W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Debunking’

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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Addressing ‘fake news,’ stirring up media myths

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on December 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Mainstream media have been beside themselves of late, lamenting and fretting about a supposed  surge of “fake news,” in which dubious tales circulated online pollute and corrupt popular discourse.

span-am war_journal

Not to blame: The yellow press and war with Spain

In their hand-wringing assessments, news outlets also have stirred up references to hoary media-driven myths, which can be thought of as variants of fake news, only more prominent and entrenched. Despite their thorough debunking, media myths often are recited as if they were true.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, media myths are memorable tales about and/or by the news that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

For an example of a news outlet stirring up a media myth while ruminating about “fake news,” consider the essay published the other day in the Washington Times. “Fake news,” it declared, is nothing new.

Sure enough. But the essay soon dialed up a media myth, declaring:

“Candidates for public office routinely make statements divorced from truth. Was it ‘fake’ news for 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon to maintain he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War when he had no such thing?”

But Nixon made no such claim: He did not “maintain” or otherwise declare during his campaign in 1968 that he had such a plan.

In fact, candidate Nixon disavowed such a notion during the 1968 primary season. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “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 in 1968 may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind. But he did not make such a claim a plank or component of his campaign. That is clear in reviewing 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 touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon made such a “secret plan” claim during the campaign, the country’s leading daily newspapers surely would have publicized it.

But despite the evidence that can be arrayed to debunk it, the notion that Nixon possessed a  “secret plan” can be simply too delicious — and too Nixonian in its supposed duplicity — to resist retelling.  As William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once observed:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the non-quotation [about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’] never seems to go away ….”

Another tenacious media myth is that sensational yellow journalism forced the United States into war in 1898 over Spain’s rule of Cuba.

That dubious interpretation has long been rejected by serious historians of the period. But it was invoked the other day in an segment on Public Radio International’s “The World” program.

The show’s resident history authority, Christopher Woolf, claimed that sensational reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal about the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 fired up American public opinion which, in turn, prompted Congress to declare war on Spain in April 1898.

It’s a tired syllogism that erroneously blames yellow journalism for a conflict that had far deeper and far more substantial causes, as I discussed in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Essentially, the syllogism founders on the absence of evidence that Hearst’s Journal exerted decisive influence on public opinion, or on the administration of President William McKinley, in the run-up to war.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism, an impressive body of research had been compiled over the years, indicating that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, or ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow press — the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer — in the run-up to the war.

Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, many newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses.

Not only that, but top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers. Officials certainly didn’t turn to the yellow press for guidance in shaping policy.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The yellow press, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century observed, did not “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

Those differences stemmed from Spain’s harsh and futile measures to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in February 1895 — measures that gave rise to a humanitarian crisis on the island. Thousands of Cuban non-combattants — women, children, and old men — were herded into garrison towns in a policy the Spanish called “reconcentration.” The objective was to deprive the Cuban rebels of support of the citizenry; the upshot of the policy was that non-combattants suffered immensely from hunger and disease.

Far more than the content of Hearst’s Journal, the humanitarian crisis caused by reconcentration prompted the United States to go to war with Spain in 1898.

But of course, it’s more delicious, and simplistic, to blame the supposed war-mongering newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

WJC

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NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ pre-Bay of Pigs coverage

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times on November 26, 2016 at 5:04 pm

The New York Times obituary today about Fidel Castro not only praised the brutal Cuban dictator as “a towering international figure,” it stepped into the dogged 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  it was planning to report about invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

NYT_BayofPigs_frontNot quite.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — a second edition of which was published recently — 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.

“There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article [see nearby] that lies at the heart of this media myth.”

The article was written by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times, and filed from Miami on the afternoon of April 6, 1961 — 11 days before the CIA-backed assault on Cuba’s southern coast.

Kennedy, I point out, essentially had no opportunity to speak with Times officials between the time when Szulc’s story was received at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type.

That’s because the president “spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon,” I note in Getting It Wrong. “They traveled aboard the Honey Fitz, a ninety-two-foot presidential yacht. The round trip from Washington on that chilled and windy afternoon lasted two hours and forty minutes.

“It was 6:25 p.m. when the yacht returned to an Army Engineers dock in Washington, at the end of the outing. Kennedy and Macmillan rode together to the White House, arriving at 6:28 p.m. … leaving only a very small window for Kennedy to have been in touch with Times executives before the first edition of the newspaper hit the streets.”

I further note that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston has said that “White House telephone logs reveal no calls that were placed to senior Times officials on April 6, 1961.”

Had the writer of the Times obituary consulted Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s account by Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Times assistant managing editor, he would have found an unequivocal assertion that Kennedy was unaware of Szulc’s dispatch before it was published.

Salisbury wrote:

“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. Nor did President Kennedy telephone [top Times officials] about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.

Those discussions included Szulc’s characterization of the invasion as imminent. The reference was removed from the article — an entirely justifiable decision, especially, as it turned out, the invasion was not imminent.

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

In addition, I write in Getting It Wrong, the suppression myth myth about the Times and the Bay of Pigs “fails to recognize or acknowledge that the Times coverage was not confined to Szulc’s article” published 10 days before the invasion.

“It ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion. The Times did not abandon the Cuba-invasion story after April 7, 1961,” I note. “Far from it.

“Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.”

