W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Media myths and radio’ Category

Media myth as cliché: ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio ‘panic’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2019 at 8:27 pm

The anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 inevitably brings news media references to the panic and hysteria the program supposedly set off across the United States.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner, Halloween, 1938

Such references have become like a cliché, unoriginal assertions blithely made, and yet immune to compelling contrary evidence.

Take, for one example, the claim casually offered the other day on a local television news program in Salt Lake City. The news reader introduced a segment recalling the 1938 show by declaring:

“In eight decades, nothing has really scared our country like the old War of the Worlds broadcast.”

No supporting evidence accompanied that claim, as if the presumed effects of the broadcast of October 30, 1938, are so accepted that documentation isn’t necessary.

The War of the Worlds dramatization aired over CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. It told of the invasion of the United States by waves of Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Welles

And that makes for quite an intriguing tale.

But like most media myths, it’s a tale with scant evidentiary support.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, if panic and hysteria had swept America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma, turmoil, and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

Whatever radio-induced fright there was that night 81 years ago hardly reached nationwide proportions.

Indeed, a far more compelling case can be made that most listeners to the program recognized it for what it was — an imaginative, fast-paced, and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with the long-ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely exaggerated and misstated?

It is, for starters, famous for what it suggests about the presumptive and lurking dark power of mass media.

It also is a clever example of dramatic storytelling that’s well-suited for Halloween. The show is often rebroadcast, or reenacted, at this time of year — which serves not only to celebrate the performance but to keep it alive in the popular consciousness.

The War of the Worlds program also is inextricably linked to the career and theatrical genius of Orson Welles who, within three years of the radio dramatization, released Citizen Kane, which he directed and in which he starred. Kane arguably is the finest motion picture ever made.

Welles, who lived until 1985, did his most memorable work before turning 30. He was 26 when he made Kane.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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:

 

Media myths of Watergate, ’60 debate circulate as campaign enters closing days

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Watergate myth on November 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm
'Nixon did in Nixon'

Nixon’s resignation: Not the media’s doing

Coinciding with the closing days of this year’s wretched election campaign has been the appearance of prominent media myths about the Watergate scandal and the first televised debate in 1960 between major party presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The myths, respectively, have it that the dogged reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974, and that television viewers and radio listeners reached sharply different conclusions about the debate outcome, signaling that image trumps substance.

Both myths have become well-entrenched dominant narratives over the years and they tend to be blithely invoked by contemporary journalists.

Take, for example, the lead paragraph of an Atlantic article posted a couple of days ago; it flatly declared:

“The Watergate Scandal was a high point of American journalism. Two dedicated young reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down President Richard Nixon for his role in the coverup of the 1972 attempted break in of the Democratic Party headquarters by Republican operatives.”

In an otherwise thoughtful analysis posted today about the new media’s failings in this year presidential campaign, David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun invoked the Watergate myth, stating:

“And how was Nixon forced to resign if not through the old-school, legacy standards of dogged investigative journalism?”

Zurawik referred to Bernstein as “[o]ne of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down.”

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmAs I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — a second edition of which recently was published — the Washington Post was at best a marginal contributor to Nixon’s fall.

Unraveling a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, the seminal crime of Watergate.

Most senior figures at the Post during the Watergate period — including Woodward, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, and Publisher Katharine Graham — scoffed at claims the newspaper’s reporting toppled Nixon.

Woodward, for example, told American Journalism Review in 2004:

“To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

The myth about the 1960 debate was invoked almost casually in a column the other day in Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper. The writer asserted:

“The televised debates were said to give the nod to the telegenic Kennedy, while radio listeners believed Nixon the victor.”

But as I point out in the new edition of Getting It Wrong, the notion of viewer-listener disagreement is “a dubious bit of political lore”  often cited as presumptive “evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement, I also point out, “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Vancil and Pendell, writing in Central States Speech Journal, reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — just 282 of whom said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

In the second edition of Getting It Wrong, I seek to build upon the work of Vancil and Pendell, offering contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries published in those newspapers in the debate’s immediate aftermath turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement, I write, adding:

“None of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries [examined] made specific reference” to the supposed phenomenon of viewer-listener disagreement. “Leading American newspapers in late September 1960 spoke of nothing that suggested or intimated pervasive differences in how television viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate.”

And they were well-positioned to have done so, given the keen interest in, and close reporting about, the first debate between major party candidates.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Memorable late October: A new edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ and more

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Photographs, Quotes, Television on October 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmLate October makes for memorable times in media-mythbusting.

The anniversary of the mythical panic broadcast — Orson Welles’ clever radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria in 1938 — falls this evening.

Today also marks the seventh anniversary of the launch of Media Myth Alert.

And late October this year brought the publication of an expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, my award-winning mythbusting book, published by University of California Press.

