W. Joseph Campbell

Media Myth Alert at 12: Recalling memorable myth-busting posts

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, PBS, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on October 31, 2021 at 8:59 am

Media Myth Alert today marks its 12th anniversary of calling attention to the publication or posting of prominent but exaggerated tales about media prowess and the presumed power and influence of journalists.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmTwelve years offers a fitting occasion to recall some memorable posts — posts that tweaked often-arrogant media outlets such as the Washington Post and PBS, called out media lapses and hypocrisy, and supported the two editions of my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong.

The lineup that unfolds below is admittedly subjective and represents but a slice of the hundreds of essays posted since the launch of Media Myth Alert on the afternoon of Halloween, 2009. It’s nonetheless a slice that makes for pleasant reminiscence. What follows are headlines and descriptions of five of the posts that for varying reasons have stood out over the years:

■ Why Trump-Russia is hardly Watergate-Nixon (posted March 5, 2017): Long before the special counsel’s report punctured the notion that then-President Donald Trump conspired with the Russians to steal the 2016 presidential election, Media Myth Alert scoffed at the notion afoot among American journalists that the suspected Trump-Russia scandal was akin to Watergate redux.

“’Overstated’ hardly suffices in describing the media’s eagerness to find in President Donald Trump’s odd affinity for Russia parallels or echoes that bring to mind Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal,” I wrote. “Such stuff is overstated. Premature. Facile. And ahistoric.”

I added: “Casually invoking such parallels is to ignore and diminish Watergate’s exceptionality. Watergate was a constitutional crisis of unique dimension in which some 20 men, associated either with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972, went to prison.

“Watergate’s dénouement — Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 — was driven not by dogged reporting of the Washington Post but by Nixon’s self-destructive decision to tape-record conversations at the White House. Thousands of hours of audiotape recordings were secretly made, from February 1971 to July 1973.” (Disclosing the Watergate tapes was a story the Post missed, by the way.)

I followed up in another post a little more than two months later, writing:

“The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his associates to jail.”

The Trump-Russia special counsel, Robert Mueller, released his report in May 2019, rejecting suspicions that the Trump campaign or its associates conspired or coordinated with Russia — thus short-circuited eager speculation about a Watergate-type scandal that would bring down a president.

■ WaPo’s ‘five myths’ feature about Vietnam ignores ‘Cronkite Moment,’ Nixon ‘secret plan,’ ‘Napalm Girl’ (posted October 2, 2017): The Washington Post has figured often in posts at Media Myth Alert over the years. A favorite topic has been the newspaper’s unwillingness to explain or take much responsibility for its deeply erroneous reporting about Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

I’ve referred to that reporting as “the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.”

In its Sunday editions, the Post runs a fussy feature  called “five myths,” a rundown of uneven quality on a fresh topic each week.

In 2017, the newspaper addressed “five Myths” of the Vietnam War — and mentioned none of the prominent media myths of that conflicts. Not the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, in an hour-long special report, supposedly swung public opinion against the war. Not the notion Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the conflict. Not the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph which was taken in June 1972 and supposedly hastened an end to the conflict.

No prominent media myth figured in the Post’s rundown about what it called five “deeply entrenched myths” about Vietnam. Instead, the compilation included such “myths” as: “The refugees who came to the U.S. [after the war] were Vietnam’s elite” and “American soldiers [in Vietnam] were mostly draftees.”

Those were not unimportant aspects of the war. But “deeply entrenched myths”? Certainly not as entrenched as the “Cronkite Moment.” As “Nixon’s secret plan.” As the myths of “Napalm Girl.”

■ It’s like 1948 all over again for American media (posted November 9, 2016): This essay makes the subjective short list because it was a starting point for a book project that culminated in publication last year of my seventh book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.

The “like 1948” essay was posted the morning after Trump’s shocking electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — an election that Clinton, the news media, and maybe even Trump figured she would win, perhaps decisively.

Truman triumphant, 1948

The depth of surprise on the day after the election brought reminders of the 1948 election, when incumbent Harry S. Truman defeated the odds-on frontrunner, Thomas E. Dewey (see photo nearby of Truman with a Chicago Tribune front page that got it wrong).

In the day-after post, I noted that notable among the misplaced predictions of Clinton’s sure win was that of Stuart Rothenberg, who had written in August 2016 at the Washington Post’s PowerPost blog:

“Three months from now, with the 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, we will look back and agree that the presidential election was over on Aug. 9th.

