W. Joseph Campbell

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‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ an encore appearance in 2009

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on December 31, 2009 at 11:53 am

President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s 1968 CBS News special on Vietnam — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — makes a year-end appearance in the Newark Star-Ledger‘s television column.

The column offers a “look back at some of the notable people from the world of television who died” in 2009. Among them is Cronkite, the retired CBS News anchor who died in July.

The column says Cronkite represented the “gold standard of TV anchormen” and “was so respected and powerful in his ’60s and ’70s heyday that Lyndon Johnson reportedly said (after Cronkite delivered an editorial against our presence in Vietnam), ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

No, not likely.

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Johnson did not even see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968. (Near the end of that 30-minute report, Cronkite said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might be considered to settle the conflict.)

At the time, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, where he engaged in light-hearted banter with his longtime political ally.

Johnson at Connally's birthday party, 1968

“Today you are 51, John,” the president told Connally. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, it represented no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

That speech was delivered March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Those remarks are difficult to square with the president’s supposedly downbeat and self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.

So even in the weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish on the war in Vietnam. The Cronkite program was neither decisive nor pivotal to his thinking on Vietnam.

Happy New Year.


‘Furnish the war,’ en espagnol

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Spanish-American War on December 30, 2009 at 11:54 am

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport, 1896

William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain is such a delicious and tenacious media-driven myth that it’s hardly surprising it has crossed over to other languages.

Spanish among them.

Just the other day, the online publication elmercuriodigital.es posted a commentary that invoked the Hearst quote. It read in part:

“El dibujante, Frederic Remington, telegrafió a su jefe pidiéndole autorización para regresar, pues no había ninguna guerra, y por lo tanto no había nada para cubrir. ‘Todo en calma. No habrá guerra’, dijo Remington. La respuesta del empresario periodístico fue célebre: ‘Le ruego que se quede. Proporcione ilustraciones, yo proporcionaré la guerra’.”

The passage recounts the essential portion of the anecdote, that the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal, supposedly found “everything … quiet” and, in a cable to Hearst, asked permission to return.

In reply, as the myth has it, Hearst told Remington: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:

“Hearst’s famous vow to ‘furnish the war’ has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

It lives on, I further write, “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

And it lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency. Hearst had assigned Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba at the end of 1896. After several delays, they arrived in January 1897 — 15 months before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was the theater of a nasty war, a rebellion against Spain’s armed forces which, by the time Remington and Davis arrived, had reached island-wide proportion.

So it would have been incongruous and inconceivable for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” when war was the very reason he sent Remington and Davis to Cuba in the first place.


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“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”[i]

[i] See Creelman, On the Great Highway, 177–178.

Getting It Wrong update: Page proofs in

In Debunking, Media myths on December 27, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Page proofs of Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book on media-driven myths, arrived just before Christmas.

The pages look handsome. They’re set in a Sabon typeface, which stands out nicely. Especially attractive are the all-cap subhedes, as are the chapter headings. The chapter-opening epigrams (e.g., “Accurant reporting was among Katrina’s many victims”) are set off well, too.

It’s a very appealing package.

The page proofs are due back to the publisher, University of California Press, by January 21.

If all goes as planned, Getting It Wrong should be out in May.

FAQs about the book are available here and here.

“Media-driven myths,” by the way, are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

They are dubious tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence.

They can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism.”

Media-driven myths arise from a variety of sources—including a tendency to believe the news media are very powerful and sometimes even dangerous forces in society.

Media myths also are appealing because they offer simplistic answers to complex issues. Stories that are too good—too delicious—to be checked out can become media myths.

Those three factors—media power, simple answers to complex questions, and a sense of being too good not to be true—help explain the emergence and tenacity of one of the most famous media myths—the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.

That anecdote is rich, telling, and delicious—and fits well with the image of Hearst as an unrestrained war-monger. But it’s almost certainly apocryphal, as is discussed in Chapter One of Getting It Wrong.


Editorial writers and ‘Is There A Santa Claus?’ What they say today

In 1897, New York Sun on December 25, 2009 at 3:45 pm

New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth” program yesterday aired a quite interesting segment about what editorial writers say these days about the most famous editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

It made for thoughtful listening.

