W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media-driven myths’

Jessica Lynch, the Fin Times, and ‘big propaganda stories’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 am

It is well-understood that the tale of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003 was bogus.

Much less well-understood is how the story of her purported derring-do entered the public domain.

Many accounts of the exaggerated hero-warrior tale blame the U.S. government or the U.S. military — or simply the U.S. — for cynically attempting to turn Lynch, then-19-year-old Army supply clerk, into a wartime hero.

Far fewer accounts identify the real source of error — a botched report published 11 years ago today in the Washington Post.

Lynch_headline_Post

Page one 11 years ago: The Post’s botched story

Most recently to err in describing the derivation of the Lynch saga is London’s Financial Times, a sophisticated newspaper printed on distinctive salmon-colored newsprint.

The Financial Times ruminated in a commentary the other day about “the power of peace” and included this vague yet pointed accusation:

“During the Iraq war, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false.”

How so, “the US”? The commentary doesn’t say.

In the case of Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger and former professional football player, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command said that he had been killed by enemy gunfire in 2004, in Afghanistan. A subsequent Defense Department investigation determined his death was caused by friendly fire.

But in the Lynch case, it was the Washington Post — not “the US,” and certainly not the U.S. military — that was the source of the bogus report.

In a front-page article published April 3, 2003, the Post claimed that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition” and was captured.

The Post declared that Lynch suffered “multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in fighting in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Post cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” as sources for the electrifying account of the young woman’s heroism.

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — was wrong in almost every major respect. The ambush did occur, on March 23, 2003, in the first days of the Iraq War. But Lynch did not fire her weapon in the attack. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the escape. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Lynch in 2003

Lynch in 2003

The Post has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its erroneous report. But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb did make clear that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

In an interview with NPR in December 2003, Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

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

Over the years, though, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon made it all up.

What accounts for this transformation? Why has the Post’s singular role in the Lynch case been so thoroughly eclipsed?

One reason is that it’s perversely delicious and sinister to assert that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch and somehow fed it to gullible news outlets. That’s a far more engaging story than that of mangled newspaper reporting.

Another reason is that the Post, on occasion, has been complicit in muddying its decisive contribution to Lynch fable.

The newspaper has been known to characterize the hero-warrior tale as one that other news media were telling, too. That’s true, but only after the Post published the story that made Lynch, quite undeservedly, the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

Eleven years on, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly botched its report about Lynch.

WJC

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60 years on, CBS extols Murrow show on McCarthy as TV ‘turning point’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Predictably perhaps, CBS has recalled Edward R. Murrow’s mythical takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy 60 years ago as “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.

In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy and did so “only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.

The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”

In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.

So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer,  rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.

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.”

McCarthy: Brutish

McCarthy: Brutish

But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.

In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

How so was left unexplained.

The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.

McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.

Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.

Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.

On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.

“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.

In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.

WJC

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On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Quotes, Television on February 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

We’ll likely see a modest surge in the appearance of media myths in the next couple of weeks, with the approach of hallowed moments of exaggerated importance in media history.

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

The 60th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s program about the excesses of Senator Joseph M. McCarthy — sometimes called the finest half-hour in television history — falls in two weeks.

The media myth has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four years before.

In fact, Murrow was very late to take on McCarthy, and did so only after several other journalists had called attention to the senator’s excesses.  Notable among them was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist who began questioning the substance of McCarthy’s red-baiting accusations almost as soon as the senator began raising them.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow, in the days and weeks after his program about McCarthy, acknowledged that he had reinforced what others had long said about the senator.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

But in the runup to the anniversary of program about McCarthy, we’re likely to hear far more about how Murrow was a courageous white knight, rather than a belated chronicler of McCarthy’s egregious ways.

This week brings the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” another mythical moment in television history that long ago assumed greater importance than it ever deserved.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared at the close of special report about the war in Vietnam that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the quagmire.

Cronkite’s observations supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pronouncement, the media myth has it, the president snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

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

Or something to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible tale which — like the Murrow-McCarthy media myth — is cited as compelling evidence of the power of television news and/or the remarkable sway of influential journalists.

