W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

About the ‘Murrow Moment’: A ‘tipping point’ that wasn’t

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New Yorker, Television on August 13, 2016 at 9:45 am

The “Murrow Moment” has become a fashionable phrase in American journalism, invoked to justify suspending impartiality in reporting on Donald Trump and his often-incendiary, gaffe-prone campaign for president.

Murrow_thumbnail

He of the ‘Murrow Moment’

Invoking the phrase also allows contemporary reporters to associate themselves with the presumed greatness and courage of Edward R. Murrow, a legendary journalist for CBS News in the 1940s and 1950s. “Murrow Moment” is an allusion to a half-hour television program in 1954 when Murrow took on Joseph R. McCarthy, a menacing, red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

“Murrow Moment” has been in circulation for a couple of months, at least since an essay at Huffington Post invoked the phrase. It has picked up intensity in recent weeks, following a commentary published in Columbia Journalism Review under the headline, “For journalists covering Trump, a Murrow moment.”

“After months of holding back,” the commentary declared, “modern-day journalists are acting a lot like Murrow, pushing explicitly against Donald Trump, the … Republican presidential nominee.”

The commentary gave prominent reference to Murrow’s program about McCarthy, stating:

“As Edward R. Murrow wrapped up his now-famous special report condemning Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he looked into the camera and said words that could apply today. ‘He didn’t create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully,’ Murrow said of McCarthy. Most of Murrow’s argument relied on McCarthy’s own words, but in the end Murrow shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: ‘This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent—or for those who approve,’ he said. ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.'”

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.26.02 PM

Columbia Journalism Review headline

In reality, Murrow’s half-hour report on McCarthy in 1954 wasn’t all that extraordinary.

Courageous, it was not.

But over the years the program has taken on mythical dimension, that it was, in the words of another recent Huffington Post essay, a “tipping point” that “helped bring about the end of McCarthy.”

Murrow’s program was a lacerating attack on McCarthy. But it was no “tipping point,” for reasons that include:

  • Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists directed pointed and sustained attention to McCarthy’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more implacable critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.
    McCarthy became so unnerved by Pearson’s work that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.
  • ŸŸŸMcCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954. As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. McCarthy’s favorable rating dropped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably. By mid-March 1954, the proportion had shifted to 32 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.
  • Murrow’s program benefited from coincidental good timing, airing during the week when the senator’s fortunes took a prominent and decisive turn for the worse — for reasons unrelated to Murrow.
    “The pivotal moment of the decisive week,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, was “the disclosure … about the Army’s allegations that McCarthy and his subcommittee’s counsel, Roy Cohn. The Army charged they had exerted pressure in an attempt to gain favored treatment for G. David Schine, Cohn’s friend and assistant who had been drafted into military service.” The Army’s complaint became the subject of televised hearings in spring and summer 1954, which hastened McCarthy’s downfall. His conduct was condemned by the Senate in December 1954.

Interestingly, Murrow in 1954 downplayed the presumptive effects of his program about McCarthy. According to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the then-liberal New York Post, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter.”

Tuck further wrote that Murrow “said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the program on McCarthy was dispositive to the senator’s decline. Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

The “Murrow moment” commentary in Columbia Journalism Review included a reference to Murrow’s having “shed his journalistic detachment” in calling out McCarthy in 1954.

The passage brought to mind an eye-opening discussion in A.M. Sperber’s biography of Murrow, in which she reported that Murrow had privately advised Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in Murrow: His Life and Times that even though the Republican incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.” Sperber described Murrow’s decision as “a radical departure from his usual practice.”

The idea, Sperber wrote, was “to effect a liaison between the broadcaster and the candidate, to discuss the use of TV in the forthcoming campaign.”

She noted that the Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen” and that the matter was to be “kept quiet.”

So why did Murrow discreetly “shed his journalistic detachment” to advise Stevenson?

“He wouldn’t say,” Sperber wrote, adding that Murrow’s “friends, knowing his detestation of [John] Foster Dulles, were not surprised.” Dulles, a political conservative, was Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1954.