And that’s not just because the producer, Avishay Artsy, included some of my observations.

Virginia O'Hanlon

The famous editorial was written in 1897 by Francis P. Church of the New York Sun. The editorial was prompted by a letter from Virginia O’Hanlon, an eight-year-old New York City girl who implored the Sun:

“Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

In time, Church’s editorial — which included the memorable (if now cliched) passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — became an unrivaled classic in American journalism.

As I pointed out in the “Word of Mouth” segment, the editorial “is very cerebral, almost written above the head of an eight year old. But it’s also written in a fashion that he, Francis P. Church, the author, was not condescending. He’s not talking down to her, and that was a real trick he pulled off there.”

Church’s editorial invoked a romanticism seldom found in newspaper editorials, the “Word of Mouth” segment noted in quoting Drew Cline, editorial page editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Church, Cline said, “takes such a unique approach in connecting the unseen world, the world of fantasy and romance to her regular life. And I just thought that was so beautiful. But I just don’t think you could see anything like that today. I just think that connection with the romantic idealism of that era is so far gone at this point.”

Cline also noted that these days, an eight-year-old surely not write to a newspaper but instead “would go to her parents’ computer and Google ‘Santa, real,’ and see what comes up.”

Ron Dzonkowski at the Detroit Free Press suggested that questions about Santa’s existence may be especially pressing to children in Michigan this Christmas, given the state’s beleaguered economy.

“We have by far the worst economy in the nation, the auto industry is in the middle of an enormous shakeout,” Dzonkowski said on “Word of Mouth.”

“We will have lost one million jobs in this state in the decade from 2001 to 2010. And so I suspect that there already are a number of young children in this state that already have been told by their parents, ‘don’t expect too much from Santa Claus this year.’ And so that may have planted the question in their minds, is there really a Santa Claus?”

Peter Cannelos of the Boston Globe said Church’s editorial remains relevant in another respect.

The essay signals, Cannelos said, “what we as newspapers should do and what can be a real lynchpin of our survival and our redefinition of our mission going forward. And that is we should speak to the community in a way that reflects broad recognition of the community values, and speak for people who don’t have a voice.”

Well, maybe.

But rather than speaking for people who lack a voice, Church more likely was guided by the view, current in the 1890s, that editorials should strive for boldness. “Better no editorials than dreary ones,” a journalists’ trade publication had advised in 1894. “Audacity is a necessary feature of every good editorial.”

Audacity certainly characterized “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial was published September 21, 1897, more than three months before Christmas.

Perhaps most striking is how generations  of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in the editorial’s passages.

“Though I am getting old,” said a letter-writer to the Sun in 1914, the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

A letter-writer said in 1926 that the editorial offered “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

And in 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the editorial to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

Merry Christmas.


Recalling Francis P. Church: No self-promoting author, he

In 1897, New York Sun on December 24, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Christmas Eve certainly is a fitting moment to recall Francis P. Church, one of the few editorial writers whose name is to known to generations of Americans.

Church of the Sun (Courtesy Century Club)

Church wrote the most-reprinted editorial in American journalism, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial appeared in the New York Sun in 1897, and over time became recognized as an unrivaled classic, a timeless and lyrical tribute to childhood, faith, and the Christmas spirit.

Church, ironically, was a reticent, retiring man, little known outside a tight circle of friends and colleagues.

He was no self-promoter.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Church shunned the spotlight and venerated the anonymity of the editorial page. He probably wouldn’t have appreciated being identified as the man who wrote “Is There A Santa Claus?”

His authorship was revealed soon after his death in April 1906, in what, for the Sun, was eloquent and extraordinary tribute. In an editorial note, the newspaper said:

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us, we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote to the Sun shortly after her eighth birthday in July 1897, imploring: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The task of writing a reply fell to Church, who then was 58-years-old. He and his wife never had children.

Church was said to have taken on the assignment grudgingly.