Rothenberg added that “a dispassionate examination of the data, combined with a coldblooded look at the candidates, the campaigns and presidential elections, produces only one possible conclusion: Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, and the margin isn’t likely to be as close as Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney” in 2012.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-2-32-48-amObama defeated Romney by an electoral count of 332-206.

Trump defeated Clinton by 304 electoral votes to 227.

Clinton won the national popular vote on the strength of lopsided support among California voters. She lost the presidency by failing to carry three key Great Lakes states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — where polls and poll-based forecasts suggested she would win clearly, if not overwhelmingly.

Had Clinton won those states, she would have won the White House.

The shock outcome of 2016 is one of eight high-profile polling failures taken up in chapters of Lost in a Gallup.

The book noted that in 2016, “polls and poll-based statistical forecasts had set an election narrative that the news media embraced and locked into place. The final polling estimates showed little to challenge the dominant narrative. The election might be close, but an upset? That seemed implausible.”

Lost in a Gallup quoted Natalie Jackson, the Huffington Post analyst who forecast that Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 98.2 percent, as saying after the election that “when there are hundreds of polls all saying the same thing — as most polls did when they indicated Clinton would win—it’s easy to develop a false sense of certainty and safety in concluding that that’s what will happen.”

■ ‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in Economist’s holiday double issue (posted December 22, 2012): I’ve noted from time to time at Media Myth Alert how international news outlets are known to invoke prominent myths about American news media.

A notable example was found in the year-end double issue of Britain’s Economist magazine in 2012, in an off-beat essay about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning. Embedded in that account was reference to the hoary media myth of yellow journalism. It said:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’”

The yellow kid character was a contributing factor in the naming of “yellow journalism.” But not the sole factor.

What attracted the attention of Media Myth Alert was this passage:

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

That’s a reference to the myth that in their overheated reporting of Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer whipped up war fever to the extent that American military intervention against Spain became inevitable..

Economist double issue_2012The yellow press certainly reported closely about the runup to the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes the newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

Simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences that led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of [geopolitical and humanitarian] forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

■ Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (April 14, 2019): I noted not long ago that “PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven. … They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy,” who was the subject of an “American Experience” program in 2020.

PBS documentaries also can give fawning treatment to subjects it regards highly, such as Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes. Pulitzer was, as I wrote in 2019 in reviewing the PBS documentary, “the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

“Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.”

The PBS documentary was an 83-minute, “mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.”

The effect of all the docu-gushing, I wrote, “was misleading.

“True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper champion of the poor, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

“Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program …. It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

“In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.”

For years, Pulitzer ran the World by remote control, as an absentee owner. “From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe,” I wrote, “Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer,” noting that “the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored” by PBS.

The topic is not insignificant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

WJC

More memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

‘Such was Cronkite’s influence’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on October 10, 2021 at 6:44 pm

The Boston Herald published an odd commentary the other day, one that scoffed at core elements of the media myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 while repeating the dubious elements anyway.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Such can be the appeal of media-driven myths, those apocryphal or improbable tales about powerful media influence: They can be too compelling to resist and as such invite comparisons to the junk food of journalism.

The Herald’s commentary discussed the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as historical context in considering the lies told about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which may have permanently damaged Joe Biden’s beleaguered presidency.

The commentary asserted:

“Back in 1968 widely respected CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported that the controversial war in Vietnam, which had so divided the country, was lost, hopelessly ‘mired in stalemate.’

“Coming from Cronkite, a battle-hardened World War II reporter, deemed the most trusted newsman on television, the report shook the foundations of the [Lydon] Johnson administration.

“Such was Cronkite’s influence.

“Johnson, following the broadcast, reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’

“There is no proof that Johnson said any of those things, or if he even watched the broadcast.

“But that was what was reported. The myth took hold and weeks later Johnson, who had repeatedly lied to the American people about the war, announced that he would not seek re-election.”

It’s puzzling why a commentator would enlist media myths to illustrate an argument; invoking a dubious tale, after all, brings neither strength nor clarity to that argument.

In any case, there’s much to unpack in the the Herald’s commentary, which overstates Cronkite’s influence as well as the significance of his remarks made in closing an hour-long televised report on February 27, 1968, about the war in Vietnam.

Cronkite that night did not claim the war was lost; he said the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”

Such an assessment was no daring or original analysis about the war; other U.S. news organizations had invoked such a characterization months before Cronkite’s program. The New York Times, for example, declared in a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times report by R.W. Apple Jr. was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Even sterner critiques were in circulation in late February 1968. Four days before the Cronkite program aired on CBS, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Not stalemated.

