W. Joseph Campbell

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

  1. […] in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the […]

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