W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Getting It Wrong’

Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects of Watergate:

“‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.'”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming Woodward and Bernstein’s exposing the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

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The insidious media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on July 29, 2018 at 11:31 am

The most powerful media myths are insidious, worming their way deep into popular consciousness where they gain resistance to debunking.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

That’s certainly the case with the award-winning “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken by an Associated Press photographer in June 1972, during the Vietnam War.

The black-and-white image shows a cluster of fear-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village, Trang Bang. The photograph’s central figure is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming in terror.

The image offers a timeless statement about war’s indiscriminate effects. And it has given rise to media myths, those false, dubious, or improbable tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

Most notable of the myths associated with the photograph is that U.S.-piloted aircraft carried out the napalm attack.

That version has been invoked so often and so blithely as to become insidious. An essay posted yesterday at the Milwaukee Independent, an online news magazine, suggests as much.

The essay recalled the career of John G. Morris, a once-prominent photo editor for the New York Times and other news organizations who died a year ago at 100.

The essay invoked the myth that Americans were responsible for the napalm drop at Trang Bang, stating:

“It was at Morris’s insistence that graphic images of the Vietnam war taken by two Associated Press photographers made the front page of the New York Times: in 1968, Morris challenged official policy and the supposed requirements of good taste with Eddie Adams’s image of a Vietcong prisoner at the moment of his execution by a South Vietnamese police officer; and in 1972 he used a similarly arresting image by Huynh Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, of a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing the US napalm attack that had burned off her clothes.”

But it was no “US napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

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

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.”

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

I address, and debunk, the media myths of the “Napalm Girl” in a chapter in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong. I close the chapter by considering why the photograph has been so often mischaracterized as showing the effects of “U.S. napalm” or a “U.S. air strike.”

Perhaps it is mostly a case of error repeated so often that it is accepted without second thought.

Or perhaps, as I write in Getting It Wrong, it is a representation of what Shelby Steele “has termed ‘poetic truth’ — the bending of ‘the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant.'”

The “Napalm Girl” photograph long has been associated with a narrative that the U.S. role in Vietnam was amoral and foolhardy, that Kim Phuc’s burns were, in the words of the Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott, “the collateral damage of a war we made.”

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop at Trang Bang has served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.

But to make such a connection, I write, “is to misrepresent the photograph, distort its meaning, and garble the circumstances of its making.” It is to allow narrative to obscure fact.

WJC

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Roster expands of journos who’ve invoked ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 1, 2018 at 8:46 am

Although it has been recognized as a media myth for years, the list keeps expanding of journalists who’ve invoked William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to bring on war with Spain 120 years ago.

To the roster that includes writers for the Washington Post, Politico, and Forbes, as well as James Fallows, Garrison Keillor and Evan Thomas, we add the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman.

In an essay the other day that praised the resilience of journalists in the face of threats and attacks, Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, offered up this paragraph:

“In American folklore, newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst ‘started’ the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the famous illustrator Frederic Remington cabled him that there was no sign of conflict in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Hearst cabled back: ‘You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.'”

Well, no, he didn’t.

Hearst didn’t start, foment, or otherwise bring about the Spanish-American War. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the diplomatic impasse over Cuba that gave rise to the war was far beyond the control or influence of Hearst’s three daily newspapers.

Often cited as evidence that he did bring about the conflict is the vow attributed to Hearst, which usually is recounted as his having pledged to “furnish the war.”

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on even though the telegram that supposedly carried Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied having sent such a message. It lives on despite a a nearly complete absence of documentation.

And it lives on despite what I call an irreconcilable internal inconsistency. That is, it would have been made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington: Six days in Cuba

Remington was in Cuba six days in January 1897, a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been quite aware that Cuba was a theater of a brutal war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, the antecedent to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the evidence against it is such that the Hearstian vow deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

But why does this media myth keep popping up? Why does it seem so inviting to senior journalists?