Doomed.

Not only was Cronkite’s assessment that night in 1968 unoriginal; it prompted no acknowledged policy shift in Johnson’s Vietnam policy — let alone having shaken the administration’s “foundations.”

It is certain that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. This is significant because presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” resides in its sudden, unexpected, and visceral effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or significantly diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.

Moreover, In the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was aggressively and conspicuously hawkish in his public statements about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort. He doubled down on his Vietnam policy and at one point in mid-March 1968 called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had begun to shift against the war long before Cronkite’s report. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967.

Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam

Johnson’s surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said on television but on the advice of an informal group of foreign policy experts and advisers known as the “Wise Men.” Days before the announcement, the “Wise Men” had met at the White House and, to the president’s astonishment, opposed escalating the conflict as Johnson was contemplating.

One of the participants, George Ball, later recalled: “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights’” in Vietnam.

The president, Ball said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

Cronkite was not at the table of “Wise Men.” By then, his unremarkable commentary about the war was a month old.

Marginal at best: such was Cronkite’s influence on Vietnam policy.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

An easy caricature: PBS portrait of media mogul Hearst is unedifying, superficial

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Television, Yellow Journalism on September 28, 2021 at 6:01 am

PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven.

They can devote fawning treatment to some subjects, such as the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whom it profiled a couple of years ago. They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, subject of an “American Experience” program early last year.

Citizen Hearst: A superficial treatment

And they can minimize complexity about their subjects, as is the case with Citizen Hearst, a mostly superficial “American Experience” portrtait of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The first of two parts aired last night, and it proved unedifying. Hearst was presented as little more than a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, yet possessed scant commitment to truth-telling.

Such assessments have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000. 

So it is a bit odd that the PBS documentary presses the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claims to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw is shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He is the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads.)

It’s as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex character whose journalism — his “yellow journalism” — defies easy caricature.

As practiced in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, “yellow journalism” was  more than merely sensational. It was a distinctive genre of newspapering. Its defining features, as I discussed in my 2001 book,Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, included:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines, some of which stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war,international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Those elements were adopted by newspapers other than Hearst’s. Pulitzer’s World was another exponent of “yellow journalism,” as were some titles in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, where Hearst owned and published the Examiner. But Hearst’s Journal was the newspaper most closely associated with the extremes of  “yellow journalism,” which  the PBS documentary emphasizes in considering the Spanish-American War of 1898, a controversial chapter of Hearst’s life.

The Journal, the documentary claims, offered little more than unfounded, exaggerated, and unverified reporting about the destruction in Havana harbor of the U.S. battleship Maine, a triggering event for the conflict that ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba. At this point, the documentary would have benefited from the insight of Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding biography of the early Hearst.

Whyte pointed out that when stripped from the context New York’s highly competitive newspaper market — where the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule had been an important story for several newspapers for many months — Hearst’s reporting of the Maine disaster in February 1898 and other events in the run-up to the war seems extreme and repellent.

But context matters, Whyte observed, noting:

“Hearst’s coverage [in the run-up to the war] was part of an uproarious national dialogue. His voice sounds freakish when plucked out and examined in isolation, but in the context of the journalistic conversation that erupted as the Maine sank, it sounds quite different.”

Hearst’s Evening Journal, April 1898

Indeed.

PBS often ignores context in pushing its frivolous rich-kid portrait. It misconstrues the fundamental motivation of Hearst’s approach to news-gathering in the late 19th century. Hearst called it the “journalism of action,” which meant newspapers were obliged to take high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

Hearst deployed the “journalism of action” on several fronts — from solving crimes and aiding storm victims to springing a 19-year-old political prisoner from jail in Havana in 1897.

It was an energetic brand of journalism that allowed Hearst’s newspapers to stand out. But the “journalism of action” was not, sustained. It was expensive to pursue, and Hearst’s interests in the early Twentieth Century turned decidedly to politics. Hearst expanded his stable of newspapers but made them platforms for his unfulfilled ambition to win the presidency or the New York governorship.

That Hearst failed in politics ought to tell us something about the presumed power of the press. It’s a topic that PBS sidesteps even while insisting repeatedly that Hearst wielded great influence through his media outlets.

The PBS documentary, which resumes tonight, offers little that is fresh about its subject. It turns tedious at times, and often feels gossipy. It seems impressed by Hearst’s flamboyance but regards it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

WJC

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