Politico Magazine embraced the “influential journalist” interpretation the other day in recalling the putative “Cronkite Moment” in a lengthy, rambling essay.

The essay declared that Cronkite “had social weight. It seemed as if he spoke for the entire nation. Ironically, a country riven by war and social tensions had an elite that looked and thought about things pretty much the same way as Walter Cronkite.

“When Cronkite said the war [in Vietnam] was a disaster,” the essay continued, “many of them knew the jig was up. A month or so after Cronkite spoke those words, LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential election. As Johnson was said to remark to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’”

Except there’s little evidence that Johnson or other U.S. policymakers in 1968 were much moved by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observations.

By the time of Cronkite’s special report, “stalemate” was an unremarkable way of describing the war effort in Vietnam. The New York Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, including a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it,  the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

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

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Cronkite’s remarks about “stalemate” in Vietnam had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to run for reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s diminished political support within the Democratic party. By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And Johnson may have decided well before then against seeking another four-year term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that long before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light about Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence also is scant that Cronkite’s program had much influence on popular opinion. Indeed, polls had detected shifts in sentiment against the war in Vietnam months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary. Which means the anchorman was following rather than precipitating shifts in public opinion.

WJC

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NYCity new mayor gushes over Bernstein, Woodward and their putative contributions to Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Bill de Blasio, New York’s recently inaugurated mayor, fairly gushed at a news conference yesterday about Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and their putative roles in unraveling the Watergate scandal, saying the duo exerted a major influence on his life.

De Blasio credited Bernstein and Woodward, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public understanding about Watergate.

deBlasio

de Blasio

“I always say I’m a child of the Watergate summer,” de Blasio declared at the news conference. “And I had an extraordinary experience a year or two ago when I first met Carl Bernstein who’s, I think, one of the people … who had the biggest impact on my life, with Bob Woodward. Because for any of us who were deeply affected by that moment in history, those two individuals framed and, you know, created that moment so much and so deeply.”

The mayor’s soliloquy was prompted by a reporter’s question about whether de Blasio ever considered becoming a journalist. “I did, for a bit,” the mayor said, “never overly coherently.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

It wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether Bernstein and Woodward much contributed to — let alone “framed” or “created” — conditions that gave rise to the 1973 Watergate hearings. By then, there were many other, more powerful and subpoena-wielding forces at work seeking to unravel the unfolding scandal.

As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive.

It’s instructive to note the decisive elements of the scandal that Bernstein and Woodward did not disclose.

They did not, for example, break the news about hush payments to the burglars who committed the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward disclose that Nixon secretly made audiorecordings of most of his private conversations at the Oval Office. The White House tapes were pivotal to Watergate’s denouement, revealing that Nixon conspired to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

The existence of the tapes was revealed by the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, in the midst of the “Watergate summer,” which de Blasio recalled yesterday as “one of the most riveting things that’s happened in the history of the republic.”

The hearings, the mayor said, represented “an affirmation of democracy. It was an affirmation of what good elected leaders can do, even if the face of tremendous odds. It certainly was an affirmation of the role of the media in our society.”

To the last claim — probably not.

De Blasio was not asked at the news conference to elaborate on his extravagant remarks about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate, remarks that all but embraced the myth of the heroic journalist.

Not to mention the “golden age” fallacy.

WJC

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Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually 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.”

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.

Murrow

Murrow

They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.

WJC

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Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on November 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm

It’s testimony to the program’s flaws and tedium that public discussion about the PBS “American Experience” documentary largely faded away within days if not hours after it was broadcast. The documentary revisited the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds which aired 75 years ago and told of Martians mounting lethal attack on the United States.

Hyping the reaction

Did not

So realistic was the radio show that it supposedly pitched tens of thousands of listeners into panic and mass hysteria.

That, of course, makes for a timeless story, and  is a critical reason why the program is recalled and discussed unlike any other radio show. But the reports of panic and hysteria loosed by the radio show were grossly exaggerated by the newspapers of the day. As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, whatever fear the program may have stirred, it did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and hysteria.

