W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Anniversaries’ Category

Cronkite did all that? The anchorman, the president, and the Vietnam War

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on August 23, 2020 at 6:07 am

The endless appeal of media-driven myths rests largely in affirming that journalists are powerful actors whose work and words can exert great and decisive effects on war, politics, and public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam

This thread runs through all prominent media myths, from William Randolph Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century to the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, that exposés by two Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The thread also defines the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the Vietnam War.

Cronkite’s assessment, which came after he visited what then was South Vietnam in the wake of the communist-led Tet offensive, was unremarkable for the times. Even so, it has taken on legendary status as a moment of telling unvarnished truth to power, as an occasion when an anchorman’s words brought clarity to a President who, as if in an epiphany, realized his war policy was a shambles.

Journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote of Cronkite’s assessment, “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Cronkite of course had declared no such thing and the war in Vietnam ground on until 1975. But Halberstam’s hyperbole is emblematic of the mythical proportions the “Cronkite Moment” has reached.

Late August brings the anniversary and inevitable reminders of the bloody 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. The approach of the anniversary this year was the occasion for the Guardian of London to post an essay of reminiscences by a photographer who was there.

What particularly interested Media Myth Alert was this passage, crediting Cronkite with decisive influence and power:

“President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the years-long Vietnam war, chose not to run for re-election after a critical editorial by the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, the man then dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Losing Cronkite’s confidence, Johnson believed he had lost Middle America as well.”

There’s much to unpack and dismantle in those two sentences, which imply that Cronkite’s assessment about the war, offered in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, led Johnson not to seek reelection.

But we know that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired. The President that night was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for a long-time political ally, John Connally. And it is not clear whether, when, or under what circumstances Johnson may have seen the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, the power of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” resides in the immediate, unexpected, and visceral effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect likely would have been muted or absent had Johnson seen the program, or excerpts, on videotape.

Even if he did screen the program on videotape soon after February 27, it is clear Johnson did not take Cronkite’s assessment to heart. In the days and weeks afterward, the president mounted a vigorous public defense of his war policy. In mid-March 1968, for example, he told a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

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

Not only that, but the anchorman’s characterization of “stalemate” was hardly novel in late February 1968.

The term had been invoked frequently by critics — and for months before Cronkite’s program — to describe the war. In early August 1967, the New York Times published a lengthy, front page news analysis about the war beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The analysis, filed from Vietnam by R.W. Apple Jr., said in part:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the fighting in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The essay won Apple an Overseas Press Club award.

What tipped Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 were his declining political fortunes and the views of an informal group of advisers — and not, as the Guardian essay suggests, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

By the end of March 1968, when he announced he would not run for another term, Johnson had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary election to an antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. And an even more formidable rival for the Democratic party nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had entered the race. Johnson was becoming a spent force, politically.

His informal advisers, collectively known as the “Wise Men,” had gathered in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s war policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” one adviser, George Ball, later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted.

A few days afterward, Johnson announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection.

The Guardian essay also claims that Cronkite was known at the time as “the most trusted man in America.”

In fact, that characterization was applied to him years after 1968 — when CBS publicists touted him as such in advertising the network’s Election Night news coverage in 1972.

Their basis? A survey conducted that year of 8,780 respondents in 18 states by the pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company. The poll sought to assess and compare levels of public trust among U.S. politicians. Oddly, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaningn that he was being compared to the likes of Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent, which as media critic Jack Shafer once noted, “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.” The generic “average senator” came in second at 67 percent.

CBS publicists nonetheless embraced the survey’s results. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads encouraged readers to tune into the CBS election coverage — and proclaimed Cronkite the “most trusted American in public life.”

WJC

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The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 27, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Fifty-two years ago tonight, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about the war in Vietnam and declared in closing that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid analysis, hardly novel. But over the years, Cronkite’s assessment has swelled in importance, taking on the aura of a vital, media-inspired turning point. It is so singularly important in American journalism that it has come to be called the “Cronkite Moment.

