W. Joseph Campbell

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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

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:

 

Memo to CJR: History lesson needed

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on November 16, 2018 at 1:47 pm

Columbia Journalism Review says it seeks to be “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

If that’s the objective, then it ought to brush up on some history of the field.

McCarthy, red-baiting senator

An essay posted the other day at CJR’s online site embraces the decades-old media myth about the legendary Edward R. Murrow and his critical television report in March 1954 about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The journalism review’s thinly sourced essay purports to explore why Republicans hate the news media and says the seeds of such prejudice were planted when McCarthy began campaigning about communist infiltration of the federal government.

“The press dutifully gave McCarthy a platform for his populist conspiracy-mongering,” the essay declares, “until at last CBS’s Edward R. Murrow exposed his lies, in a program in 1954.”

Murrow exposed McCarthy’s lies?

No, it wasn’t Murrow.

Murrow 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.

The belated nature of Murrow’s critical program on McCarthy was underscored years later by Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague, Eric Sevareid, who noted that the report “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid also said: “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.”

And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more relentless critic in journalism than Drew Pearson, author of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

Pearson first took on McCarthy in February 1950, four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance and accuracy of McCarthy’s accusations.

Pearson, attacked by a senator

McCarthy grew so unnerved by Pearson’s work 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.

(In his memoir RN, Nixon quoted McCarthy as saying: “You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.”)

Shortly after the confrontation at the Sulgrave, McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce 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.”

The senator also said: “It is up to the American people — and above all, up to the newspapermen who are buying his column and the radio stations that are carrying his broadcasts — to see that this voice of international communism is stilled.”

McCarthy aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., principal sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program, declaring that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams [sic] 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 for 1951.”

Pearson later claimed that losing the Adam Hat sponsorship cut his gross radio income to $100,000 from $250,000. “I suppose no one newspaperman suffered more economically than I did from Joe McCarthy,” he mused a few years later.

In September 1951 — two and a half years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy — the New York Post began publishing a raw and unflattering 17-part series about McCarthy. It was, the Post said, “the first comprehensive newspaper account of [McCarthy’s] curious public career.” As I noted in Getting It Wrong, the series “is seldom recalled in the historiography of the McCarthy period.”

The first installment pointed to the source of McCarthy’s power, stating:

“By constant practice he has learned that all one needs to defeat or at least immobilize an opponent is to charge that he is linked with the Soviet enemy or just suggest that he has been in the past, might be now, or could conceivably be linked in the future.”

The closing installment likened McCarthy to “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

So by the time Murrow’s program aired in 1954, McCarthy had been pilloried in the press for years. Americans in 1954 weren’t exactly “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed,” as I wrote in Getting It Wrong. “By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

On the day Murrow’s half-hour program aired, former President Harry Truman was asked about reports of an anonymous telephoned threat against McCarthy’s life. Truman replied, saying: “We’d have no entertainment at all if they killed him.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment” — a fitting occasion to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is but a hoary if tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s 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.

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as 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 seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. 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.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, 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 he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like 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 shifting 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 the now-defunct Media Studies Journal 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 Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely 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.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.

WJC

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Recalling 1968, year of media myths

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on February 5, 2018 at 8:44 am

Much has been written already this year about 1968, a tumultuous and divisive time of war, civil protest, political upheaval, and bloodshed. It was, we’re told, a year that changed America, or even changed America forever.

It’s also true, if less hyperbolic, that 1968 can be considered a foundation year for media myths, signaling anew how understanding of the past can be warped by dubious tales and exaggerated interpretations.

braburning_atlcty_1968.jpg

At the Freedom Trash Can

Three prominent and tenacious media myths stem from 1968 — the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” which is said to have dramatically altered views about the Vietnam War; the “secret plan” for ending that war, a plan on which Richard Nixon supposedly campaigned for the presidency; and the nuanced myth of bra-burning at the Miss America pageant in September 1968.

Not surprisingly, credulous references to those myths have appeared in recent news accounts and commentaries about the 50th anniversary of 1968.