Eleven days ago, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds dramatization in a documentary notable for failing to confront the most important and intriguing questions about radio program: Did it set off panicked reactions across the country when it aired on October 30, 1938? If not, why is it so widely believed that it had such powerful and immediate effects?

In ducking those central questions, the documentary was an opportunity lost.

The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, said as much in a column last week, saying he was “in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

The PBS documentary prompted other criticism, too — including its use of cheesy recreated dialog spoken by actors clad in period clothing.

One of the actors played the part of a “Sylvia Holmes” from Newark, New Jersey, who supposedly was pitched into panic by The War of the Worlds radio show. The documentary, however, did not disclose that “Sylvia Holmes” was a pseudonymous character, whose “remarks” were taken from The Invasion From Mars, a flawed book about the radio show published in 1940. (That book intentionally obscured the identities of “Holmes” and other interview subjects.)

As I pointed out at Media Myth Alert last week, PBS editorial standards say that its programming content “should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

Offering up a pseudonymous character and failing to identify her as such seemed to skirt those standards.

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

Getler in a column yesterday said he didn’t think so. “The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name,” he wrote, adding:

“But I don’t view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person.”

It’s sloppy, though. It’s slyly misleading, and it’s hardly in keeping with a commitment to transparency. As such, it’s another dent in a documentary that was full of them.

Getler reiterated in his column yesterday that the documentary’s “biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.”

That’s quite true. But the documentary was more deeply flawed than that. Its makers, after all, ignored recent research that has impugned the notion The War of the Worlds program stirred mass panic.

And in dodging the central questions of The War of the Worlds program, the documentary ended up confused and meandering, not knowing for sure what it was supposed to do. So it turned out to be part tribute to the radio program; part tribute to the radio show’s director and star, Orson Welles;  part rumination about America of the late 1930s, and part digression about life on Mars.

At least it won’t be regarded as a definitive treatment about what was a clever, memorable, and mythical radio dramatization.

WJC

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PBS squanders opportunity to offer ‘content that educates’ in ‘War of the Worlds’ doc

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 29, 2013 at 10:02 pm
Orson Welles

Orson Welles

Tonight’s snoozy PBS documentary about the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds not only was tedious fare — it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.

The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.

But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of the program’s 23-year-old star, Orson Welles.

This scholarship is neither obscure nor inaccessible.

Jeffrey Sconce, for example, pointed out in 2000 in his book, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television: “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in actual panic over the [War of the Worlds] broadcast is … limited at best. … And yet the legend of paralyzing ‘mass panic’ lives on.”

Edward Jay Epstein has dismissed as a “fictoid” the notion that the radio program touched off mass hysteria. “The accounts of suicides, heart attacks, traffic collisions and flights all proved to be unfounded,” Epstein wrote, adding:

“The program itself of course was a fiction. So was the ‘Mass Hysteria,’ which became part of American folklore about the power of the media.”

Michael Socolow, a journalism historian at the University of Maine, said this about The War of the Worlds broadcast in a thoughtful commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago:

“Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.”

Socolow more recently has written a superb assessment of the broadcast, which was posted today at Slate.com. In it, he wrote:

“The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.”

Fifteen years ago, at the 60th anniversary of The War of the Worlds dramatization, Robert E. Bartholomew, an international expert on mass panic, pointed to a “growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic” created by Welles’ program, “was greatly exaggerated.

“The irony here,” Bartholomew wrote, “is that for the better part of the past sixty years many people may have been misled by the media to believe that the panic was far more extensive and intense than it apparently was.”

The panic, to be sure, was overstated. Exaggerated. And has become the stuff of a tenacious media-driven myth.

As I wrote in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I also discuss in Getting It Wrong a little-studied secondary phenomenon associated with The War of the Worlds broadcast, that “a false-alarm contagion took hold that night” in which well-intentioned people possessing little more than an incomplete understanding of Welles’ program set out on their own to warn others about a sudden and terrible threat.Getting It Wrong_cover

These would-be Paul Reveres, I wrote, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.