In reality it is a moment steeped in media myth.

Notable among the myths of the “Cronkite Moment” is that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Versions vary.)

Cronkite’s remarks supposedly were an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists, representing a memorable instance of media influence and power.

But Cronkite’s program on February 27, 1968, hardly had decisive effects. Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

Johnson: Didn’t see Cronkite show

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — and fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the war effort.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were decidedly more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Four days before Cronkite’s program, for example, 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.” Not long after Cronikte’s report, Frank McGee of NBC News declared the war was being lost if judged by the Johnson administration’s definition. Not stalemated. Lost.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time (see photo nearby) and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, unexpected, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if, in effect, he had brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort. At one point in March 1968, Johnson called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite dismissed the notion that his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He considered its impact as akin to that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun to shift against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said a month before but on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

It is far easier to embrace the notion that Cronkite’s report 52 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than it is to dig into its back story and understand it for what it was: A mythical moment of marginal influence in a war that lasted until 1975.

WJC

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Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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‘Johnson is said to have said’: Squishy attribution, thin documentation, and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on July 23, 2019 at 10:14 am

Media-driven myths spring from diverse sources, including what charitably can be called thin documentation.

So it is with the purported “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted on the air what others in the news media had been saying for months — that the war in Vietnam was stalemated.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Given that it was the high-profile Cronkite who made the statement, his words carried exceptional impact. They were so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles and declared something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or so the media myth has it.

But there’s scant documentation that Johnson was much moved by Cronkite’s interpretation, and we do know that the president did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. Johnson at the time was at a black-tie party in Texas to mark the 51st birthday of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that Johnson saw the program at some later date on videotape. Or that the program ever prompted Johnson to say something akin to “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or that he took to heart Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal characterization of the war.

In fact, in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s program, Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy. This was a period when the anchorman’s assessment could have been expected to exert its greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor would have been most pronounced.

Instead, the president mounted an aggressive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart. If, that is, he was aware of it at all.

For example, in mid-March 1968, Johnson told a group of business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson made several similar statements on other occasions following the “Cronkite Moment,” including a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which the president urged a “‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So Johnson at the time hardly was throwing up his hands in despair about his war policy.

A credulous reference to the “Cronkite Moment” appeared the other day in a column by the Los Angeles Times television critic, who waxed nostalgic about TV coverage of the first manned mission to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. (“We went to the moon on television,” the column declared.)

The column also stated that in 1968, Cronkite “took time on the CBS Evening News to declare Vietnam ‘a stalemate,’ which some credit as turning the tide of public opinion against the war: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ President Johnson is said to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

There’s much to unpack in that sentence.

For starters, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization came at the close of an hour-long special report, not on the Evening News show.

More important, “the tide of public opinion” had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s report. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Gallup polling in October 1967 found that for the first time, a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

That plurality edged up to 49 percent in a Gallup poll completed on the day of Cronkite’s special report.

If anything, then, Cronkite was following rather than “turning the tide of public opinion about the war.”

Especially striking in the Times column is the phrase, “Johnson is said to have said.”

That really is thin attributive cover, not unlike invoking “reportedly” to allow the inclusion of material that a writer hasn’t independently confirmed, or has doubts about. It’s a squishy sort of dubious attribution that ought to set off alarms for editors.

And for readers.

We know what Johnson said at about the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment. Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support. He was making a light-hearted comment about John Connally’s age.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

WJC

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Murrow-McCarthy, 65 years on: Tenacious media myth and a telling reminder

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 6, 2019 at 12:02 pm

The 65th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s report about Joseph R. McCarthy — extravagantly called “television’s finest half-hour” — falls this week. Over the intervening years, the program has become infused with a tenacious media myth.

Murrow

And yet the program resonates still, particularly in Murrow’s comments about dissent and false allegations.

The program about McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who had unsettled the country with allegations about communist infiltration of U.S. government agencies, aired on the CBS “See It Now” newsmagazine show on March 9, 1954.