The reasons are several, and include the deliciousness of the quotation: It tells a story that seems too good not to be true.

Also, it’s an anecdote that caricatures Hearst’s arrogance and hubris exquisitely well.

And it illustrates the presumptive perverse power of the news media — that under the right circumstances, the media can act so disreputably as to plunge the country into war, much as Hearst did in the late Nineteenth Century. Which is nonsense, but that surely is a factor in accounting for the myth’s tenacity.

Yet another factor has to be the sloppiness of journalists, or their reluctance to check out the anecdote — even though ample documentation about its mythical status is but keystrokes away, online.

WJC

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Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

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Hagiographic WaPo and the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post on May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

At one point in a long and credulous look back at Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War, the Washington Post this weekend likens the former CBS News anchorman to “an intercontinental ballistic missile of objectivity.”

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That’s a sample of the hagiographic tone of the Post’s retrospective, which centers around the media myth of Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 about the Vietnam War, in which he described the U.S. military as “mired in stalemate” there.

The Post presents a number of dubious claims about the effects of what it says were Cronkite’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s words were hardly that.

His description about the war as a “stalemate” was neither daring nor novel. As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, American journalists for months before Cronkite’s program had invoked “stalemate” to characterize the war. In early August 1967, or more than six months before Cronkite’s report, the New York Times published a front-page analysis from Vietnam about the war, beneath the headline, “Signs of Stalemate.”

“The analysis said:

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

A month before that, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

So “stalemate” then was a very undramatic, and even conventional, way of characterizing the war.

In invoking “stalemate,” Cronkite certainly was not as “daring” or pointed as the Wall Street Journal had been on its editorial page a few days before. The newspaper declared 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.”

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book-length year-study of 1968, Cronkite’s “stalemate” critique was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

The Post’s takeout further claims that “President Johnson was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That claim is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.

So why is the notion that Johnson was deflated, or worse, an erroneous interpretation?

For starters, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, the president may  have seen the show at some later date on videotape.

Rather than treating Cronkite’s remarks as some sort of epiphany, Johnson in effect shrugged them off and, in a succession of public events in the days and weeks afterward, endeavored to rally popular support for the war in Vietnam.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the president in the aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” gave several speeches in which he stoutly defended his war policy.

In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, Johnson traveled to Minneapolis to deliver a rousing speech to the National Farmers Union convention, during which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Punctuating his remarks in Minneapolis by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air, Johnson declared, “We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” He disparaged critics of the war as inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

And a day after that, Johnson declared in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

So even if he had seen Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment” gave no indication of having embraced the anchorman’s message. The president certainly wasn’t taking a policy lead from Cronkite’s unoriginal characterization of the war.

The Post’s writeup quotes Douglas Brinkley, author of a glowing, hagiographic treatment of the Cronkite, as saying the broadcast journalist on his trip to Vietnam in early 1968 “was just doing the gumshoe reporting all over Vietnam and the print reporters all swooned over Cronkite for doing it.”

All swooned?

No way.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam was not remembered fondly by all war correspondents then in Vietnam. George McArthur, a veteran journalist for the Associated Press, years later recalled Cronkite’s visit to the imperial city, Hue, the scene fierce fighting during the Tet offensive” in early 1968.

“’Cronkite is not one of my heroes,” McArthur said. “When Cronkite broadcast in Hue during the Tet offensive, he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This was his famous trip when he supposedly changed his mind [about the war]. Baloney. He’d made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon, and he was up on top of our [diplomatic] mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a … bulletproof vest and a tin pot [helmet]. And I was up there doing my laundry.”

McArthur’s incisive recollections were included in George W. Smith’s 1999 book, The Siege at Hue, and posted online in 2012.

The Post‘s essay also claims “something did pivot when Cronkite crossed the line into opinion. Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment.” But what pivoted? And how do we know that “Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment”? The Post really doesn’t say. It’s assertion, without evidence.

The mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment took more, of course, than the on-air declarations of a 50-something anchorman. Indeed, the antiwar movement was “a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed,” as an essay posted last year at the New York Times’ online opinion site argued. The movement, the essay added, was defined by four overlapping stages — none of which featured or centered around  the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

WJC

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Convergence encore: Now the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War on May 22, 2018 at 2:05 pm

Wasn’t I just blogging about the convergence of media myths — how disparate news outlets are known to cite the same tall tale independently, at about the same time?

Well, here we are again.

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

This time the Federalist online magazine, in a roundup posted today about memorable cases of media misreporting, invoked what is known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, which centers around a prime-time special report by CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

The broadcast, which Cronkite based on a reporting trip to Vietnam, aired February 27, 1968. At the program’s close, Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

The Federalist essay says “the proclamations he made on his broadcast that night — to which President Johnson is said to have reacted with ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ — were dubious at best, and not at all based on fact.”

“Dubious at best”? That’s arguable, especially as the war was widely regarded as having lapsed into a stalemate in 1967.

But what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay’s reference to President Lyndon Johnson’s visceral purported reaction — “‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!'”

It’s the stuff of a tenacious media myth.

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, that night, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” assessment (which was decidedly unoriginal), Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The show was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat analysis while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort.

The Federalist had company in invoking the mythical Cronkite-Johnson claim. The CBS outlet in Boston, WBZ, also turned to the myth today, stating in a post by the station’s political analyst:

“There’s a famous story from the Vietnam War era about the legendary CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, known back then as ‘the most respected man in America,’ as hard as that might be for today’s news consumers to imagine. When President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite deliver a scathing report about the progress of the war, he reportedly turned to an aide and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

Actually, the report wasn’t so “scathing.” Cronkite’s assessments were, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “somewhat muddled and far less emphatic than those offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. ‘The war,’ McGee declared on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, ‘is being lost by the administration’s definition.'”

Not “mired in stalemate.” “Being lost.”

It is impossible, moreover, to know whether Cronkite was “the most respected man in America” in 1968. He was sometimes called “the most trusted man in America” — but was so anointed in 1972, in Election Day advertisements CBS placed in major U.S. newspapers.

Media myths can converge in another fashion — as when a single article or essay offers up more than one tall tale about media power or media failings. And that takes us back to the Federalist essay, which also invokes the hoary myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain 120 years ago.

The essay declares that “Hearst sent famed American artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to check on the progress of a rumored rebellion against the Spanish government there.

Hearst: Denied sending message

“Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that read ‘Everything quiet here. There is no trouble. There will be no war. Wish to return.’ Hearst famously replied ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Less than a month later, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana.”

Let’s unpack the errors in those few sentences.

First, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule was hardly a “rumored” conflict. It was very real, having begun in early 1895. By the time Remington arrived in Havana in early 1897, the rebellion had reached islandwide proportions, prompting Spain to send about 200,000 troops to Cuba.

Additionally, the essay’s sequencing is off: Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897; the USS Maine blew up in February 1898, more than a year later.

Moreover, that telegrams were exchanged has never been proven. Hearst denied having sent such a message to Remington, and Remington apparently never discussed the tale, which gained wide circulation beginning in the mid-1930s, long after the artist’s death.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation: It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

It lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

It is highly likely that Hearst’s purported telegram (had it been sent) would have been intercepted by Spanish authorities. They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their surveillance, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

An incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been seized upon and called out by Spanish authorities as an example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

But they made no such outcry.

So what does the latest published convergence of media myths tell us?

It certainly testifies to the hardiness of media myths, and to their enduring accessibility. It reminds us that media myths, which fundamentally are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity, can be too apt and too tempting to be checked out.

They can seem almost too good not to be true.

WJC

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A media myth convergence: Erroneous claims about ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Sometimes media myths converge.