Edward P. Mitchell, the Sun’s editorial page editor, recalled in his book that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

Church quickly produced a 500-word reply, without a hint that his editorial would become a classic, and would ensure him a measure of enduring and posthumous fame.

“Virginia,” Church wrote, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little.”

After ruminating a little about the limitations and narrow dimensions of human imagination, Church began a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most lasting and memorable lines:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

Church closed the editorial with this reassurance:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

The editorial that became an unrivaled classic in American journalism was essentially buried in its first appearance: It was published in the third of three legs (or columns) of editorials on September 21, 1897.

“Is There A Santa Claus?” was subordinate that day to seven other commentaries, which discussed matters such as “British Ships in American Waters,” ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus prompted no comment from the Sun’s competitor newspapers in New York City.

But readers noted it, and found it memorable. In untold numbers over the years, they urged the Sun to reprint the essay.

Requests often came from parents of young children, such as the letter-writer in 1918 whom the Sun identified only as D.F.C.:

“I am an old time reader of the Sun and have a little girl, Anna, who seemingly is doubtful about there being a ‘Santa Claus.’ I have told her that if she looks in the Sun on Christmas morning she will be convinced by reading the famous reply of one of your staff writers to little Virginia O’Hanlon, which I have oftentimes read with much pleasure. Please do not fail to reprint it in your coming Christmas number.”

It is unlikely Church would have been much pleased by the Sun’s disclosing his authorship.

He was a guarded, reticent man who respected and even cultivated, the anonymity of editorial-writing. Church spent more than thirty years writing editorials for the Sun. He joined the newspaper fulltime in 1878 after the demise of Galaxy, a literary magazine he established with his brother.

According to J.R. Duryee, a friend whose testimonial the Sun published in April 1906, “Mr. Church by nature and training was reticent about himself, highly sensitive and retiring. Even with intimates he rarely permitted himself to express freely his inner thought.

“I doubt if an editor was ever more consistently loyal in maintaining the privacy of the sources of his journal’s statements,” Duryee wrote. “In our talks together, I have frequently referred to an editorial my intuition told me was from his pen, but never could induce him to own the writing. … I have never known a literary man as ingenuous as he in his self-repression.”

In what he presumed to have been Church’s work, Duryee said he found the imprint of “gentle humor” and “a simple, chaste style.”

His work in “a lighter vein,” Duryee wrote, possessed “rare charm” and was notable in its delicacy of touch.

Duryee did not say so, specifically, but he could well have been referring to “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Merry Christmas.


Adapting ‘Yes, Virginia’: Interestingly done

In 1897, New York Sun on December 23, 2009 at 11:13 am

The editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” is inarguably the most famous in American journalism.

It was published September 21, 1897, in the New York Sun, in response to the query of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. She had written to the newspaper shortly after her eighth birthday, asking:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

The editorial written in reply reassured the little girl and included these memorable passages:

Virginia O'Hanlon

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

Over the years, the phrase “Yes, Virginia,” has become a cliche, invoked in contexts of all kinds, most of them unrelated to the editorial, Christmastime, and American journalism.

The editorial has become the centerpiece of a number of enduring myths. And it has inspired no small amount of imitation, some of it flip, most of it utterly forgettable.

A notable exception, though, was the “Yes, Virginia,” adaptation posted last week by technology writer Michael S. Malone at his “Silicon Insider”  column at ABCNews.com.

Malone’s takeoff was amusing, even ingenious. He pitched the column as a  reply to a 21st century Virginia O’Hanlon, who had written to ABCNews.com, asking:

“Some of my friends say there is no Santa Claus. My dad says, ‘If you read it on the Web, it must be so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

In a reply embedded with knowing references to iphones, quarks, and Facebook, Malone wrote:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. I know if you surf the Web you’ll be linked to more web pages and blogs that suggest that he is just a myth or worse, a joke than that he is real. Saddest of all are those sites that argue that Santa Claus is impossible, that reindeer can’t fly or that no one could visit so many homes in a single night. These last stories are written by confused adults who don’t believe in miracles and want to force children to think as they do. They call it ‘being realistic.’ …