The second edition includes a new preface, and three new chapters that discuss:

  • The myth of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — notably that television viewers and radio listeners reached dramatically different conclusions about who won the encounter. In Getting It Wrong, I characterize the notion of viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.” I also present reasons why the debate of September 26, 1960, was at best a small factor in the outcome of the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-01-49-pm
  • The myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam in June 1972, which shows a cluster of children burned or terrorized by an errant napalm attack. I note the photograph has given rise to a variety of media myths — notably that American warplanes dropped the napalm. The attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force. Related myths are that the photograph was so powerful that it turned U.S. public opinion against the war, that it hastened an end to the war, and that it was published on newspaper front pages across the country. (Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph; many abstained.)
  • The spread of bogus quotations via social media and the Internet.  Among the examples discussed in the new edition is this phony quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” The utterance, I point out, is found in none of Jefferson’s writings. And there is no evidence the third U.S. president smoked hemp or other substances, including tobacco. Even so, the obviously preposterous quote — like many others attributed to important men and women of the past — “is too alluring and oddly amusing to drift away as so much historical rubbish,” I write.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong also explores the tenacity of prominent media myths, calling attention to the roles of celebrities and luminaries — authors, entertainers, and social critics, as well as politicians and talk show hosts — in amplifying dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power.

The upshot of the celebrity effect, I write, is scarcely trivial: The prominence of luminaries helps ensure that the myths will reach wide audiences, making the myths all the more difficult to uproot. The importance of the celebrity effect in the diffusion of media myths has become better recognized, and better documented, in the years since publication in 2010 of the first edition of Getting It Wrong, I point out.

Myth-telling luminaries include Vice President Joe Biden, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, former President Jimmy Carter, humorist Garrison Keillor, and author and TV commentator Juan Williams.

I further note that for journalists, media myths “are very seductive: They place the news media at the epicenter of vital and decisive moments of the past, they tell of journalistic bravado and triumph, and they offer memorable if simplistic narratives that are central to journalism’s amour propre.

“They also encourage an assumption that, the disruption and retrenchment in their field notwithstanding, journalists can be moved to such heights again.”

WJC

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Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ out soon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio on September 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

The runup to Monday’s debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican foe, Donald Trump, has been accompanied by news accounts about the first debate 56 years ago between major party candidates — and more than a few references to a hoary and tenacious media-driven myth.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmThe myth has it that television viewers and radio listeners disagreed sharply as to the winner of the debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and his Republican foe, Richard M. Nixon. TV viewers, it is said, thought Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave their nod to Nixon.

I take up the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in one of three new chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking The Greatest Myths of American Journalism. Other new chapters discuss the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph and the reach and velocity of Internet-driven bogus quotations.

The second edition, to be published by University of California Press, is due out in about a month’s time.

In the book, I characterize viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

It is, I add, “described often and nonchalantly in books about American presidential politics, in news articles recalling the 1960 debate, and in commentaries ruminating about the legacies and lessons of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter.”

In news articles, for sure.

Today’s “Saturday essay,” a prominent section front of the weekend Wall Street Journal, invoked the viewer-listener myth declaring, quite nonchalantly and without attribution:

“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference.”

Today’s New York Daily News published a look-back at the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate that stated:

“Following the debate, most TV viewers believed that Kennedy had been the victor. Conversely though, radio listeners found that Nixon had a slight edge over Kennedy. And this, arguably, began the process of presidential candidates and their camps being completely obsessed with a perfect TV image.”

Similarly, an article posted the other day at the online site of Voice of America asserted:

“[W]hat the 1960 debates showed was how television was changing politics. In the first debate, radio listeners said Nixon won. Those who watched on television said Kennedy was the better debater.”

Pacific Standard magazine offered a waffling, diffident embrace of the myth, stating:

“According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.”

In this case, “conventional wisdom” is a media myth: The notion of viewer-listener disagreement is, I write, “a dubious bit of political lore.”

I note in the new chapter that the myth of viewer-listener disagreement “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

I seek in the second edition of Getting It Wrong to build upon the fine work of Vancil and Pendell and present contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries of those newspapers turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-7-56-07-am“Even the oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were vague and few,” I write, adding:

“The most proximate reference to the purported phenomenon appeared two days after the debate in a column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill wrote that he had arranged for ‘a number of persons [to] listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.'”

While intriguing in its prescience, I point out that McGill’s experiment “was more speculative than revealing. His column did not report how many people he had recruited to listen to the debate on radio, nor did it describe their party affiliations or where they lived. It was not a representative sampling; obviously, it was not meant to be.”

Rather, I write, it was an opportunity “to ruminate about the novelty of television as an instrument of political campaigns.” McGill called the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate “a triumph for television,” which it was. But it produced no significant disconnect among television viewers and radio listeners.

WJC

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The mythical ‘panic broadcast’: Tired cliché of Halloween

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2015 at 9:16 am
Welles_monument

Welles and The War of the Worlds

The days around Halloween can be among the most myth-indulgent of the year, given the many media reminders about The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that aired 77 years ago tonight.

The hour-long show, which aired on CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles, was so vivid in telling of the invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays that tens of thousands of Americans supposedly were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

Or as the Indianapolis Star put it the other day, “Pandemonium swept the nation that evening” in 1938.

