W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Too bad it’s only in French: A neat little book of impressive debunking

In Debunking, Media myths on December 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Talk about heavy-duty debunking.

The Times of London not long ago posted an item at one of its blogs about a book published last month that challenges the veracity of well-known quotes attributed to French rulers and intellectuals.

The book, Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées (or, roughly, the Small  inventory of abused quotations), calls into question such famous lines as Louis XIV’s  “L’état c’est moi,”  Louis XV’s “Après moi le déluge,” and Queen Marie Antoinette’s “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (let them eat cake).

As described by Charles Bremner, the Times‘ correspondent in Paris in a blog posting late last month, “Those famous royal remarks are among dozens of misattributed, misunderstood and outright false quotations in a fun little book just published by two academics,” Paul Desalmand and Yves Stallini.

Bremner writes that the authors “delight in knocking down famous lines that were outright invented or wrongly attributed to great figures of the past. They blame lazy journalists and historians for populari[z]ing dodgy quotes and making them up because they sound right.”

Lazy journalists: Seems right.

Journalists can be quite eager to invoke famous quotes that “sound right” or are simply too good to check out. Too delicious not to be true.

The long-lived but almost certainly apocryphal remark attributed to William Randolph Hearst, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” comes readily to mind.

So does the comment attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson supposedly made the remark after watching Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968. As is discussed in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program when it aired.

And Hearst denied ever having vowed to “furnish the war” between the United States and Spain.

In its review, the Parisian daily Le Monde calls Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées “clever” as well as “instructive and amusing. Also sad, sometimes.”

The book, Bremner further notes, challenges the quote attributed to King Henri IV, “Paris vaut bien une messe” [Paris is well worth a mass]. “No trace of this legendary quip by the ex-protestant king can be found in historical records,” Bremner writes, adding that authors Desalmand and Stallini “suggest that it may have been invented by enemies of the popular 16th century ruler who switched to Catholicism in order to have the crown.”

Le Petit inventaire des citations malmenées sounds like a neat little book of impressive debunking. It runs 188 pages, but hélas, is available only in French.


‘Most famous words in American journalism’? Probably not

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Media myths, New York Sun on December 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

In a blog post today, Followthemedia.com says the “Yes, Virginia” passage in the  1897 editorial “Is There A Santa Claus?” are “the most famous words in American journalism.”

And it takes Macy’s to task for its Christmas season “Believe” campaign, a sappy promotion that capitalizes on the editorial and its inspiration, Viriginia O’Hanlon. She was the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the New York Sun asking about the exisitence of Santa Claus prompted the famous editorial.

Followthemedia.com says:

“We know this a is a tough retail year but Is nothing sacred – last week Macy’s, the giant US department store chain, enticed women named Virginia into its stores by offering $10 gift certificate as part of its ‘Believe’ campaign based on the most famous words in US journalism, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.'”

It adds:

“The company hasn’t said how many certificates it gave out, but it estimated there are more than 500,000 Virginias in the US, and it did try to expand the base by saying first, middle or last names would all be ok. And it really was all in a good cause – to bring people into the store to deliver letters to Santa Claus and for each letter delivered the store donated $1 to the Make-A-Wish charity.

“Of course it would never  enter the minds of store executives that once having enticed people into the store they might linger somewhat and actually do some shopping there? Ah, we just have to stop being so cynical at this time of good cheer!”

Cynicism aside, followthemedia.com raises an interesting point about “the most famous words in American journalism.” Are those words really, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus?”

I’m not so sure.

The “Yes, Virginia,” passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. “Yes, Virginia,” long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.

Media-driven myths have propelled other phrases into what is arguably greater renown in American journalism.

Getting It Wrong: Forthcoming 2010

The quote attributed to William Randolph Hearst — “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” — may even be more famous than “Yes, Virgina?” As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the Hearst quote is almost certainly is apocryphal. But it lives on as a comment too rich and too delicious not to be true.

The same goes for the comment often attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, after watching a CBS News special in late February 1968 in which anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was mired in stalemate.