“Oh, Virginia, there are so many miracles. Think of that computer chip in your Wii or iPhone that goes through as many thoughts in a second as you will have heartbeats in your entire life. Or of those thousands of people in the world now who carry around transplanted hearts and livers and lungs. Or those amazing rovers that explored the surface of Mars. Even that H1N1 flu shot you just got. These are miracles, Virginia, every one of them. …

“Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in Facebook, or electrons, or black holes. Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that doesn’t mean there is no Santa Claus. No one has seen a quark either, or a computer bit, but that’s no proof they aren’t there. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor adults can see. Great new discoveries and wonderful acts of human kindness are made every day. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders that are unseen or unseeable in this world. …

“No Santa Claus? Of course there is. He has been with us now for a thousand years. As long as little boys and girls like you believe in miracles, Santa Claus will gladden the heart of childhood. And he will live forever.”

Malone’s column may not be quite as stirring, evocative, or cerebral as the Sun‘s 1897 original. But it’s an althogether imaginative, accessible, and even wry adaptation.

And it’s well worth a second read.


Bra-burning revisited, in error

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on December 22, 2009 at 2:37 pm

The enduring myths of bra-burning — a topic explored in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong — were invoked not only ago in a column posted at the Syndey Morning Herald‘s online site.

The passage was brief, but stunning in the ways in which it was in error.

The Morning Herald column was about the National Organization of Women and its opposition to a proposed tax on Botox. But here’s the passage about bra-burning, which refers to a demonstration in Atlantic City in September 1968 that targeted the Miss America Pageant:

“The most famous NOW action — burning a trash can full of bras and girdles outside a Miss America beauty pageant – became the stuff of folklore, and made ‘bra-burning’ a universal symbol of women’s liberation. As a symbol it’s perhaps been over-hyped, but at least it grabbed attention and made a point.”

Where to begin?

The protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City had little to do with NOW. It was organized by a small group called New York Radical Women, a leader of which was the writer and former child actor, Robin Morgan.

At the Freedom Trash Can, 1968 (Duke University, special collections)

A highlight of the protest came when Morgan and other demonstrators (described by the New York Times as “mostly middle-aged careerists and housewives”) tossed into a barrel what they called “instruments of torture,” which included brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.

Morgan and others have long insisted that the bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest that day.

Moreover, “bra-burning” scarcely was “a universal symbol of women’s liberation.” Far from it: Feminists like Morgan abhorred the term. They never embraced “bra-burning” as anything remotely approaching a symbol or metaphor.

But “bra-burning” did become a media-driven myth.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the term was often invoked “to denigrate women’s liberation and feminist advocacy as trivial and even a bit primitive.”

The notion that bras were demonstratively and flamboyantly set afire at the Atlantic City protest was driven by syndicated newspaper columnists such as Harriett Van Horne.

“My feeling about the liberation ladies,” Van Horne wrote soon after the protest at Atlantic City, “is that they’ve been scarred by consorting with the wrong men. Men who do not understand the way to a woman’s heart, i.e., to make her feel utterly feminine, desirable and almost too delicate for this hard world. … No wonder she goes to Atlantic City and burns her bra.”

The author of the Sydney Morning Herald column, by the way, was Virginia Haussegger, whose Web site identifies her as “a journalist, author and commentator whose extensive media career spans more than 20 years.” She is further identified as “the face” of Australian Broadcasting Corp. TV News in Canberra.

Haussegger is the author of Wonder Woman: The Myth of Having It All, a 2005 memoir that takes feminism to task. Read the first chapter here.



More myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun on December 20, 2009 at 2:13 pm

A couple of tenacious myths associated with American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?,” made another appearance today.

The West Milford Messenger in New Jersey reprinted the editorial in its entirety and then added a few observations, which are in error.

The newspaper said the editorial, which first appeared in the the New York Sun of September 21, 1897, “was an immediate sensation” and “was reprinted annually until 1949 when the paper went out of business.”

The New York Sun

Well, no, not really.

The editorial wasn’t “an immediate sensation.” Nor was it reprinted annually by the Sun, which ceased publication in 1950. Those mistakes are often enough associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?,” though.

