W. Joseph Campbell

Piling on the myths: Claiming ‘energizing’ power for ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 17, 2020 at 7:25 am

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is so raw and exceptional that it must have exerted deep and powerful influences. Or so goes the assumption.

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The image taken in June 1972 shows a cluster of terrorized children fleeing an errant napalm bombing of their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the photograph’s center is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming as she ran, her clothes burned away by the fiery tactical weapon.

It’s been said the image was so moving that it helped end the war.

It’s been said to have turned American public opinion against the war.

It’s even been said to have “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war (even though flame-throwers did not figure in the aerial attack).

Such claims are the stuff of media myths — far-fetched and implausible, supported by no compelling, contemporaneous evidence.

Now comes the Guardian newspaper of London with the undocumented claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the U.S. antiwar movement.

The Guardian‘s assertion was presented in an online essay posted yesterday that ruminated about the dearth of visceral images from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which spread from Wuhan, China, late last year or early this, killing nearly 90,000 people in America and more than 300,000 worldwide.

“The 2020 pandemic is memorable not for [images of] coffins piled high but for data modeling and statistics,” the Guardian essay states, adding:

“In any national or global emergency, the media play an outsized role in conveying extreme experiences to those who have no direct contact. The image of Kim Phuc, the ‘napalm girl’ in the Vietnam war, became the recognized representation of the conflict, energizing the peace movement. Covid-19 has yet to be framed by such an image.”

The claim that “Napalm Girl” was the “recognized representation of the conflict” is certainly open to challenge.

The long war in Vietnam War was illuminated by many evocative images, and it is impossible to say which of them can be called the “recognized representation of the conflict.” Other notable images included the Saigon Execution photo of 1968, and the “Burning Monkimage of 1963. And there were many others.

Less ambiguous is the exaggerated nature of the Guardian essay’s claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the peace movement.

That movement was hardly moribund in the United States in 1972.

In a 2005 journal article about the antiwar movement of the early 1970s (see abstract nearby), Joel Lefkowitz included an extensive list of protests that flared in April and May 1972 — before the “Napalm Girl” image was taken on June 8, 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press.

What catalyzed antiwar protests then was not “Napalm Girl” but President Richard Nixon’s order in May 1972 to mine North Vietnamese ports. That decision energized protests across the United States.

On May 10, 1972, for example, the New York Times described a “coast‐to‐coast outburst of demonstrations,” describing them as “the most turbulent since May, 1970, when protests over the United States invasion of Cambodia closed universities across the country.

The following day, the Times discussed how “antiwar protests [had] convulsed cities and college campuses across the country … as demonstrators blocked highways, occupied buildings, and — at night — fought against club‐wielding policemen under clouds of tear gas. The fighting was particularly violent in Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif., and Minneapolis.”

Memorable though the photograph was, no contemporaneous evidence suggests that “Napalm Girl” had discernible effects of stoking or “energizing” antiwar protests.

And it’s not as if the photograph was displayed on front pages of newspapers across America. Many did give “Napalm Girl” prominent display, including the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia (see nearby).

But many other U.S. newspapers that subscribed to Associated Press services — including titles in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Omaha, and Pittsburgh — did not publish the photograph. A few others placed the image on an inside page.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: “Reservations about the frontal nudity shown in Napalm Girl no doubt led some U.S. newspapers to decline to publish the photograph prominently, if at all.”

More useful than speculating about why the pandemic has produced no image as evocative as “Napalm Girl” is to consider why mainstream media have been reluctant or disinclined to revisit and evaluate predictions they’ve made about the pandemic and its morbidity.

This disinclination was addressed the other day by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, in an essay posted at that popular news-and-polling aggregation site.

“Some [media] ‘feeding frenzies’ have panned out, but many have failed to do so; rather than acknowledging this failure, the press typically moves on,” Trende wrote, noting that “there are dangers to forecasting with incredible certitude, especially with a virus that was detected less than six months ago.”

Revisiting lapses and erroneous projections is an undertaking the news media quite dislike.

Consider how little time they devoted to examining why they got it wrong in anticipating Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016. Or why they got it wrong in anticipating Special Counsel Robert Mueller would find President Donald Trump had colluded with the Kremlin to win the presidency. In that presumptive scandal, staffs of the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize  in 2018 — for what Pulitzer jurors called their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.”

WJC

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Even in a pandemic, media myths play on

In 'Napalm girl', Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth on April 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

The U.S. news media have scarcely distinguished themselves in reporting the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 54,000 Americans since spreading from Wuhan, China, early this year. Criticism abounds about the substance and tone of the media’s reporting.

Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll late last month ranked the media last among American leaders and institutions in their response to the coronavirus.

Watergate myth will never die

Even amid a pandemic, peddling media myths — those prominent stories about and/or by the media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal — has proven irresistible to some news outlets.

Familiar media myths about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, the exaggerated influence of the “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972, and the hero-journalist trope of the Watergate scandal all have circulated in recent weeks.

Their appearance signals not only how ingrained these myths become in American media; it also suggests an eagerness among journalists to believe their field can project decisive influence.