The myth has it that Murrow, alone in American journalism, had the courage, will, and stature to stand up to McCarthy and expose him as the demagogue he was.

That makes for an appealing trope about media power and the agency of a committed, high-profile journalist. But neither Murrow nor his producer, Fred Friendly, embraced the myth that “See It Now” took down McCarthy, or stopped him in his tracks.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed.” By then, McCarthy and his tactics were quite well-known.

Indeed, the senator’s troubles had been building for months. By the time Murrow’s program aired — a show that journalism educator Loren Ghiglione has termed “television’s finest half-hour” — McCarthy’s favorability ratings had crested and were in terminal decline.

During the week when Murrow’s show was broadcast, the Army accused McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, of exerting pressure to win favorable treatment for Cohn’s friend and assistant, David Schine, who had been drafted into military service.

The charges were a centerpiece of the Army-McCarthy hearings of the Spring of 1954, which led to the senator’s censure later that year.

Murrow’s program about McCarthy was nothing if not belated. Referring to Murrow, the CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid observed in an interview in 1978:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

Indeed, Murrow’s show came more than four years after McCarthy launched his communists-in-government attacks — and more than four years after muckraking journalist Drew Pearson began challenging the senator’s claims in his syndicated column, “Washington Merry Go Round.”

Pearson wasn’t a very likable or popular journalist. The media critic Jack Shafer described him several years ago as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”

Pearson was self-important, overbearing, and readily made enemies. But he recognized the suspect quality of McCarthy’s charges and went after the senator hard and relentlessly — and paid a price for doing so.

Pearson dismissed McCarthy’s claims that communists had infiltrated the State Department, writing that when the senator “finally was pinned down, he could produce … only four names of State Department officials whom he claimed were communists.”

Two of the four people named by McCarthy had resigned years earlier; another had been cleared, and the fourth had never worked for the State Department, Pearson wrote.

He followed up with another column, writing that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson also scrutinized the senator’s tax troubles and his accepting suspicious campaign contributions back in Wisconsin.

The probing angered McCarthy. In December 1950, the hulking senator physically assaulted Pearson after a private dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat-check room and either punched or slapped the columnist, or kneed him in the groin. Accounts varied.

Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in a U.S. Senator just days before, intervened to break up the assault. Nixon in his memoir RN recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Not long afterward, McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “fake,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Pearson: hat-wearing columnist

McCarthy also aimed a threat at the sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program, Adam Hat Stores Inc., declaring that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

A week later, Adam Hat said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s program, citing “a planned change in advertising media.”

So Murrow was hardly the first prominent journalist to confront McCarthy. Others besides Pearson were Richard Rovere of the New Yorker and James Weschler of the New York Post.

Despite the myth that distorts it, the “See It Now” program of 65 years ago reverberates in our times. Murrow’s concluding peroration that night stands as an abiding reminder about the primacy of evidence and the importance of dissent.

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” Murrow said in a two-minute commentary to close the program. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. … And remember, we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

In a time of fake news and sham allegations, a time that can resemble “an age of unreason,” Murrow’s sentiments stand as pointed and enduring reminders.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2018

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Reviews, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2018 to the not-infrequent appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October 2019, will mark its 10th anniversary:

WaPo’s hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’ (posted May 27): The year brought more than a few credulous references to the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” which is derived from Walter Cronkite’s peroration in a special report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. war effort was stalemated and suggested negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Cronkite in Vietnam

In a page-long look back at the “Cronkite Moment,” the Washington Post in late May praised the anchorman’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam” and asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson “was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That purported quotation, I noted in discussing the Post’s hagiographic retrospective, “is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.”

We know that Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, Johnson may have watched the program at some later date on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s remarks (if he even heard of them). In a series of public events in the first three weeks of March 1968, the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy and endeavored to rally popular support for the war.

So even if he did see Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson gave no indication of having been moved by the anchorman’s “stalemate” message — which was a rather tepid assessment for the time. Just days before Cronkite’s program, for example, 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.”

