked so cool and collected that TV audiences gave him the nod, but that Richard Nixon was the winner among radio listeners.

The tale of viewer-listener disagreement has circulated for years and is dismantled in one of three new chapters in the second edition of Getting It Wrong. “Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation,” I write, “it is a robust trope that emerged within months of the first of four Kennedy-Nixon debates [in 1960] and is often invoked decades later as conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

Viewer-listener disagreement is a dubious bit of political lore that’s frequently cited by mainstream media, especially in the runup to  national elections. As with many media myths, I point out in the book, “the notion of viewer-listener disagreement rests more on assertion than persuasive evidence.”

What little polling data exist about the debate’s radio listeners are simply too sparse, too unstable, and too imprecise to support any broad conclusions about their views of the debate winner.

Moreover, the extensive debate coverage in major U.S. newspapers lends no support to the claim of viewer-listener disagreement, either.

Had dramatic and widespread differences characterized the reactions of TV and radio audiences, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report about such clashing perceptions — especially in the days immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter when curiosity about the debate, its novelty, and its impact ran high.

But none of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in researching the chapter about the debate made specific reference to the presumptive phenomenon of listener-viewer disagreement: Leading American newspapers contained nothing in the debate’s immediate aftermath that suggested pervasive differences in how televisions viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate, I note.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement appears to have originated in a passage in The Making of the President, 1960, an award-winning book about the campaign written by journalist Theodore White.

Getting It Wrong punctures other fake tales, including:

  • The purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain, supposedly contained in a telegraphic exchange with Frederic Remington, an artist on assignment in Cuba in 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal. The war-mongering vow is well-known in American journalism, but is supported by no compelling evidence or documentation. The telegrams have never turned up and Hearst denied sending such a message. But because it supposedly captures Hearst’s duplicitous ways so well, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on, despite having been thoroughly debunked.
  • The radio adaptation in October 1938 of The War of The Worlds was supposedly so dramatic and sounded so convincing that tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in panic and mass hysteria, believing that Earth was under an invasion from Mars. But evidence is scant at best that the radio program caused such powerful effects. If panic had spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was linked to the show.
    This tale, too, lives on, resistant to debunking.
  • The supposed battlefield heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who, the Washington Post said, fought Lynch_headline_Postfiercely in the ambush of her unit during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003. Lynch, the Post claimed, was shot and stabbed, but kept firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition and was taken prisoner. The Post’s electrifying, front-page story about Lynch’s derring-do carried the headline “‘She was fighting to the death'” and was picked up and amplified by news organizations around the world.
    But the story soon was found to be wrong in all important respects: Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush (her weapon had jammed) and she was neither shot nor stabbed. The heroics attributed to her were an apparent case of mistaken identity that likely stemmed from a translation error. The Post, however, never has adequately explained how it got it so badly wrong about Jessica Lynch. Or who its sources were.

The Post figures in an even more prominent media myth — namely that the reporting of two of its reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal and exposed the wrongdoing that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974. This simplistic, easy-to-remember yet misleading version of Watergate has become the scandal’s dominant narrative.

But clearly, that’s not how Watergate was uncovered. Unspooling the scandal was the work of subpoena-wielding agencies and actors, including federal special prosecutors, congressional committees, the FBI, and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal if not for the secret audio tapes he had made of conversations at the White House. The tapes clearly revealed his guilty role in approving a cover-up of Watergate’s seminal crime — the burglary in June 1972 of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

But the media myth of Watergate — the spurious interpretation about how the scandal was exposed — lives on. And is not infrequently repeated by news organizations, including rivals of the Post.

The tale endures even though officials at the Post have periodically over the years pointedly rejected the notion. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said:

“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 right. But the constitutional-processes interpretation of Watergate is far less dramatic, and far more intricate, than the narrative about two ambitious journalists and their earnest reporting.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at the University of California Press blog

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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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No, ‘Forbes’: It wasn’t ‘an American napalm attack’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Forbes weighed in yesterday on the dust-up over Facebook’s removal of the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War. In  doing so, the magazine stepped squarely in a nasty and tenacious media myth.

Facebook deleted the image from a Norwegian writer’s site, claiming the photograph violated content prohibitions on showing nudity. The move sparked an uproar in Norway and beyond, and the social media giant soon reversed itself.

