W. Joseph Campbell

Addressing ‘fake news,’ stirring up media myths

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on December 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Mainstream media have been beside themselves of late, lamenting and fretting about a supposed  surge of “fake news,” in which dubious tales circulated online pollute and corrupt popular discourse.

span-am war_journal

Not to blame: The yellow press and war with Spain

In their hand-wringing assessments, news outlets also have stirred up references to hoary media-driven myths, which can be thought of as variants of fake news, only more prominent and entrenched. Despite their thorough debunking, media myths often are recited as if they were true.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, media myths are memorable tales about and/or by the news that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

For an example of a news outlet stirring up a media myth while ruminating about “fake news,” consider the essay published the other day in the Washington Times. “Fake news,” it declared, is nothing new.

Sure enough. But the essay soon dialed up a media myth, declaring:

“Candidates for public office routinely make statements divorced from truth. Was it ‘fake’ news for 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon to maintain he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War when he had no such thing?”

But Nixon made no such claim: He did not “maintain” or otherwise declare during his campaign in 1968 that he had such a plan.

In fact, candidate Nixon disavowed such a notion during the 1968 primary season. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon in 1968 may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind. But he did not make such a claim a plank or component of his campaign. That is clear in reviewing the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon made such a “secret plan” claim during the campaign, the country’s leading daily newspapers surely would have publicized it.

But despite the evidence that can be arrayed to debunk it, the notion that Nixon possessed a  “secret plan” can be simply too delicious — and too Nixonian in its supposed duplicity — to resist retelling.  As William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once observed:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the non-quotation [about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’] never seems to go away ….”

Another tenacious media myth is that sensational yellow journalism forced the United States into war in 1898 over Spain’s rule of Cuba.

That dubious interpretation has long been rejected by serious historians of the period. But it was invoked the other day in an segment on Public Radio International’s “The World” program.

The show’s resident history authority, Christopher Woolf, claimed that sensational reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal about the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 fired up American public opinion which, in turn, prompted Congress to declare war on Spain in April 1898.

It’s a tired syllogism that erroneously blames yellow journalism for a conflict that had far deeper and far more substantial causes, as I discussed in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Essentially, the syllogism founders on the absence of evidence that Hearst’s Journal exerted decisive influence on public opinion, or on the administration of President William McKinley, in the run-up to war.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism, an impressive body of research had been compiled over the years, indicating that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, or ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow press — the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer — in the run-up to the war.

Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, many newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses.

Not only that, but top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers. Officials certainly didn’t turn to the yellow press for guidance in shaping policy.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The yellow press, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century observed, did not “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

Those differences stemmed from Spain’s harsh and futile measures to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in February 1895 — measures that gave rise to a humanitarian crisis on the island. Thousands of Cuban non-combattants — women, children, and old men — were herded into garrison towns in a policy the Spanish called “reconcentration.” The objective was to deprive the Cuban rebels of support of the citizenry; the upshot of the policy was that non-combattants suffered immensely from hunger and disease.

Far more than the content of Hearst’s Journal, the humanitarian crisis caused by reconcentration prompted the United States to go to war with Spain in 1898.

But of course, it’s more delicious, and simplistic, to blame the supposed war-mongering newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.


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