The “bitter taste of defeat”: No dithering there about “stalemate.”

A media myth convergence and the ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph (posted May 20): Sometimes, media myths converge.

Sometimes a number of media outlets, separately and independently, invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at roughly the same time.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It’s an occurrence that confirms the wide reach of prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

The famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by a photographer for the Associated Press, was the  subject of a myth convergence in May: Within a few days, the National newspaper in Scotland, the online economic news site Quartz, the left-wing news site Truthdig, and the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa all invoked aspects of the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph; the image shows a cluster of children, screaming as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam.

As I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the myths surrounding the famous photograph are tenacious and include the erroneous notions that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, that it hastened an end to the conflict, and that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

The National claimed that the photograph “dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War.” Quartz made a somewhat similar claim, saying the image “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig was more vague, saying the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.” Sunday Times invoked the pernicious claim that the photograph depicted results of a “US napalm strike.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972. And the claim of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack has been invoked so often and blithely as to become insidious. But it was no “US napalm strike.” The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop, I wrote in another post in 2018, has “served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.”

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie (posted January 2): Steven Spielberg’s The Post featured the talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, was cheered by many critics, but won no major cinematic awards.

That may have been due to its incongruous story line: The movie centered around the disclosures in 1971 about the U.S. government’s classified history of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers. But the focus was not on the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for first reporting about the secret archive. The movie instead was about the newspaper that didn’t break the story, the newspaper that followed the disclosures of the New York Times.

The Post was a fawning look at the Washington Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor. The movie suggested they risked jail time for publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers after the Times had been temporarily blocked from continuing its disclosures.

The movie makes “a heroic statement,” I noted in writing about The Post, “but the emphasis is misplaced.

“To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect.”

It was the Times, after all, that took greatest risks in reporting on the Pentagon Papers; the prospect of Graham and Bradlee’s going to jail for following up on the Timesdisclosures was remote at best.

Not only was The Post’s story line a hard sell, the acting wasn’t stellar. Hanks was mediocre in playing a rumpled Bradlee; the character spoke in a strange and distracting accent that seemed vaguely Southern.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham was cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham was depicted as weak, confused, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being publisher. But then abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham found backbone and gave the order to publish.

It was all quite melodramatic, and not very convincing.

Journalism review in need of journalism history lesson (posted November 16): Columbia Journalism Review seeks to present itself as “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

It didn’t demonstrate much intellectual leadership in publishing an essay that invoked the hoary myth of Edward R. Murrow’s having “exposed” the lies and exaggerations of the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, in a half-hour television program in March 1954.

Red-baiting senator

As I pointed out in addressing the CJR essay, Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist, “took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.”

Those other journalists included the muckraking syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, who challenged McCarthy beginning in February 1950, or more than four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy became so perturbed by Pearson’s persistent questioning and probing that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. (Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.)

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate soon after the confrontation to condemn Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

So by the time Murrow devoted his “See It Now” program to McCarthy, the senator’s claims about communists having infiltrated the federal government were well-known, as were his bullying tactics. His popularity was on the skids by then, too.

Airing a critical report about McCarthy in March 1954 was more belated than courageous.

Columbia Journalism Review touted Murrow’s mythical role on other occasions — notably in an essay in July 2016 that invoked the broadcaster’s program on McCarthy as a precedent for journalists seeking to suspend professional detachment in reporting on Donald Trump and his campaign for president.

The fading of a media myth? Not so fast (posted October 30): The run-up to Halloween this year was marked by noticeably few media references to mass panic and hysteria that supposedly swept the United States during and right after the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel that told of a deadly invasion of Earth by Mars.

It’s become pretty clear that Americans weren’t pitched into panic by the hour-long program that aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, some listeners may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program as clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the myth of radio-induced panic usually emerges predictably in the run-up to Halloween.

Except for this year, when credulous media references to the “panic broadcast” seemed fewer, and seemed overwhelmed by searching commentary that rejected the notion the show created panic and hysteria. All of which prompted a Media Myth Alert post that asked, optimistically:

“Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?”