Murrow’s coaching of Stevenson came to little, Sperber wrote. They met in a New York studio in June 1956 and Murrow “sweated over the candidate, trying to inculcate the finer points of speaking to the camera. Stevenson barely endured it, chiding campaign manager George Ball about the money this was costing the Democrats.”

Sperber also wrote that Murrow “dictated a few ideas for issue-oriented TV spots” but they were “never put to use.”

Additionally, according to a New Yorker article in 2006, Murrow thought “seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat” in 1958 and “consulted privately with both [CBS chief executive William] Paley and Harry Truman,” the Democratic former president, before deciding not to seek the office.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

It would be mired in myth: Spielberg considering a ‘Cronkite Moment’ movie?

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on June 15, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Walter Cronkite was months behind media rivals in characterizing the war in Vietnam as a military “stalemate.” He shifted his views about the conflict well after public opinion had begun to turn against the war. And Cronkite’s reporting for CBS News at supposedly a crucial moment in 1968 was tepid and far less adamant than that of some competing news media.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Whether movie director Steven Spielberg is aware of those aspects of the back story to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 is not known.

But it may matter, given a report from Hollywood that Spielberg is contemplating a movie that effectively would embrace the myths that have grown up around the presumed effects of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.

Deadline Hollywood said yesterday at its online site that the Cronkite-movie project, while tentative, would “focus on Cronkite’s relationship with the Vietnam War and the role that America’s most trusted newsman played in turning public opinion against the increasingly un-winnable conflict. So influential was the CBS Evening News anchor that then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is believed to have remarked, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

If that’s even a rough outline of the prospective Spielberg project, the resulting movie would be steeped in media myth. Indeed, Deadline Hollywood’s descriptive paragraph quoted above incorporated no fewer than three myths, specifically about:

  • “Most trusted”: It was not until 1972 when Cronkite began to be called the “most trusted” newsman; even then, the characterization was the inspiration of the CBS advertising department and based on research that can only be described as flimsy.
  • Public opinion: Evidence is scant at best that Cronkite’s pronouncement about Vietnam in February 1968 had any effect in turning American public opinion against the war. Indeed, Cronkite was more follower than leader in the public’s shifting views about Vietnam.
  • The president’s reaction: There is no evidence that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or anything to that effect.

It is known that Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president then was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally who turned 51 that day.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was jesting about Connally’s age; he wasn’t lamenting the loss of an anchorman’s support. “Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson in the days and weeks following the Cronkite report was adamantly and publicly hawkish about the war, asserting in a speech in mid-March 1968, for example:

“Make no mistake about it. … We are going to win.”

What’s more, Cronkite said nothing in his report about the war that hadn’t been said previously by leading journalists. By early 1968, “stalemate” was an exceedingly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.

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Months before the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In August 1967, for example, the New York Times published a lengthy analysis that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis also said:

“‘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 [in Saigon, capital of what was South Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

The Times, moreover, seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement by asserting in an editorial published February 8, 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s program:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

In his report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. “The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

Not stalemated. Lost.

And four days before Cronkite’s report, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Interestingly, Cronkite for years dismissed the notion his “mired in stalemate” commentary was of great consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying in 1999 on a CNN program:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Not until late in his life did Cronkite embrace the supposed impact of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun slipping months before the Cronkite report. The shift in opinions had become apparent 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.

Slightly more than two years earlier, only 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 that Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

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.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening of 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 summer and fall that year 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.”

WJC

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CNN launches ‘Race for White House’ series with hoary myth about 1960 debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on March 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2015

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

Media Myth Alert called attention in 2015 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases in which celebrities took up and repeated dubious tall tales about journalists and their work.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of the year, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2015.

Celebrities pushing media myths: Garrison Keillor and Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow (posted April 29): I noted in 2015 that the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century has become zombie-like: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Keillor_WritersAlmanacThe hoary old myth received a boost in April when, on the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth, the humorist and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, blithely invoked the unsubstantiated anecdote, which reinforces the superficial and misleading notion of Hearst as war-mongering newspaper publisher.

“In 1898,” Keillor told listeners of his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism, and it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons described in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Keillor

Keillor

Notably, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegraphed messages that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message, had it been sent.

Moreover, the sole original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote, James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, never said how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

And almost no one remembers that Hearst denied having sent such a message.