Or as the Louisville Courier-Journal said about the program, “unsuspecting listeners reacted in horror while listening to descriptions of a devastating landing of ‘ferocious Martian invaders.'”

And so it goes: Late October brings predictable references to the “panic broadcast” of 1938 and to the upheaval it supposedly caused. It’s so predictable as to have become a cliché.

That the program set off widespread panic and mass hysteria also is a hoary media myth, a myth that offers deceptive messages about the influence radio wielded over listeners decades ago and about the media’s capacity to sow terror and alarm. There is scant evidence that The War of the Worlds had such effects: Whatever fright there was that night 77 years ago did not reach nationwide proportions.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had panic spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s supposed panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with a long ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely hyped and overblown?

It is, for starters, famous, or infamous, for what it suggests about the presumptive dark power of mass media.

It is, moreover, a deliciously clever story, one well-suited for retelling at Halloween.

Indeed, the show is often rebroadcast, or re-enacted, this time of year — which serves to reintroduce and celebrate the performance, keeping it fresh in the popular consciousness.

The “panic broadcast” also lives on because it allows contemporary media consumers to indulge, if quietly and privately, in a bit of smugness — that we would never be so gullible as to believe such a media hoax; we are too media-savvy. But back then, in the 1930s when radio was still new, they weren’t so sophisticated: They were more naïve, more easily duped by exaggerated media messages.

This is known as the third-person effect, the belief that others are more credulous, or more susceptible to media influences, than we are.

Such smugness has helped keep alive the tired Halloween cliché of The War of the Worlds.

WJC

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The hero-journalist trope: Watergate’s go-to mythical narrative

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced America’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

And yet, because Watergate was such an intricate thicket of lies, deceit, and criminality — and because it unfolded more than 40 years ago — a sure understanding of the scandal can be defiantly elusive. Collective memory about the many lines of investigation that unwound Watergate and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency has inevitably grown faint.

What endures is the heroic-journalist trope, Watergate’s dominant popular narrative, which rests on the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s criminal misconduct and forced his resignation. It has become the go-to explanation about how Watergate was exposed, and it is an endlessly appealing interpretation.

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

Which takes us to a movie review posted today at the online site of WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

The review discusses the perversely named Truth, a new motion picture that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used fraudulent documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. (Because it stars Robert Redford in Rather’s role, Truth has invited comparisons — not all of them favorable — to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film in which Redford played Woodward of the Post.) 

The WTOP reviewer has little truck with the Truth story line, saying it “would have been far better … to paint the characters as fallen figures who admit they screwed up, rather than misunderstood scapegoats who were taken down by The Man.”

Fair enough. But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and declares:

“If Woodward and Bernstein ran the story too early — before they had actual proof from reliable sources — Nixon would have stayed in office, the Watergate would simply be a fancy hotel, and ‘All the President’s Men’ would not exist.”

The reference to “the story” is puzzling, given that the reporting of Watergate went far beyond a single article in the Washington Post. The scandal produced extensive news reporting over many months, from the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington to the resignation of Nixon in August 1974, following disclosures that he had approved a plan to cover up the break-in.

And to assert that “Nixon would have stayed in office” if not for Woodward and Bernstein is to be decidedly in error — and to indulge in a powerful myth of American journalism.

It is a tempting trope, to be sure. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

He’s right: Woodward and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their reporting did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein did not break the most crucial stories of Watergate.

They did not, for example, disclose the extent to which the Nixon administration covered up of the crimes of Watergate. Nor did they reveal the existence of the secret White House audio tapes, the contents of which were decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The so-called “Smoking Gun” tape captured Nixon’s approving a plan on June 23, 1972, to divert the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. The tape’s release sealed the president’s fate.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his term.

WJC

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Hearst, Garrison Keillor, and ‘furnish the war’: Celebrities and media myths

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Quotes, Spanish-American War on April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

Wasn’t I just blogging about celebrities pushing media myths?

Today brought another entry to that dubious lineup.

Keillor_WritersAlmanac

On his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, Garrison Keillor blithely retold the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The occasion for Keillor’s myth-indulgence was the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth in San Francisco.

“In 1898,” Keillor smugly told listeners, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism. And it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons discussed in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Let’s revisit some of the many reasons.

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial usually overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never discussed it.

Hearst

Hearst: Denial ignored

What’s more, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message, had it been sent.

The sole original source for the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

Nor did he say exactly when the presumed Remington-Hearst exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule.

The rebellion was the antecedent to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The timing of Remington’s trip to Cuba in early 1897 further undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote: It presents an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

As Keillor’s podcast suggests, the “furnish the war” anecdote is a delicious tale, easy to retell, and easy to believe. Like nearly all media myths, it resides on the cusp of plausibility; it corresponds well to the superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as the unscrupulous newspaper publisher who fomented the Spanish-American War.

And that, too, is a tenacious media-driven myth.

WJC

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