On occasion, a variety of news outlets independently invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at about the same time. It’s an occurrence that confirms wide familiarity with prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The most recent manifestation of a media myth convergence centers around the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut, a photographer for the Associated Press.

Ut’s image showed a cluster of young children, screaming in terror as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, whose clothing had been burned away by the napalm.

The myths surrounding the “Napalm Girl” image are tenacious, as I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes, that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and that it hastened an end to the conflict.

Variations of those erroneous characterizations were invoked in recent days by the National newspaper in Scotland; by Quartz, which styles itself an online site “for business people in the new global economy”; by the left-wing site Truthdig, and by the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa.

That variety of outlets is a reminder of the portability of prominent media myths — they can travel far — and confirms anew how readily myths can be harnessed to underscore some larger point.

Consider the National newspaper, which invoked “Napalm Girl” as evidence of the potential power of photographs in directing attention to illegal trafficking in wildlife. The article began by stating:

“When Nick Ut’s harrowing image of the Napalm Girl was splashed across newspapers in 1972, it dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War. Even today, the image is a shivering reminder of the innocent millions caught up in warfare; proof of the enduring power photography holds.

“Now, a group of photojournalists is employing a similar approach to communicate the ills of the illegal wildlife trade, a battle being fought on behalf of hundreds of species worldwide,” in a book, Photographers Against Wildlife Crime.

The Quartz essay make a somewhat similar claim about Ut’s photograph, saying it “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig is more vague, declaring the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.”

Ut’s image won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 but evidence is scant that it did much to change “public attitude” — or “shift the understanding” — about Vietnam. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, U.S. public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972.

I pointed out that slightly more 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted in May 1971 — more than a year before the napalm bombing that Ut photographed — said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. Thirty-one percent of respondents in May 1971 said no, it had not been a mistake.

When Gallup next asked the question, in a survey in January 1973, about the time the United States and North Vietnamese reached a peace agreement, the results were essentially unchanged: 60 percent of respondents said sending U.S. forces to Vietnam had been a mistake, 29 percent said it had not.

That poll question was a proxy for gauging Americans’ views about the war. It was first asked in August 1965, when only 24 percent of respondents said it had been a mistake to send troops to Vietnam; 60 percent said it had not been a mistake.

Additionally, Ut claimed in an interview in 2012 that publication of his image sparked “anti-war protests all over the world” — including London, Paris, and Washington, D.C. But there is no evidence — specifically no news reports — that such protests took place.

I wrote in Getting It Wrong:

“A review of the front pages of leading U.S. newspapers reveals no reports of antiwar protests of the sort that Ut described in the interview. Disturbing though it was, ‘Napalm Girl’ did not prompt Americans to take to the streets in rallies or demonstrations against the war.

“It is no doubt asking too much of a still photograph to stir far-reaching protest,” I observed.

The Sunday Times presented a particularly pernicious element of the “Napalm Girl” myths, saying the photograph was made following a “US napalm strike.”

The newspaper made that erroneous assertion in a tribute, published today, to Sam Nzima, a self-taught South African photographer.

Nzima, who died this month, was best known for the image of a dying young victim being carried away from student protests in Soweto in 1976.

In its tribute, the Sunday Times likened Nzima’s photograph to “Napalm Girl,” stating:

“In terms of impact and effect it was in the same league as Associated Press photojournalist Nick Ut’s picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running down the road in agony after being caught up in a US napalm strike, which changed American perceptions of the war.”

‘Evening Bulletin,’ June 8, 1972

As often is the case in discussing the presumed influence of “Napalm Girl,” the Sunday Times’ claim about “changed American perceptions of the war” is backed by no evidence or documentation.

More significantly, the napalm that severely burned Kim Phuc was dropped not by U.S. warplanes but by an A-1 Skyraider of the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports at the time made quite clear (see image of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article nearby).

The New York Times, for example, reported on June 9, 1972, the day after the errant attack, 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 diving onto the wrong target.”