On April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the Cuban exiles and their eagerness to topple Castro. The article appeared beneath the headline “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near” and quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, as saying that a revolt against the Castro regime was “imminent.”

On April 9, 1961, the Times published another front-page article by Szulc that report how Cuban exile leaders were attempting to paper over rivalries and divisions in advance of what Szulc described as the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.” The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training … will succeed with the aid of an internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Szulc in those sentences effectively summarized the strategic objectives for what soon became the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Two days later, on April 11, James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, reported on the Times’s front page that Kennedy administration officials were divided “about how far to go in helping the Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro Government.” Reston recounted in detail how Kennedy had been receiving conflicting counsel from advisers in the White House, the CIA, and the State and Defense departments. Reston also identified the time pressures facing Kennedy, writing:

“It is feared that unless something is done fairly soon nothing short of direct military intervention by United States forces will be enough to shake the Castro Government’s hold over the Cuban people.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Times “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs.” Not all preinvasion reports were spot-on accurate. But the newspaper’s coverage of the run-up to the Bay of Pigs debacle was fairly extensive.

“Not only does the suppression myth ignore this,” I write, “it also fails to recognize that coverage of invasion preparations appeared in newspapers other than the New York Times.

“Indeed, the coverage reached a point where Kennedy, a week before the invasion, told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger: ‘I can’t believe what I’m reading! Castro doesn’t need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.'”

WJC

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Trump upset exposes years-old media failing: A viewpoint-diversity deficit

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on November 14, 2016 at 10:59 am

Amid the media’s self-flagellation and agonized introspection in the days since Donald Trump’s stunning election victory — days that brought such astonishing turns as the New York Times all but begging subscribers not to quit the newspaper — I have thought often of an ombudsman’s column published eight years ago, soon after Barack Obama won the presidency.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-25-38-pm

NYTimes letter to subscribers

The ombudsman, or in-house critic, was Deborah Howell of the Washington Post, who wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

The column stuck with me not only because of Howell’s evident candor in describing conservatives in the newsroom — you could almost see them cowering — but because viewpoint diversity remains largely elusive in mainstream American journalism.

Howell was right in 2008, and her analysis rings true today: Leading U.S. news outlets have done little to address a failing that has been evident for years.

As John Kass, a conservative columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “It’s no secret that most of American journalism is liberal in its politics. The diversity they prize has nothing to do with diversity of thought.”

The viewpoint-diversity deficit was highlighted anew in Trump’s electoral victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, an outcome that gave journalists what Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab called “the shock of their professional lives.”

The shock was of 1948 proportions, the year when President Harry S. Truman defied broad expectations that he would handily lose the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. This year, as Nate Silver of the  FiveThirtyEight data blog observed, “most campaign coverage was premised on the idea that Clinton was all but certain to become the next president.”

The outcome revealed how inadequately journalists had prepared their audiences for a Trump victory.

Granted, the viewpoint-diversity deficit in leading American newsrooms hasn’t been much measured. As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out late last month — a survey in 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists found that 8 percent of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves “conservative.” The overwhelming majority self-reported as “moderate” or “liberal.”

That such surveys have been rare is hardly reason to pretend the deficit is imaginary. Or that it can be justified by arguing, “Well, conservatives have Fox News,” the cable outlet.

Few media self-critiques following Trump’s victory were as brutally discerning — or as revealing of the viewpoint-diversity deficit — as the essay Will Rahn wrote for CBS News.

Rahn, managing director of political coverage for CBS News Digital, did not refer specifically to viewpoint diversity in his essay. But he said as much, writing:

“Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid. It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing.”

Rahn further wrote of journalists:

“We must become more impartial, not less so. We have to abandon our easy culture of tantrums and recrimination. We have to stop writing these know-it-all, 140-character sermons on social media and admit that, as a class, journalists have a shamefully limited understanding of the country we cover. … There’s a fleeting fun to gang-ups and groupthink. But it’s not worth what we are losing in the process.”

The periodic Wikileaks disclosures during the fall campaign that revealed fawning interactions of journalists and the Clinton campaign further confirmed that the deficit in viewpoint diversity is no evanescent problem.

And it’s not of recent vintage.

Howell’s column in 2008 quoted Tom Rosenstiel, then the director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying that “conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel added: “More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

In this year’s election, journalists openly challenged or flouted professional norms of impartiality and detachment in reporting, saying the incendiary character of Trump’s views and remarks was so egregious that they were left with no choice.

Columbia Journalism Review fairly rejoiced in what it saw as a latter-day “Murrow Moment” for journalists, a reference to the mythical 1954 television program when Edward R. Murrow took on the red-baiting Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The journalism review said “we … are witnessing a change from existing practice of steadfast detachment, and the context in which journalists are reacting is not unlike that of Murrow: The candidate’s comments fall outside acceptable societal norms, and critical journalists are not alone in speaking up.”

Powerful stuff. Except that the “Murrow Moment” is a false precedent.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed pointed and sustained attention to the senator’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. McCarthy, I point out, had no more sustained or prominent critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the nationally syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began a campaign against communists in government, and persisted in questioning the validity of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Not only that, but McCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids before Murrow’s program aired on March 9, 1954.

So the “Murrow Moment” can’t be considered a high moment in American journalism.

Nor for that matter can last week’s election.

WJC

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

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

Nixon’s resignation: Not the media’s doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In news articles, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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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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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

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