Johnson, supposedly, had the sudden revelation that the war was now hopeless and turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or words to that effect. Words that may be more famous and more directly tied to journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

But the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is exaggerated, too, as Getting It Wrong discusses. Johnson did not see the program when it aired. And in the days and weeks immediately following the Cronkite program, Johnson continued hawkish calls for national sacrifice to win the war in Vietnam.

Even Cronkite, for many years, said he didn’t believe his comments had much effect on Johnson. Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the supposed power of the program on Vietnam.

He told Esquire magazine in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

But it didn’t, really.


A nod to ‘Big Years’

In 1897, Year studies on December 13, 2009 at 8:21 pm

The “Outlook” section of today’s Washington Post carries an interesting look at recent books about important years.  “Year studies,” as they’re known in the academy.

The Post article, by the “Outlook” editor Carlos Lozada, noted that several studies were published in 2009 about years that changed the world or changed everything. “In an homage to anniversaries divisible by 10,” Lozada wrote, these books “focus on 1959, 1969, 1979 and, of course, 1989 (though ’99 is absent. Too soon?).”

As it turns out, he added, “there is plenty of competition in the Big Years department; identifying history’s most consequential calendar is a well-worn genre for journalists and historians, producing books such as David McCullough’s ‘1776,’ Margaret MacMillan’s ‘Paris 1919,’ Ray Huang’s brilliantly titled ‘1587: A Year of No Significance’ and countless more.”

Lozada might well have mentioned the first year study about U.S. media — my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

Philadelphia street scene in 1897

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Significantly, 1897 was the year when American journalism came face-to-face with a choice among three rival and incompatible visions, or paradigms, for the profession’s future. The emergence of these rival visions is central to the exceptionality of 1897. The choices that materialized then were to set a course for American journalism in the twentieth century and beyond.

“The most dramatic of the three paradigms was the self-activated, participatory model of [William Randolph] Hearst’s yellow journalism. Hearst called it the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts.’ It was a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news. Hearst’s New York Journal, the leading exemplar of the activist paradigm, argued that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence. …

“The antithesis of the ‘journalism of action’ was the conservative, counter-activist paradigm represented by the New York Times [of Adolph Ochs] and its lofty commitment to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print.’ The Times model emphasized the detached, impartial, yet authoritative treatment of news. Unlike its conservative counterparts such as the New York Sun, the Times was not reluctant to adapt innovative technologies of the 1890s. The Times in 1897 made memorable use of halftone photographs in its upscale Sunday magazine supplement, presenting the images in a sober, restrained manner quite unlike the flashy treatment typical of Hearst’s yellow journalism.

The Year That Defined American Journalism: About the 'Big Year,' 1897

“The most eccentric of the three paradigms was non-journalistic, even anti-journalistic: It was a literary approach pursued by Lincoln Steffens upon his becoming city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in late 1897. Deliberately, and even demonstratively, Steffens shunned veteran newspapermen and instead recruited college-educated writers who had little or no experience in journalism. He then sent them out to write, to hone their talent by telling stories about the joys, hardships, and serendipity of life in New York City.”

Eighteen-ninety-seven also was the year of publication of what became American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial, the New York Sun‘s “Is There A Santa Claus?” It also was the year when the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the old New York Press. And the Times motto, “All the news that’s fit to print,” was given a permanent berth on the newspaper’s front page in 1897.

Moreover, the cinema in 1897 was in its “novelty year.” The presidential inauguration of William McKinley in March 1897 was the first to be captured on film.

But back to Lozada: He closed his article by ruminating about whether 2009 eventually will be recalled as a “Big Year.”

At this point, of course, who can tell? Lozada’s take: “it may not be a 1776 or a 1989, but 2009 seems destined to go down as a year of at least some significance. What for? Who knows. We just live here. Fortunately, it needn’t be for something that actually happened in these past 12 months, but perhaps for some future event that will be linked to our calendar.”