Notable among the references have been those about the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite offered a pessimistic assessment of the war in Vietnam, asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in its fight against communist forces there. He also suggested that negotiations might prove to be a way out for the United States.

Cronkite’s downbeat characterization was offered at the close of a special report based on the anchorman’s visit to Vietnam during the communists’ Tet offensive, which had begun at the end of January 1968.

“Stalemate,” though, was scarcely an original analysis: It had been invoked for months to characterize the war in Vietnam, as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

What supposedly made it all so exceptional was that Cronkite had turned pessimistic about the war. After all, Cronkite was, as CBS recently recalled, “America’s most trusted newsman” whose assessments supposedly projected unrivaled influence.

Often cited as evidence of such influence is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s purported reaction to Cronkite’s “stalemate” remarks.

As a recent NPR report claimed, “Johnson is said to have told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'” (The San Francisco Chronicle asserted no such qualification last month in stating, “Johnson remarked to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”)

The president’s presumptive comment has become the stuff of legend, even if versions of what Johnson supposedly said vary markedly.

Mentioned far less often is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired, and that there is no clear evidence about whether, or when, he watched the program later, on videotape.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And mentioned even less often is that the Cronkite report appears to have influenced the president’s public stance on the war not at all.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy, urging a renewed commitment to defeating communism in Vietnam.

The president was overtly and vigorously hawkish on the war at a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent. But the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s pessimism and repeatedly sought to rally popular support for the war effort.

Not only that: the claim that Cronkite was the “most trusted” newsman didn’t prominently emerge until 1972; the term was invoked in newspaper advertising bought by CBS, to tout its coverage of Election Night that year.

Nixon’s “secret plan” for Vietnam is another hoary myth that dates to early 1968 and likewise has proven resistant to debunking. William Safire, a former speechwriter for Nixon and later a New York Times columnist, once wrote of the “secret plan” myth:

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

Huffington Post invoked the non-quotation in a recent look back at 1968, asserting that “the ultimate winner of the year proved to be a man who campaigned on the thesis that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

No, Nixon did not campaign in 1968 “on the thesis that he had a secret plan,” even though the anecdote does fit the popular image of Nixon as cunning and duplicitous.

As Media Myth Alert has often noted, Nixon never made a “secret plan” a plank of his campaign in 1968. It was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

His opponents occasionally accused him of having a secret plan for Vietnam, but Nixon pointedly and publicly disavowed the notion.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

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

That a “secret plan” was not a feature of Nixon’s 1968 campaign becomes clear in reviewing a database of the content of leading U.S. newspapers, including for 1968, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

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

If Nixon had claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, America’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

A column that promoted a media-driven trope

And then there’s the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning, which can be traced to September 7, 1968, and a women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, N.J., against the Miss America pageant.

The demonstration’s organizers have insisted that while bras, girdles, high heels, and other items were ceremoniously tossed into a burn barrel dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can,” nothing was set afire. Or as a recent 1968 retrospective in the Orange County Register put it, “the protest occurred flame free.”

But such a statement ignores the accounts of two reporters who were at the protest that day.

One of them, John L. Boucher, wrote the next day in the Press of Atlantic City that as “the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Boucher’s matter-of-fact reference to burning bras appeared in the ninth paragraph of his article, which the Press published beneath the headline:

Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.

Boucher’s observation was supported by another reporter at the boardwalk that day, Jon Katz, who in interviews by email and phone, said without hesitation that bras and other items indeed had been set afire during the demonstration.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire,” Katz said. “I am quite certain of this.”

He also said:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, the accounts of Boucher and Katz lend no support for the vivid popular imagery that many bras went set afire in a flamboyant protest on the boardwalk. At most, fire was a modest, fleeting element of the demonstration.

But their accounts make clear that “bra-burning” is an epithet not misapplied to the 1968  protest at Atlantic City.

WJC

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No, ‘Politico’ — Viewer-listener disagreement is a myth of JFK-Nixon debate

In Anniversaries, Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on September 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Fifty-seven years ago tonight, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon met in the first-ever televised debate between major party presidential candidates.