As described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial stirred no comment by other newspapers at the time. And in 1897, the New York City press routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals.

But the oddly timed editorial that contained the passage, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York.

Moreover, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffidently embraced by the Sun.

In the ten years from 1898–1907, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was reprinted in the Sun at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

Francis P. Church of the Sun

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to its author, Francis P. Church, who died eight months before.

The Sun then said it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s when the editorial begin appearing prominently, and without fail, at Christmastime in the Sun.

In the years that followed, readers implored the Sun not to fail to reprint the editorial.

“It will neither be Christmas nor the Sun without it,” declared one reader in 1927.

A letter-writer told the Sun in 1926 that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “a fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

“Every year, as I grow a little older,” another reader wrote in 1940, “I find added significance in its profound thoughts.”


The ‘Johnson White House reeled’? Not because of Cronkite

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on December 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm

The AOL Television online site today recalls as a “TV moment of 2009” the death five months ago of Walter Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman.

The AOL Television post recalls the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s downbeat assessment about the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was said to have had immediate and stunning effects on President Lyndon Johnson and his war policy.

The AOL post says of Cronkite: “In 1968, after extensive on-the-ground reporting, he advocated the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The Johnson White House reeled.”



As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:

“Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired” on February 27, 1968.

Lyndon Johnson at Connally's birthday party

Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, engaging in light-hearted banter at a black-tie party for Governor John Connally. “Today you are 51, John,” the president said in Austin, at about the time the Cronkite program was ending.

“That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Even if he later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany for Johnson. Indeed, soon after the Cronkite program, the president gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

So Cronkite’s program scarcely was decisive to American war policy. It certainly did not send the Johnson White House reeling.

It is noteworthy to recall that Cronkite in his program on Vietnam did not urge the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

He hedged, holding open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Cronkite suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam, in the wake of the communists’ surprise Tet offensive, stating:

“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s assessment was scarcely exceptional or extraordinary.

In his year-study about 1968, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Four days before the Cronkite program, 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.” And nearly seven months before the Cronkite program, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple wrote, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”


The ‘new yellow journalism’? Hardly

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 18, 2009 at 3:52 pm

The blog Secondhand Smoke yesterday likened coverage of the global warming debate to “a new yellow journalism,” arguing:

“When journalists so emotionally choose sides, they cease to be journalists.”

The blog author may be right about U.S. media coverage of the global warming phenomenon. It’s hardly been searching, or challenging, in any sustained way.

But he’s quite incorrect in saying the coverage represents “a new yellow journalism” (which he vaguely defines as “using all the tricks of the trade to panic the world into granting tremendous power to an unelected and unaccountable global warming scientocracy, that will ‘save the planet’ via anti human and economy  killing policies”).

Yellow journalism, he further writes, “helped push the USA into war back in the 1890s.”

Well, that’s a media myth. A delicious and enduring one, too.

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

William Randolph Hearst in 1896

“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 forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

I also wrote that claims that the yellow press fomented the war “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.

“In the case of the Spanish-American War, the policy objectives between the United States and Spain ultimately proved irreconcilable. Months of intricate diplomatic efforts ultimately failed to resolve what had become an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, dramatized by the destruction of the Maine in [February 1898] in a harbor under Spanish control and supervision. To indict the yellow press for causing the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and to ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in the spring of 1898 in an impasse that led to war.”

Yellow journalism has been equated (as Secondhand Smoke suggests) to lurid and sensational treatment of the news. It’s often the term of choice for egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind. And sometimes, yellow journalism is seen as synonymous with Hearst, himself.

None of those shorthand characterizations is adequate, revealing, or very accurate. None of them captures the genre’s complexity and vigor.

As practiced in the late 19th century, yellow journalism was defined by these features and charactersitics:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes 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 other 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 reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As so defined, yellow journalism certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.

Jack Shafer, the inestimable media critic at slate.com, put it well in a column early this year:

“I wish our better newspapers availed themselves of some of the techniques of yellow journalism and a little less of the solemnity we associate with the Committee of Concerned Journalists.” Well said.


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