Such optimism was dashed not long after the anniversary when the New York Times published a commentary asserting that the “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

Clearly, the media myth of the “panic broadcast” hadn’t been interred.

Interestingly, the Times’ reference to “widespread panic” hinted at confusion within the newspaper’s op-ed section: At the anniversary of the broadcast, the Times had posted an online commentary that declared the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

In any event, the dashed optimism about the “panic broadcast” offered fresh confirmation that no media myth ever completely dies away.

Myths after all tend to be too delicious to be completely discredited.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2018:

 

Not so fast about that fading media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on November 10, 2018 at 5:57 pm

So there I was, waxing hopeful the other day that The War of the Worlds panic myth was fading away.

A passage in a commentary today in the New York Times rather dashes that optimism.

From today’s NYTimes

The myth has it that on the eve of Halloween in 1938, a Sunday night radio dramatization about Martians invading the eastern United States, a tale adapted from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, pitched Americans by the thousands into panic and mass hysteria.

And the Times’s commentary repeats the myth, stating: The “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

That all makes for a good story, but it’s thinly documented — as the Times itself made clear just last week. At the show’s 80th anniversary, the Times posted online a commentary that said the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

It’s too bad the Times did away with its “public editor”; I’d love to know what an in-house critic like Liz Spayd (who was dismissed when the position was abruptly scrapped) would say about such incoherence in the commentary section.

In any event, the notion the broadcast triggered panic and hysteria is a false narrative. There was no mass panic, no hysteria. And that conclusion comes from a variety of scholars who periodically over the past 25 years or so have considered the broadcast’s presumed effects and found them missing.

While some listeners that long ago night may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the show’s audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized it for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween. The program was aired on CBS radio in its familiar time slot and featured familiar voices, notably that of 23-year-old Orson Welles, the show’s director and star.

For American newspapers, though, the presumptive panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” as I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Newspapers were eager to reprimand radio and their “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans,” I wrote.

The Times participated in the dressing-down 80 years ago, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

The story of nationwide panic quickly faded from the front pages in 1938, which surely wouldn’t have been the case had the program stirred nationwide turmoil: Such an extraordinary event would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

My recent optimism about the panic myth’s fading away was buoyed by the comparatively few naive references to the myth in the run-up to the 80th anniversary. “News reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years,” I wrote, adding that I was hopeful about the myth’s dissolving in the face of repeated debunkings.

I also noted, “It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.” And I might well have closed the blog post there. Instead, I wrote:

“But it may be that ‘panic broadcast’ myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.”

Guess not.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The fading of a media myth?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2018 at 8:08 am

Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?

The question arises because in the run-up to Halloween, news reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years. (See here and here for a couple of head-shaking exceptions.)

Orson Welles

The question is especially intriguing because tonight marks the 80th anniversary of what has been called the “panic broadcast.” It’s one of those round-number anniversaries that could be expected to bring fresh reminders that the hour-long radio show supposedly sent panic-stricken Americans into the streets across the country.

But the anniversary this year has brought comparatively few such naive references in the news media — certainly nothing akin to the PBS “American Experience” program that aired five years ago and embraced the dubious assumptions about the “panic broadcast.”

In a time of keen awareness about “fake news,” is The War of the Worlds media myth flickering out? Could it be that repeated debunkings over the years have finally taken hold?

Possibly.

Media Myth Alert — which was launched nine years ago with a post about The War of the Worlds — hopes so.

To be sure, the myth always has been something of a stretch.

It centered around the hour-long, Sunday night show on CBS radio called “Mercury Theatre on the Air” that starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. The program on October 30, 1938, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic that was published in 1898.

Welles and his troupe made imaginative use of mock but urgent-sounding news bulletins to report that Martians wielding deadly heat rays had invaded rural New Jersey and were swiftly making their way to New York City. The broadcast supposedly was so vivid, fast-paced, and seemingly authoritative that Americans supposedly were scared out of their wits, believing the country had fallen under alien attack.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Chicago Herald Examiner front page, Halloween, 1938

That’s what many American newspapers reported the day afterward: Panic had gripped the country. Or, as the Washington Post asserted (without offering much evidence): “For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.”