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-10-25-21-amOf particular interest to Media Myth Alert was this passage in a commentary at the Forbes online site: “the image depicts a group of children, one of whom is nude, running in fear after an American napalm attack.”

The napalm bombing took place June 8, 1972, near the village of Trang Bang, in what then was South Vietnam.

But it was no “American napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped in error by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear (see front page image, nearby, of the now-defunct Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia).

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

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

Nonetheless, the myth of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack soon took hold, and has proven extremely durable. A few weeks ago, for example, the Los Angeles Times declared the naked girl at the center of the photograph had been “scorched by American napalm.” (The newspaper subsequently deleted the erroneous reference, without acknowledging error or posting a correction.)

Even more egregious, and even farther from the truth, was this assertion, offered last month in the online newsletter of an Australian think tank: “The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese.”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech on October 10, 1972, McGovern invoked the photograph of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim [Phuc], fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say. In any case, his reference to “dropped in the name of America” suggested U.S. involvement in the attack.

So, too, did Susan Sontag, the filmmaker and author, who asserted that the “naked Vietnamese child” shown in the picture had been “sprayed by American napalm.” That passage, which appeared in her book, On Photography, was an unmistakable insinuation of U.S. responsibility for the napalm bombing.

A wholly inaccurate and exaggerated insinuation.

WJC

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‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on August 22, 2016 at 7:33 am

One of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War was “The Terror of War,” better known as “Napalm Girl.”

The image showed a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant bombing raid near their village, Trang Bang. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc who was badly burned in the napalm attack.

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

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The photograph was taken June 8, 1972, by an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and much acclaim in the years since then.

It also has given rise to enduring media myths — notably that Ut’s photograph showed the effects of a U.S. bombing raid at Trang Bang, northwest of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

That myth of the “Napalm Girl” was invoked yesterday in a 900-word profile of Ut in the Los Angeles Times. The article referred in its opening paragraph to Kim Phuc, saying she had been “scorched by American napalm.”

In fact, the aerial napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see right), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

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

Christopher Wain of Britain ITN television network wrote in a dispatch from Trang Bang for the United Press International news service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years. Early this month, for example, a columnist for USAToday referred to Ut’s photograph and said it showed “a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing her village after U.S. forces bombed it with napalm….”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech in October 1972, McGovern invoked the image of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim, fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say.

But his claim that the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America” insinuated U.S. responsibility for the errant attack — which misstated what had happened at Trang Bang. The aerial attack was carried out by South Vietnamese forces to roust communist troops from bunkers at the outskirts of the village.

The fighting there was an all-Vietnamese encounter.

WJC

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Cronkite, public opinion, and Vietnam: LATimes overstates the link

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs, Television on February 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Today is the anniversary of the mythicalCronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s assessment about the war in Vietnam supposedly had powerful effects on viewers and non-viewers alike.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Cronkite’s report of February 27, 1968, “shifted public opinion on the war.”

But it didn’t. Not demonstrably, not measurably.

The “shifted public opinion” claim is embedded in the Times’ profile of Scott Pelley, a successor to Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

The profile, posted online yesterday, mentions photographs on Pelley’s office walls, images that include “Walter Cronkite in Vietnam for his documentary that shifted public opinion on the war.”

What CBS aired 47 years ago tonight was a special, hour-long news report about the Tet offensive launched at the end of January 1968. The communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies struck then across South Vietnam and the extent of their attacks surprised the American public, which had been told the U.S. military was making significant progress in the war.

The offensive prompted Cronkite to travel to Vietnam to gather material for his special report, which he closed by declaring the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” — a tepid characterization that hardly was very original.

Cronkite also suggested in his wrap-up assessment that negotiations might eventually prove to be a way out of the war. Nor was that a particularly bold suggestion.

In time, though, Cronkite’s report came to be thought of as legendary, as exceptional, as the “Cronkite Moment.” It has become barnacled with media myth.

It is often said the President Lyndon Johnson was at the White House that night (he was in Texas), that he watched Cronkite’s report (he did not), and that Cronkite’s assessment prompted him to say something to the effect of “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (there’s no evidence he said anything of the sort, and it’s hard to believe the president was much moved by a report he did not see).

As for the notion that Cronkite’s analysis altered American public opinion about the war, supporting evidence is extremely thin.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. That shift was evident by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening in support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

So Cronkite’s report had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

WJC

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