“It had to have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken. … In more than a few cases, a contagion took hold: Many non-listeners became quite frightened, thus compounding for a short time the commotion and confusion stemming from The World of the Worlds program.”

PBS might well have examined that effect. It might have more seriously considered the broader counter-narrative that has taken shape about the radio dramatization.

PBS might have examined, in ways revealing to its audience, how media influences are not transmitted like a narcotic injected by hypodermic needle. News and entertainment media exert influences in ways that typically are far more subtle, nuanced, complex, and uneven.

But to believe The War of the Worlds radio program stirred chaos, mass panic, and widespread hysteria is effectively to embrace the hypodermic needle theory of media influence — a theory discredited long ago .

The age, class, wealth, education, political views, and life experiences of media audiences all are factors as to how media messages are absorbed and interpreted — if they are absorbed at all.

Socolow in his Chronicle article in 2008 noted the uneven and often-limited effects of media messages, writing:

“If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn’t every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?”

PBS — which says its mission is “to create content that educates, informs and inspires” — might have seized the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast to address such questions.

But, no: The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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‘War of the Worlds’ made boring: PBS documentary is tedious fare

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm

The War of Worlds made dull.

That’s what PBS has accomplished in an hour-long American Experience documentary about the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which aired 75 years ago and told of a deadly invasion of the United States by Martians wielding heat rays.

Welles, the day after

Orson Welles, 1938

The PBS documentary to be broadcast Tuesday is a plodding, disjointed program that provides some back story to the famous program, which starred and was directed by Orson Welles (left).

And it tries much too hard to make the argument that a war scare in Europe in late September 1938 had all of America still on edge four weeks later, when the radio show aired.

But its greatest flaw lies in embracing as a premise the dubious assumption that The War of the Worlds dramatization on October 30, 1938, provoked chaos and scared Americans out of their wits.

The documentary seeks to underscore its dubious premise through commentary spoken by actors in period clothing. The actors pretend to be sitting for interviews as they give voice to sentiments contained in letters written in 1938 to Welles, the Federal Communications Commission, and CBS, which aired the dramatization.

The actors aren’t convincing, their comments seem stilted and contrived, and the effect is cheesy, eye-rolling, and suggestive of so much filler.

The letters, drawn from a well-known archive of Welles material at the University of Michigan, were of course hardly representative of the public’s reactions to The War of the Worlds dramatization. But PBS makes no mention of that.

The documentary claims that upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

But no explanation is offered as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a figure.

Not only is it unsourced, but the figure is surely exaggerated.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, most listeners, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the radio show for what it was — deliciously clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween in 1938.

The notion that The War of the Worlds program was so frightening that tens of thousands of people were sent into the streets in panic is, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

Had chaos and hysteria swept the United States that night long ago, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries,” I further wrote.

But no deaths and few injuries were conclusively linked to the program.

Indeed, there is only scant evidence that listeners acted on whatever fears they may have had. Many of them made the entirely rational decision to seek confirmation or clarification by calling external sources known to be usually reliable, such as local newspapers, police departments, and fire stations.

The PBS documentary, however, cites heightened call volumes as evidence of Americans being scared out of their wits.

Listeners that night also turned the radio dial to see whether other stations were carrying reports about an invasion from Mars.  None were, of course. The documentary ignores that reaction, too.

Discerning listeners, moreover, recognized that events in the radio play moved far too rapidly to be realistic. The pacing was such that within 30 minutes, the Martians blasted off from their home planet, traveled millions across space, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, disrupted local and national communications, and forced declarations of martial law.

During the radio dramatization’s closing half-hour, the aliens marched on and destroyed much of New York City and took control of swaths of the United States before succumbing to the effects of humble earthly germs.

The documentary would have been far more compelling had it examined rather than swallowed whole the conventional wisdom about the radio play, had it raised searching questions as to whether the dramatization did provoke chaos and panic.

But the documentary makers took the easy way out and fashioned a program that dutifully and dully accepts the received wisdom without recognizing recent scholarship that has impugned what PBS took as a premise.

The radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds wasn’t panic-inducing. It was memorable and entertaining — neither of which can be said about the tedious fare that PBS will offer up in two days.

WJC

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Good call: WaPo building no landmark

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 19, 2013 at 10:59 am
A landmark?

Not a landmark

A leading preservation group in Washington, DC, has quietly decided against seeking landmark status for the Washington Post building, saying the structure isn’t distinctive enough, architecturally.

And that’s a good call.

I had suspected that landmark status would be proposed for the building because of the newspaper’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, which over the years has become a subject of a towering media myth.

The myth has it that the Post’s dogged reporting on Watergate forced Richard M. Nixon to resign the presidency.

That, of course, is a simplistic and superficial interpretation of Watergate — an interpretation not even embraced by the sometimes-arrogant Post. One of the newspaper’s lead reporters on Watergate, Bob Woodward, has declared, for example:

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

Had the Post building been designated a landmark, a likely upshot would have to deepen the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. Landmark status could have further entrenched the erroneous notion that the Post was the place where Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein wrote the stories that exposed and ended a corrupt presidency.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s contributions to unraveling Watergate were very modest and not at all decisive.

To roll up a scandal of the complexity of Watergate, 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.”

And even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the forced disclosures about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by a Supreme Court ruling did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The Post reported this week that the non-profit DC Preservation League has decided that the building’s design “did not rise to a level worth preserving, despite the fact it served as the workplace for journalists who pursued stories such as the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.”

The Post building is pretty bland.  Without landmark status, it may be easier to sell to a developer. The Post said early this year that it was exploring the building’s sale.

Over the summer, the Post was sold to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, who agreed to pay $250 million for the newspaper, a deal that’s expected to close in a few weeks. Bezos did not acquire the building.

Meantime, the garage in suburban Virginia where Woodward occasionally met a secret Watergate source, codenamed “Deep Throat,” may be torn down in the next few years and an office building put up in its place.

If that happens, then the historical marker next to the garage ought to be removed, too.

The marker, which was put up a little more than two years ago, errs in describing the information Woodward received from his “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says: “Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Not so.

As I’ve pointed out, such evidence “would have been so damaging and explosive that it surely would have forced Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did, in August 1974.”

Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) he didn’t share it with Woodward.

Given the historical inaccuracy the marker ought to go.

WJC

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Upcoming PBS show on ‘War of Worlds’ may reinforce media myth — in cheesy fashion

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on August 29, 2013 at 11:05 am

An upcoming PBS documentary about the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization seems certain to embrace the media myth that the show provoked panic across the United States when it aired nearly 75 years ago.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of Worlds’

The PBS program is to be shown October 29, on the eve of the anniversary of the radio play that starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of the invasion of America by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

The ever-appealing tale of radio-inducted hysteria is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Simply put, the notion that The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria is Halloween’s greatest media myth.

I note in Getting It Wrong that pockets of Americans may have been frightened by the program. But there is scant evidence that many listeners acted on their fears. And being frightened is hardly synonymous with being pitched into panic and hysteria.

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria  swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.

Nonetheless, the panic myth probably is too well-known, and too entrenched in American culture, ever to be thoroughly cast aside. And the PBS program in late October may well serve to reinforce an already-tenacious media myth.

It could be a cheesy show, too. The PBS description suggests as much, saying the program will make use of “letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself” to dramatize “the public’s reaction … with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment… or the end of the world.”

(The actor outtakes posted online undeniably are cheesy.)

The PBS program, should it promote the media myth, would run counter to a substantial body of research that has dismissed or cast serious doubt on the notion Welles’ radio program caused panic and mass hysteria. In addition to my research and Socolow’s work, Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on the phenomenon of panics, has written that many people wrongly “believe a panic took place” during and immediately after the airing of The War of the Worlds radio show.

Moreover, this month has brought publication of The United States of Paranoia, a sophisticated study of conspiracy theories in the United States. The book, written by Jesse Walker, an editor at  Reason magazine, addresses The War of the Worlds radio show and notes:

“There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, though, that they were any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.”

That’s very good. The producers of the PBS documentary would do well to give thought to such a telling observation.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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