Not everyone finds the year study very appealing. A snarky review published during the summer in Canada’s National Post began by noting:

“Lately, it seems not a year goes by without a new book proclaiming a certain 12-month period the Most Important Year Ever.” That’s a fair point.

But in mild defense of the year-study approach, allow me to say that The Year That Defined American Journalism brought a measure of methodological freshness to journalism history. Before then, the single-year study had been neglected or overlooked in the field.


CBS and ‘Yes, Virginia’: The real story is better

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun on December 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Well, that sure was disappointing.

CBS this evening aired a new animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?” (Trailer here.)

The most memorable and most-quoted passage of the Sun‘s editorial declared:

“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.”

CBS took great liberties with the backstory to the editorial and in so doing offered up a tedious show that was neither endearing, clever, nor very believable.

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The animated Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed chubby eight-year-old unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is cast as scowling, grumpy, and cold-hearted. Neither main character is very convincing. Or realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

More important, the backstory to Virginia’s letter and the Sun‘s fabled reply was distorted: The CBS show had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its response, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun printed its editorial on September 21, 1897 — in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in bold headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

The Sun’s question-and-answer column, called “Notes and Queries,” appeared irregularly on Sundays and offered pithy and often witty replies to inquiries on factual matters. The “Notes and Queries” column obviously was not well-suited to address such a question as the existence of Santa Claus.

Virginia also recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry; far from being obsessed, she forgot about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut 50 years ago this month, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given both O’Hanlon’s recollections about having waited and waited for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work, and without the remotest idea of its destiny of permanent interest and value.”

The only explanation that reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s extended wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had overlooked or misplaced the letter that inspired American journalism’s classic editorial.

Francis P. Church

So the most plausible explanation for the editorial’s incongruous timing lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.

“‘My birthday was in July and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me,’” O’Hanlon said 50 years ago, adding:

“‘I think I was a brat.’”

The real backstory to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the vapid fare CBS offered up: The real backstory has serendipity, anticipation, frustration, and charm.

None of which characterized the CBS show tonight.


The myths of ‘Yes, Virginia’

In Media myths, New York Sun on December 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm

The media relations folks at American University posted at the Newswise public relations site today a rundown about my research into myths surrounding American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Viriginia O'Hanlon

The editorial, an endearing if cerebral tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit, was published in the New York Sun in September 1897, in reply to the query of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked in a letter, “Is there a Santa Claus?”

The back story to the famous editorial is discussed in detail in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

The post at Newswise notes the editorial’s enduring appeal and adds:

“This year, Macy’s and the CBS television network are cosponsoring an animated children’s program about Virginia O’Hanlon ….” The show is to air at 8 p.m. tomorrow.  I will discuss the program afterward at Media Myth Alert.

The Newswise item also points out:

“Most people assume the editorial was an immediate hit when first published in 1897 and that the Sun enthusiastically reprinted it every year at Christmastime until the newspaper folded in 1950. Not true, said W. Joseph Campbell, a journalism professor and an expert on media myths at American University.”

Indeed, my research shows that the famous editorial was reluctantly embraced by the Sun. A painstaking review of the newspaper’s year-end issues from 1897 to 1949, or just before the Sun went out of business in 1950, shows that  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 and on that occasion, the Sun did so with 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 a gratuitous swipe: “Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

It next reprinted the editorial in 1906, eight months after the death of the editorial’s author, Francis P. Church.

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.”

Not until the early 1920s did the editorial begin appearing without fail in the Sun at Christmastime.


Jessica Lynch: One of the ‘buzziest’?

In Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on December 8, 2009 at 12:17 pm

NBC’s Today show yesterday featured Jessica Lynch, perhaps the best-known American soldier of the Iraq War, as central figure of one of the decade’s  “buzziest” news stories.


That’s how the Lynch segment was introduced.

It was a brief report (see transcript here), in which Lynch talked about her life since she was catapaulted to sudden, unsought fame in the first days of the war in Iraq.  Lynch then was a private, a supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company.