Take, for example, a lengthy recent article in USA Today about staggering death tolls the country has endured before the coronavirus, in wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks.

The article mentioned the Vietnam War, which claimed 58,000 American lives, and said the conflict “had a notable turning point in the court of public opinion. It happened when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said in a 1968 broadcast that he believed the war was, at best, a ‘stalemate.’ Weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.”

No evidence was offered for the “turning point” claim; no evidence was presented for the presumptive link to Johnson’s not running for another term.

On both counts, in fact, the evidence runs the other way.

Cronkite’s editorial statement, delivered in late February 1968, that the Vietnam War was stalemated was hardly a novel interpretation. “Stalemate” had been in circulation for months to characterize the conflict.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, polling by Gallup indicated that the turning point in public opinion came in Fall 1967, about 4 1/2 months before Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment. By then, and for the first time, a plurality of Americans said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam.

Other appraisals similarly indicated the turning point came in the second half of 1967.

At the end of that year, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, described what he called “a time of switching” in Summer and Fall 1967, “when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

In a very real sense, then, Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation was a matter of his following, rather than leading, American public opinion as it turned against the war.

Additionally, the USA Today article suggested that in Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment about the war, President Johnson “sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.” But Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired; the President at the time was at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Governor John Connally, in Austin, Texas.

And there’s no certain evidence about when or whether he saw the Cronkite program on videotape at some later date.

Factors other than Cronkite’s program weighed more powerfully in discouraging Johnson from seeking reelection. Notably, he faced a serious internal challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. The latter entered the race for president after McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating defeats in primary elections after New Hampshire’s, Johnson quit the race.

The war Vietnam gave rise to other tenacious media myths, especially those associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph taken in June 1972. The image showed a clutch of children fleeing a napalm strike on Trang Bang, their village in what then was South Vietnam.

Near the center of the photograph was a naked 9-year-old girl, screaming from her wounds.

It is said the photograph was so powerful that it swung U.S. public opinion against the war (in fact, as we’ve seen, it turned years before June 1972) and hastened an end to the conflict (in fact, the war went on till April 1975). Another myth of the “Napalm Girl” image was that it showed the effects of a U.S. aerial attack (also false: a warplane of the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped the napalm).

To that lineup of myth, the National Interest introduced another powerful effect — namely, that  the “Napalm Girl” image “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The post, however, offered no evidence of a linkage between the photograph and views about flamethrowers — which did not figure in the aerial attack at Trang Bang.

By email, I asked the editor of the National Interest for elaboration about the claim, saying: “I am interested in evidence such as public opinion polling that demonstrates or points to a linkage.”

I further wrote:

“I ask because I have addressed and disputed other claims about the photograph’s presumed impact — notably that it hastened an end to the Vietnam War, that it turned public opinion against the conflict, and that it showed the effects of a U.S. napalm attack on South Vietnam.”

The email was sent nearly three weeks ago. The editor has never replied.

Then there’s the dominant narrative of Watergate, the ever-enticing notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post uncovered evidence that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. It’s a myth that has survived scoffing and rejection by principals at the Post — Woodward among them.

As he told an interviewer in 2004:

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

In less earthier terms, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate scandal, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Against that tableau, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

And yet, the hero-journalist myth lives on — as suggested the other day in a column by the entertainment critic for the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. The column presented a rundown about the top films with a journalism theme. Atop the critic’s list was All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous, best-selling book.

It’s the “best newspaper picture ever,” the Journal Star critic wrote, declaring that movie showed how Woodward and Bernstein “ferreted out the Watergate scandal and brought down a president.”

And brought down a president.

Right.

The hero-journalist trope of Watergate knows few bounds. It’s surely one of those media myths that’s never going to die.

WJC

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The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 27, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Fifty-two years ago tonight, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about the war in Vietnam and declared in closing that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid analysis, hardly novel. But over the years, Cronkite’s assessment has swelled in importance, taking on the aura of a vital, media-inspired turning point. It is so singularly important in American journalism that it has come to be called the “Cronkite Moment.

In reality it is a moment steeped in media myth.

Notable among the myths of the “Cronkite Moment” is that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Versions vary.)

Cronkite’s remarks supposedly were an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists, representing a memorable instance of media influence and power.

But Cronkite’s program on February 27, 1968, hardly had decisive effects. Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

Johnson: Didn’t see Cronkite show

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — and fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the war effort.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were decidedly more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Four days before Cronkite’s program, for example, 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 long after Cronikte’s report, Frank McGee of NBC News declared the war was being lost if judged by the Johnson administration’s definition. Not stalemated. Lost.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time (see photo nearby) and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, unexpected, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if, in effect, he had brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort. At one point in March 1968, Johnson called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite dismissed the notion that his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He considered its impact as akin to that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun to shift against the war. 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. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said a month before but on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

It is far easier to embrace the notion that Cronkite’s report 52 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than it is to dig into its back story and understand it for what it was: A mythical moment of marginal influence in a war that lasted until 1975.

WJC

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