But as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, newspaper accounts of radio-produced panic and hysteria “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

While some listeners to Welles’ show that night were briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

For American newspapers, though, the purported panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I wrote. Newspapers were eager to chide their broadcast rival, and the “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans.”

For example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and American declared that the program had caused hysteria that “was NATIONWIDE and literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL.” It “goes without saying,” the Journal and American said in an editorial, “that if the [radio] industry, or irresponsible units within the industry, cannot guard against incidents of this nature … it will not long be free from more drastic forms of censorship than it has yet known.”

The New York Times also reprimanded radio, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

Indirectly, though, newspaper reports effectively challenged the notion that Welles’ program had caused widespread chaos.

“Had mass panic and hysteria swept the country that night,” I noted in Getting It Wrong, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries. But the newspaper reports were notably silent on casualties.” No accidental deaths, and no suicides, were linked to the program.

The story of nationwide panic soon faded from the front pages, which wouldn’t have been the case had the program indeed stirred nationwide turmoil. Such an extraordinary and unprecedented event surely would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

Instead, news coverage turned quickly from The War of the Worlds broadcast to such events as the celebrated horse race on November 1, 1938, between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Beyond the flawed newspaper reports and commentary, what solidified the panic myth was the work of Hadley Cantril, a psychology professor at Princeton University. He investigated public reaction to the performance and in 1940 published a thin volume titled The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.

In it, Cantril wrote, “Long before the broadcast had ended people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from Martians.”

He estimated that least 1.2 million listeners were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by The War of the Worlds dramatization. That number represents a fraction of the audience’s size, which Cantril figured to have been at least 6 million people.

Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fears, however. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, feeling “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” is hardly synonymous with being panic-stricken or hysterical.

Even so, Cantril’s book propelled the panic myth. That it did was perhaps unsurprising: Like most media myths, The War of the Worlds tale is delicious, easily remembered and easily retold.

What’s more, the myth became infused over time with something akin to a third-person effect — namely, that while media consumers back in the ’30s must have been quite gullible, we’re too media-savvy these days ever to fall for such a broadcast prank.

Several scholars, working independently over many years, contributed to unraveling the “panic broadcast” myth.

An early challenge was posed by Robert E. Bartholomew who in 1992 reported “a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated.” Only “scant anecdotal evidence,” Bartholomew said, exists “to suggest that many listeners actually took some action — such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in cars after hearing the broadcast.”

Similarly, Erich Goode wrote in 1992 that relatively few people “actually did anything in response to the broadcast, such as drove off in panic or hid in a cellar. … It becomes clear that whatever the public reaction to The War of the Worlds radio broadcast was, it did not qualify as an instance of mass hysteria.”

In 2000, Jeffrey Sconce noted in his book, Haunted Media, “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in an actual panic over the broadcast is … limited at best.”

Michael Socolow, a media scholar at the University of Maine, has contributed impressively to the debunkings. He wrote in 2008 in the Chronicle of Higher Education that panic linked to The War of the Worlds dramatization “was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

At the 75th anniversary of the Welles broadcast, Socolow and Jefferson Poole noted in an essay for Slate.com: “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary … almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”

They further noted: “If War of the Worlds had in fact caused the widespread terror we’ve been told it did, you’d expect CBS and Welles to have been reprimanded for their actions. But that wasn’t the case.”

And in an essay posted at today’s Washington Post, Socolow and Poole wrote that The War of the Worlds “episode provides a clear example of the process by which fake news can quickly become ingrained deeply in American culture.”

Brad Schwartz, author of Broadcast Hysteria, also has contributed to the debunking, writing that newspapers in “sloppiness and haste … created a compelling yet inaccurate narrative: that War of the Worlds threw the entire country into chaos, causing untold numbers of listeners to act bizarrely and irrationally.”