By the way, the transcript of Keillor’s remarks about Hearst and Remington remains posted at the “Writer’s Almanac” Web site. Uncorrected.

Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat”: Why is he biopic worthy? (posted November 27): W. Mark Felt, a disgraced former senior FBI official best-known as a secret source in the Watergate scandal, is to receive hero’s treatment in a biopic to be called Felt.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Peter Landesman, who is to produce and direct the film, was quoted last week as saying Felt will be akin to “a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.”

But why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy?

He was no noble or heroic figure.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the FBI’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the agency’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

FBI agents who conducted the illegal break-ins went through “desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen,” according to an account in the New York Times. “With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents” belonging to relatives of Weather radicals.

In 1980, Felt was convicted of felony charges related to those warrantless break-ins, which were known in the FBI as “black bag jobs.” He was fined $5,000 but not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The following year, Felt received an unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged at trial having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller argued that the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan trips over the “Cronkite Moment” myth (posted August 30): In late summer, the Wall Street Journal’s prominent weekend columnist, Peggy Noonan, attempted to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his soaring presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Noonan tripped over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan

That “moment” was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in visceral reaction, said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in  Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president then was attending a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally.

I also noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War: “Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite spoke the word on the air.

In her column, Noonan referred to shifting contours in American politics that have boosted Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She also wrote:

“Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may have been indirect and a bit confusing, given the topic of her column. But there was no doubt she was treating as authentic one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

Another prominent columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also referred to the “Cronkite Moment” in 2015.

Dowd did so in February, in a commentary that ruminated about the bizarre falsehoods told by Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News, about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: Williams claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Dowd, after noting that network evening news shows are shells of their much-watched former selves, turned implicitly to the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that CBS anchorman had “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say “we were losing.” He said the war was stalemated and that negotiations might eventually prove to be the way out. But saying so posed no risk to Cronkite’s career. By then, it was commonplace, and safe, to say the war had reached a stalemate.

No, Politico: Ben Bradlee’s WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon (posted May 27): In an account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Politico invoked the hardy media myth that the Post’s reporting on the scandal “brought down a president.”

Politico logoOf course, it had no such effect, as Bradlee himself had said, on the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate–the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

On Meet the Press in June 1997, Bradlee said “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee, who died in 2014, was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in conspiring to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin at the DNC headquarters.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s presidency represents a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, bipartisan congressional panels, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over to prosecutors the tapes that captured his guilty participation in the attempted coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal. Modest at best. They were hardly decisive, Politico’s claim notwithstanding.

Jorge Ramos, media-myth-teller (posted September 5): The international reach of media-driven myths was best defined in 2015 when Jorge Ramos, the self-important anchorman for Univision, went on an ABC News program and claimed that the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

He stated:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have—Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon—that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Ramos, who has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” invoked a similar claim a few days later in a commentary posted at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico.

What prompted these claims was Ramos’ conduct a news conference convened by Donald Trump. Ramos insisted on posing a question before being called on, a showboating moment that led to his being escorted from the room.

In any event, Ramos was wrong about the Post, its reporters, and Watergate.

Not even the newspaper’s principal figures during the Watergate period embraced the notion that the Post forced Nixon to quit in August 1974.

Notable among them was the publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham. She said 1997:

“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.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2015:

WSJ columnist, trying to explain Trump, trips over Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on August 30, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Peggy Noonan, the prominent weekend columnist for the Wall Street Journal, attempts in her latest commentary to explain the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump — and in doing so trips over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan (Harvard University)

That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in visceral reaction said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; he was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally. Nor is there evidence the president watched Cronkite’s report on videotape at some later date.

So it’s hard to imagine how the president could have been much moved by a TV program he did not see.

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War.

“Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite’s report. For example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Which takes us to Noonan, formerly a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She opens her column this weekend by writing: “So, more thoughts on Donald Trump’s candidacy, because I can’t stop being fascinated.”

The Trump phenomenon, she argues, signals that “[s]omething is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways” in American political life.

She also invokes Trump’s recent news conference confrontation with Jorge Ramos, the showboating anchorman for Univision. At the news conference, he refused to wait his turn in posing a question and was escorted from the room. Ramos was allowed back in a short time later.