It was no “US napalm strike.”

WJC

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Hearst, Ted Cruz, and the myth of war-mongering ‘yellow journalism’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on April 27, 2018 at 7:19 am

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz  assailed U.S. technology companies this week and, in doing so, brought up one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — that William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers brought about the Spanish-American War 120 years ago.

In an interview with “Breitbart News Tonight,” Cruz declared that the “scope of the power” of Facebook and other tech companies “is truly unprecedented. You think back to the heights of yellow journalism, when publisher William Randolph Hearst controlled much of media and in fact got America into the Spanish-American War. Well, these tech companies have power William Randolph Hearst could never have imagined.”

Cruz: Blames Hearst for war

Maybe.

But it hardly can be said that Hearst “controlled much of [the] media” in 1898. He ran three newspapers then — his flagship New York Journal, its down-market companion the Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. At the time, the United States had more than 2,000 daily newspapers (and 12,000 weeklies), the ownership of which was quite diffuse.

More intriguing to Media Myth Alert was the senator’s unsourced claim that Hearst “got America into the Spanish-American War.” No serious historian of the period embraces that notion. It is indeed a hoary media myth, which I addressed and debunked in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism.

Claims about Hearst’s war-mongering power almost always are unsourced. They almost always lack an explanation about just how Hearst and his “yellow journalism” brought on the war: What was the linkage? By what mechanism were the contents of Hearst’s three newspapers transformed into government policy and military action against Spain?

The short answer: There was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the deadly destruction of the USS Maine in mid-February 1898, while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote, “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 administration assuredly did not take a policy lead from the Hearst press. His newspapers were, I noted, “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war on April 25, 1898. The conflict lasted 114 days as the U.S. Army and Navy routed Spanish forces in theaters in the Caribbean and Asia — in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

To indict the yellow press for bringing on the conflict is to misread the evidence and ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in an impasse that led to war. Failed diplomacy — essentially, the United States and Spain could not resolve differences over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — gave rise to war.

The start date of the conflict was a source of recent confusion for the Washington Post which, in a glib essay about the cruelties of April, erroneously stated the war was declared on April 20, 1898.

Hearst’s Journal: Offered reward to solve Maine destruction, 1898

The Post’s essay also said “the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (‘Remember the Maine’). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.”

Not so.

In March 1898 (very much “at the time”), a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine’s destruction was likely triggered by the detonation of an underwater mine in Havana harbor, which was under Spanish control. The Court’s key finding was that a portion of the battleship’s bottom plating had been bent inward, in the shape of an inverted “V.” That evidence signaled an external source of the explosion.

Although the Court of Inquiry identified no suspects in the presumed mining, the American press and public held Spanish authorities responsible, given their control of the harbor. (For example, one of Hearst’s rivals, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, declared at the end of March 1898: “The Government of Spain is inescapably responsible for the destruction of the Maine by a MINE in Havana harbor. What are we going to do about it?”)

The Naval Court’s central finding was endorsed in 1911, when the wreck of the Maine was raised from Havana harbor and taken to sea for burial in 400 fathoms of water. The 1911 inquiry placed the likely location of the underwater mine farther aft than did the 1898 inquiry.

The mine-sunk-the-Maine interpretation was not seriously challenged until the mid-1970s, when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover commissioned a private study that proposed spontaneous combustion — a fire smoldering undetected in a coal bunkers near the ship’s forward magazines — was the explosion’s probable source.

Rickover’s interpretation has proved not to be the final word, however.

In 1998, a study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted with computer simulations by Advanced Marine Enterprises found fresh support for the mine theory.

The study said “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine” was the source of the explosion. It also said “that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating … would have blown outward, not inward.”

WJC

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‘Chappaquiddick,’ the movie: Muddled character study

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Reviews, Scandal, Watergate myth on April 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

Chappaquiddick, the docudrama revisiting Senator Ted Kennedy’s misconduct following a late-night automobile accident in July 1969 that killed his 28-year-old female passenger, was released over the weekend to larger-than-expected audiences and not-bad reviews.