Belatedly, a few newspapers have been coming around. London’s Daily Telegraph revisited the “panic broadcast” a couple of years ago and declared it a myth.

It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.

But it may be that “panic broadcast” myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Hearst, Ted Cruz, and the myth of war-mongering ‘yellow journalism’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on April 27, 2018 at 7:19 am

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz  assailed U.S. technology companies this week and, in doing so, brought up one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — that William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers brought about the Spanish-American War 120 years ago.

In an interview with “Breitbart News Tonight,” Cruz declared that the “scope of the power” of Facebook and other tech companies “is truly unprecedented. You think back to the heights of yellow journalism, when publisher William Randolph Hearst controlled much of media and in fact got America into the Spanish-American War. Well, these tech companies have power William Randolph Hearst could never have imagined.”

Cruz: Blames Hearst for war

Maybe.

But it hardly can be said that Hearst “controlled much of [the] media” in 1898. He ran three newspapers then — his flagship New York Journal, its down-market companion the Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. At the time, the United States had more than 2,000 daily newspapers (and 12,000 weeklies), the ownership of which was quite diffuse.

More intriguing to Media Myth Alert was the senator’s unsourced claim that Hearst “got America into the Spanish-American War.” No serious historian of the period embraces that notion. It is indeed a hoary media myth, which I addressed and debunked in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism.

Claims about Hearst’s war-mongering power almost always are unsourced. They almost always lack an explanation about just how Hearst and his “yellow journalism” brought on the war: What was the linkage? By what mechanism were the contents of Hearst’s three newspapers transformed into government policy and military action against Spain?

The short answer: There was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the deadly destruction of the USS Maine in mid-February 1898, while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote, “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 administration assuredly did not take a policy lead from the Hearst press. His newspapers were, I noted, “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war on April 25, 1898. The conflict lasted 114 days as the U.S. Army and Navy routed Spanish forces in theaters in the Caribbean and Asia — in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

To indict the yellow press for bringing on the conflict is to misread the evidence and ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in an impasse that led to war. Failed diplomacy — essentially, the United States and Spain could not resolve differences over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — gave rise to war.

The start date of the conflict was a source of recent confusion for the Washington Post which, in a glib essay about the cruelties of April, erroneously stated the war was declared on April 20, 1898.

Hearst’s Journal: Offered reward to solve Maine destruction, 1898

The Post’s essay also said “the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (‘Remember the Maine’). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.”

Not so.

In March 1898 (very much “at the time”), a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine’s destruction was likely triggered by the detonation of an underwater mine in Havana harbor, which was under Spanish control. The Court’s key finding was that a portion of the battleship’s bottom plating had been bent inward, in the shape of an inverted “V.” That evidence signaled an external source of the explosion.

Although the Court of Inquiry identified no suspects in the presumed mining, the American press and public held Spanish authorities responsible, given their control of the harbor. (For example, one of Hearst’s rivals, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, declared at the end of March 1898: “The Government of Spain is inescapably responsible for the destruction of the Maine by a MINE in Havana harbor. What are we going to do about it?”)

The Naval Court’s central finding was endorsed in 1911, when the wreck of the Maine was raised from Havana harbor and taken to sea for burial in 400 fathoms of water. The 1911 inquiry placed the likely location of the underwater mine farther aft than did the 1898 inquiry.

The mine-sunk-the-Maine interpretation was not seriously challenged until the mid-1970s, when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover commissioned a private study that proposed spontaneous combustion — a fire smoldering undetected in a coal bunkers near the ship’s forward magazines — was the explosion’s probable source.

Rickover’s interpretation has proved not to be the final word, however.

In 1998, a study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted with computer simulations by Advanced Marine Enterprises found fresh support for the mine theory.

The study said “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine” was the source of the explosion. It also said “that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating … would have blown outward, not inward.”

WJC

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15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

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

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” he said.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

He also said:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.

WJC

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