Noonan, whose columns invariably lean on personal anecdotes, mentions an acquaintance named “Cesar,” a Dominican immigrant who works at a New York City grocery and who, she says, is more impressed by Trump than Ramos.

Cesar’s views, Noonan suggests, may be representative of the shifting political contours.

“Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America,” she writes. “New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may seem odd, indirect, and even a bit confusing, given the context. But there’s no doubt she was treating as genuine one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

The “Cronkite Moment” indeed is one of journalism’s favored and most compelling stories, as it tells how a perceptive and courageous anchorman could effect powerful change.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

After all, Cronkite’s assessment is often said to have shifted U.S. public opinion about the Vietnam War.

Except that it didn’t.

That shift had taken place months earlier, and was detected when a plurality of respondents to a Gallup survey in October 1967 characterized as a mistake the Johnson administration’s decision to send U.S. troops to Vietnam.

A little more than two years earlier, in August 1965, 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 reported softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for 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.”

Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite in early 1968 was following rather than leading public opinion on the war.

WJC

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10 years on: News media shy from revisiting flawed Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on August 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm
NOAA_Katrina

Katrina, 10 years ago

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said 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, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Which was rather how Maureen Dowd characterized Katrina’s aftermath in her New York Times column, published September 3, 2005, under the headline, “United States Of Shame”:Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 3.39.57 PM

“America,” she wrote, “is once more plunged into a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning. But this time it’s happening in America.”

Far more measured and perceptive was her Times colleague, Jim Dwyer, whom Brian Thevenot quoted this way, in a searching critique of the coverage of Katrina:

“I just thought that some of the reports were so garish, so untraceable and always seemed to stop short of having actual witnesses to the atrocities … like a galloping mythical nightmare had taken control.”

The erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the important effect delaying the delivery of aid to New Orleans — and of defaming the residents of a battered city, depicting them as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

Little of the flawed coverage has been revisited or recalled in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. As they did in fifth anniversary retrospectives, journalists have mostly shied from addressing the errors in their coverage and have avoided considering how that coverage offers broader insights about reporting on disasters and other dramatic events.

The 10th anniversary reports have instead offered conflicting assessments about how New Orleans has made a comeback, or really hasn’t, or how impressions of the city’s recovery can sharply differ.

Heavily advertised television specials shown on ABC and Fox News skirted the wrong-headed reporting of 10 years ago, if they alluded to it at all.

ABC’s retrospective was broadcast Sunday night and was so sappy and boosterish as to be almost unwatchable.

Fox, which aired its look-back on Friday, was notably rough on Ray Nagin, the incompetent, bloviating mayor of New Orleans 10 years ago. Nagin since has gone to federal prison on corruption convictions unrelated to Katrina.

It’s worth recalling how in the storm’s aftermath, Nagin went on Oprah Winfrey’s program to claim that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing Katrina evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome 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.”

Almost all of those claims were untrue: The mayor was winging it on national television, and smearing his city in the process. The Fox program alluded to some of Nagin’s exaggerations.

An exception to the media’s sidestepping was a segment Saturday on NPR’s On the Media show. The segment noted the flawed reporting, but didn’t much explore why or how it occurred.

In her introduction, co-host Brooke Gladstone said of journalists covering the storm’s aftermath:

“They didn’t always speak fact. While covering Katrina’s horrific aftermath, the media often perpetuated myths about what was going on in the streets and the gathering places for the displaced, like the Superdome in New Orleans.”

The broad effect, of the exaggerated reporting, she said, was to paint “an apocalyptic picture that never matched reality.”

Her observations were a sequeway to an extended conversation with James A. Cobb Jr., the lawyer who won acquittals in 2007 of Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of a nursing home in suburban New Orleans where 35 old people drowned in floodwaters released by the collapsed levees.

The Manganos both were charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty.

Before the storm hit, the Manganos had decided it was safer to hunker down and not evacuate their frail and bedridden charges — and they were pilloried by the media when word of the deaths of their elderly charges began to circulate.

WJC

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

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

Kennedy, Nixon at the debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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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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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

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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:

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