On March 23, 2003, elements of the 507th were ambushed by Iraqi irregulars in the southern city of Nasiriyah.  Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee and was taken prisoner.

Nine days later, she was rescued from a hospital in Nasiriyah by a U.S. special operations unit.

The Washington Post's front page report about Jessica Lynch

Two days after that, the Washington Post published a sensational account on its front page, reporting that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in Nasiriyah and had “shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” her unit, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

The Post‘s report cited “U.S. officials” who otherwise were unidentified as saying that Lynch had “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting March 23.” One official was quoted anonymously as saying:

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

It was a great story, one picked up by news outlets across the United States and around the world.

Only it wasn’t true.

The Post‘s report not only was grievously in error;  it became the launchpad for a tenacious media-driven myth, one that the Today show yesterday helped promote.

Meredith Vieira, the Today show personality who interviewed Lynch, described her as “a pawn of the military that was trying to sell, some said, a war to the American public.”

In reality, though, the U.S. military did little to promote the hero-warrior story about Lynch, who then was 19-years-old. The Lynch case is discussed in a chapter in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong .

One of the authors of the Post‘s erroneous report, Vernon Loeb, told an NPR radio program in late 2003 that “the Pentagon … wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb also said: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

Even so, the notion that the military promoted a phony hero-warrior lives on, and has become a central element of the narrative about the Lynch case.

The hoopla over Jessica Lynch in the first days of the Iraq War had another, lasting effect: That of obscuring recognition of an Army sergeant named Donald Walters who did fight to the death at Nasiriyah.

Walters’ heroics were mistakenly attributed to Lynch, apparently because of faulty translation of Iraqi battlefield reports.

Sgt. Donald Walters

Walters stayed behind as the ambushed 507th tried to flee  Nasiriyah. He was captured when his ammunition ran out and was executed. His body was recovered the day Lynch was rescued from the hospital in Nasiriyah.

Walters’ actions, when they became known, attracted little more than passing interest from the American news media.

And not surprisingly, they were not mentioned yesterday on the Today show’s “buzziest” segment.

Nor did Today point out that the Lynch myth took hold because of over-the-top reporting in the Washington Post. The segment contained nary a word about that.



Cronkite Moment: What Johnson supposedly said

In Cronkite Moment, Media myths on December 6, 2009 at 12:35 pm

A guest columnist for the Lancaster Eagle Gazette in Ohio today offers a new version of President Lyndon Johnson’s famous comment,  supposedly made in response to Walter Cronkite’s dire assessment in 1968 about the war in Vietnam.

As the story goes, Johnson watched the special televsion program that Cronkite prepared in the aftermath of the North Vietnamese communists’ Tet offensive in February 1968. Cronkite said the U.S. war effort had become “mired in stalemate.” And he closed program by suggesting the time had come to consider opening negotiations to end the war.

For Johnson, Cronkite’s report supposedly was an epiphany. The president realized that the war was all but lost and uttered in dismay:

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

Other versions have Johnson saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

The guest columnist in the Lancaster paper has Johnson as saying: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

What I call acute version variability dogs this anecdote — and it’s one of the indicators that the story is  a media-driven myth. Version variability of  such magnitude is a signal of implausibility. And it’s a marker of a media myth.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the famous, often-cited Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is almost assuredly a media myth.

For starters, Johnson did not see the program when it was aired. He was in Austin, Texas, at the time, offering light-hearted comments at a birthday party for Governor John Connally.

Johnson at Connally's birthday party

Moreover, Johnson’s supposedly downbeat reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment about Vietnam clashes sharply with the president’s aggressive characterization about the war. Only hours before the Cronkite program aired, Johnson was in Dallas, Texas, where he delivered a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms.

It seems inconceivable that Johnson’s views would have changed so swiftly, so  dramatically, upon hearing the opinions of a television news anchor.

Even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany. Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

No, the Cronkite program in late February 1968 prompted no great change. Nor did it prompt any famous presidential utterances.


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