Not everyone thought he looked awful: Nixon debating, 1960
(AP photo)

Soon enough, a hardy media myth grew up around the 1960 debate: It’s a robust trope that says radio listeners thought Nixon won while television viewers favored Kennedy.

Politico is the latest media outlet to give expression to the myth (or at least to its juiciest half).

An essay posted today declares that “most people who heard the debate on the radio, which focused on domestic issues, thought Nixon had won. But Nixon’s sickly image counted for more; most viewers focused on what they saw and not on what they heard.”

What’s remarkable about this hoary media myth is that it persists despite its thorough dismantling 30 years ago by David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

They noted in a journal article that evidence for viewer-listener disagreement is thin, flawed, and anecdotal. Moreover, no public opinion surveys conducted in the immediate aftermath of the debate were aimed specifically at gauging reactions radio audiences.

Rare sighting: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Television on August 5, 2017 at 8:40 am

I noted the other day how unusual it is to find two media myths incorporated into the same article or essay. A media myth twofer, as it were.

An essay posted yesterday at the Daily Beast accomplishes a feat even more rare: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs.

February 28, 1968

The Beast’s essay recounts President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite‘s special report in 1968 about the Vietnam War and invokes the hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s mythical “secret plan” to end the conflict.

Specifically, the essay says “the iconic CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a week-long reporting trip to Vietnam and declared the war essentially unwinnable, upending months of false optimism from the administration. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,’ the president said.

“When Richard Nixon rode to the White House proclaiming a ‘secret plan to win the war in Vietnam’ any expected honeymoon with the press did not last long.”

Myth fairly drips from those unsourced claims.

Taking Nixon’s “secret plan” first: Simply put, it’s a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

Had Nixon, during his run for the presidency in 1968, proclaimed to have a “secret plan to win the war in Vietnam,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

They didn’t.

That much is clear from examining search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. daily newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months before, during, and immediately aft Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign.)

Their silence about a “secret plan” signals it was not a plank of Nixon’s campaign.

Moreover, Nixon pointedly dismissed the suggestion he had a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

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

As for Cronkite, he did not exactly say the war “essentially unwinnable” following his reporting trip to what then was South Vietnam.

The anchorman said at the close of a special report on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” — a decidedly an unremarkable observation.

“Stalemate” had been circulating in the U.S. news media long before Cronkite’s on-air appraisal. In August 1967, for example, R.W. (Johnny) Apple of New York Times reported from Vietnam that the war “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple said in his dispatch, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

He also wrote:

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

Apple’s downbeat analysis was published on the Times’ front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite hedged in his closing remarks on February 27, 1968. He “held open the possibility,” I write, “that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam” in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, a coordinated assault launched by the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies across South Vietnam at the end of January 1968.

Here’s what Cronkite said in his equivocal conclusion:

“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” (Emphasis added.)

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

Notably, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally (see photo nearby), and there is no certain evidence as to whether, or when, the president may have viewed the program on videotape.

As such, Johnson’s purported downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” — is suspect. Especially so because Johnson did not alter his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s report.

In fact, he doubled down on that policy, mounting an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart — if he even heard it.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president declared, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, Johnson stated:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke about Vietnam with even more vigor in mid-March 1968, telling 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 after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to address 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.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department, Johnson declared:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days afterward, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25 — nearly a month after Cronkite’s special report — Johnson told an audience of trade unionists:

“Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. He remained, I write in Getting It Wrong, “openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” He was similarly adamant about Vietnam on the day Cronkite’s delivered his report.

As I note in Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is now available), Johnson “invoked Churchillian language” that day at a midday speech in Dallas, saying:

“I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

“I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further declared:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

Johnson’s speech in Dallas is seldom recalled in discussions about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” But it was covered the next day on the front pages of major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times also reported Johnson’s speech on its cover (see image above), beneath a bold, top-of-the-page headline that read:

“NO VIET RETREAT.”

As in all discussions about history, context matters. To embrace the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as accurate is to suspend recognition of context and to ignore what Johnson said about Vietnam before and after Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal “mired in stalemate” assessment.

WJC

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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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