The film’s release also was accompanied by a bit of carping from a Kennedy apologist who characterized Chappaquiddick as a distortion, as bad history.

Such complaints are fair enough, when accurate. Plenty of American history has been distorted by the cinema.

The movie version of All the President’s Men, for example, fueled the media myth that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s The Post mythologized the presumed courage of the publisher of the newspaper — the Washington Postthat trailed the New York Times in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the government’s classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for its reporting on the case.

The carping about Chappaquiddick came in a prickly commentary in the Times that claimed the movie “distorts a tragedy” in revisiting Kennedy’s actions leading to the watery death of Mary Jo Kopechne — one of the late Robert Kennedy’s female campaign staffers, six of whom Ted Kennedy and friends invited to party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July 1969.

Kennedy, who was married, and Kopechne, who was not, left the party together, with the senator behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan.

According to Kennedy’s accounts, he made a wrong turn, drove the sedan down an unpaved road and off a wooden bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick. The car flipped before landing in the water. Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) escaped the sunken Oldsmobile and made it back to his hotel room in Edgartown, across a ferry channel from Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) died alone inside the car.

The incident — and the success of Kennedy and his minions in thwarting thorough investigations of his conduct — are at the dramatic heart of Chappaquiddick.

If anything, though, the movie shows too little of the fecklessness of local authorities whose deference allowed Kennedy to escape with a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of a deadly accident. Power enabled by privilege was Chappaquiddick’s amoral takeaway.

Chappaquiddick would have been a powerful film had it presented a withering, focused look at the privilege and power that got the senator off the hook and safely away from criminal jeopardy.

The Times commentary chafed at the movie’s treatment of Kennedy, whom Massachusetts voters returned to the U.S. Senate seven times after the Chappaquiddick scandal.

“Contrary to the film’s implications,” says the commentary, written by Neil Gabler, “Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption,” adds Gabler, who is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy.  Chappaquiddick, he writes, “is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”

How hagiographic. How beside the point.

Chappaquiddick could have been a withering and unsparing examination of a scion of privilege, a national figure who had a long history of drinking to excess and of treating women badly, and who by his own admission acted reprehensibly in the hours after driving the Oldsmobile off the bridge.

As it is, the film is a somewhat muddled character study, in part because of gaps in the narrative — gaps that persist because the senator was never compelled to explain fully what happened on that summer’s night 49 years ago.

Despite it shortcomings and occasional indulgence in dramatic license, the movie presents the incontrovertible main elements of the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, namely that:

  • Kennedy left the party with a young woman not his wife. Kennedy later said he was driving her to the ferry that would take her to Edgartown and her hotel. But Kopechne left behind at the party her purse and motel room key.
  • Kennedy did not immediately call for help from police or rescue workers after escaping the Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond.
  • Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours — until Kopechne’s lifeless body had been found in the submerged sedan.
  • Kennedy’s loyalists sought to pitch the episode as another tragedy for Kennedy’s family.
  • Kennedy was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, not the far more serious charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
  • Kennedy’s ambitions to become president were derailed by Kopechne’s death; he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

As Leo DaMore wrote in Senatorial Privilege, an incisive and detailed study of Chappaquiddick, “In his pursuit of the presidential nomination, Kennedy had run against Chappaquiddick. And Chappaquiddick had won.”

So why is a movie about the Chappaquiddick scandal worth making nowadays? Principally because Chappaquiddick, and Kennedy’s misconduct, have receded in popular consciousness. Kennedy, who late in his life was celebrated fulsomely as a “lion of the Senate,” lived until 2009, 40 years after Kopechne’s death.

A more honorable man than he would have resigned in July 1969 and left public life.

WJC

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15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

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

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

He also said:

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

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

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

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.

WJC

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