W. Joseph Campbell

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2012

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, New Yorker, Photographs, Television, Washington Post on December 30, 2012 at 6:25 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2012 on the appearance of many prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the year’s five top writeups, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3): The 40th anniversary of the famous “napalm girl” photograph — one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — fell in early June.

NapalmGirl photo_AP

Nick Ut/Associated Press

In an obituary a few weeks before, the New York Times had referred to the photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children and claimed, erroneously, that it showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the aerial napalm attack that gave rise to the photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. I pointed this out in an email to the Times, noting that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time had made clear.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied, and offered some baffling logic in doing so:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all relevant in the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted doing so until late August, when it issued a sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a begrudging and less-than-forthright acknowledgement of error. It hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller. He asserted in a column in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

hagiographic treatment of the “Cronkite Moment” (posted May 31): Few media-driven myths are as tenacious and desperately held as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

For years, journalists have sought to attach great significance to Cronkite’s assessment, even though it was thoroughly unoriginal and was, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, of little demonstrable impact. Even Cronkite, until late in his life, pooh-poohed its importance.

But all that scarcely deterred Douglas Brinkley from presenting in a hefty biography about Cronkite a decidedly hagiographic — and misleading — interpretation of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Brinkley offered little persuasive evidence in asserting that the “aftershock” of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, “was seismic” and “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”

In discussing the supposed “seismic” effects of Cronkite’s assessment, Brinkley wrote:

“Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.’”

But the Journal editorial that  said so was published four days before Cronkite’s broadcast. To cite the editorial as evidence of a “seismic” effect of the “Cronkite Moment” was certainly misleading.

What’s more, Cronkite’s characterization of stalemate in Vietnam hardly “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”  Public opinion polls indicated that the shift had begun several months earlier.

If anything, Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on Vietnam.

Uneven availability of WaPo’s online content about Jessica Lynch (posted April 27): On April 4, 2003, the Washington Post published a front-page report about an Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion the rescue from captivity of Jessica Lynch, a wounded, 19-year-old Army private.

That report ran to 1,500 words and is freely available at the Post’s online site.

The day before that article appeared, the Post published an electrifying but far more problematic story about Jessica Lynch — an account that claimed she had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner.


That article was published on the Post’s front page beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

It was a stunning report that proved wrong in all important details: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed; she did not fire a shot in the attack in Iraq. She was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee in attempting to flee.

But try finding the “fighting to the death” story at the Post’s online site.

Unlike the far less embarrassing report of April 4, 2003, the “fighting to the death” story is not freely available online. Clicking on the story’s URL opens what essentially is an empty link.

Also unavailable online are the scathing reviews of the hero-warrior tale published by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman in April and June 2003.

Such inconsistencies suggest a digital scrubbing of embarrassing content. I asked the newspaper’s incumbent ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about this matter.

He took several weeks to reply, finally stating in an email in August that he had found “nothing nefarious about this.” He added that the Post since 2003 “has gone through several changes of content management systems,” by which articles are posted online.

He further noted that the “fighting to the death” story about Lynch and related content are available in the Post’s fee-based archive.

So why not make the “fighting to the death” story freely available? Why not remove the fee to access a singularly memorable article about the Iraq War, a mistaken report that made Jessica Lynch something of a celebrity and gave rise to misguided suspicions that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale and somehow fed it to the Post?

“Restoring the digital version of the article of April 3, 2003, would represent a contribution to the record about the case of Jessica Lynch, which the Post is solely responsible for having placed in the public domain,” I wrote in an email to Pexton in mid-August.

He has not replied.

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth lives on (posted September 30): The run-up to the televised presidential campaign debates in October prompted numerous references to the purported lesson of the first such encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in late September 1960.

That lesson is about the presumptive power of the televised image: Supposedly, television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate in 1960 while radio listeners felt Nixon got the better of it.

This notion of viewer-listener disagreement has become an enduring media myth, even though it was thoroughly dismantled 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Dismantling, though, hasn’t destroyed the myth. The notion of viewer-listener disagreement remains hardy and irresistible.

For example, in the runup to the debates in October between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, wrote a column that recalled the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

“Listeners,” Neuharth said, “generally gave Nixon the nod. But TV viewers strongly favored Kennedy.”

And the Chicago Tribune declared that “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. … Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, had conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners. The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners felt Nixon prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.

But Vancil and Pendell, in their article in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, noted that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents, of whom just 282 had listened to the debate on radio.

They noted that “a subordinate group of 282 interviews is below the threshold normally required for a national sample.” Not only that, but only 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.

Given the shortcomings of the unrepresentative Sindlinger sample, Nixon’s supposedly decisive margin among radio listeners dissolves as meaningless — and renders viewer-listener disagreement a media myth.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign done in by a memorably clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history. But as my research has found, the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

The gaffe was committed in late August 1967 by George Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In an interview with a Detroit television reporter, Romney referred to his visit to South Vietnam in 1965 and said:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested muddled thinking, gullibility, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His abbreviated presidential campaign never recovered from the self-inflicted wound; he ended his  run for the presidency at the end of February 1968.

Sealing the gaffe’s unforgettable quality was the supposed witty putdown by Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, a “light rinse” would have sufficed for Romney.

So telling was McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip that it “essentially finished Romney.”

But when, or even whether, McCarthy made the “light rinse” comment is unclear.

A database search of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward.

The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.

It seems improbable that journalists in 1967 or 1968 would have failed to report a retort as delicious as McCarthy’s.

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969 would have us believe.

American Melodrama described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say when McCarthy made the comment, where, or specifically to whom.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Other memorable posts of 2012:

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