W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Year studies’ Category

What became of Virginia O’Hanlon?

In 1897, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies on December 25, 2010 at 8:13 am


Virginia O’Hanlon was 8-years-old when she gained a measure of fame that would last her lifetime.

Shortly after her birthday in July 1897, young Virginia wrote to the New York Sun, posing the timeless question: “Is there a Santa Claus?

It took several weeks, but her innocent letter gave rise to the most famous editorial in American journalism. The Sun answered Virginia’s query on September 21, 1897, in an essay destined to become a classic.

The essay was assigned an inconspicuous place in the Sun, appearing in the third of three columns of editorials beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?

Its most memorable passage sought to reassure Virginia–and, as it turned out, generations of youngsters since then.

“Yes, Virginia,” it declared, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial closed with further reassurance:

“No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

As I note in my 2006 book, a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Virginia O’Hanlon as an adult embraced the recognition and modest fame that came with her part in inspiring “Is There A Santa Claus?” (She once said in jest that she was “anonymous from January to November.”)

The editorial, she told an interviewer in 1959, when she was 67, “gave me a special place in life I didn’t deserve. It also made me try to live up to the philosophy of the editorial and to try to make glad the heart of childhood.”

She occasionally read the editorial at Christmas programs, as she did in 1933 and 1937 at Hunter College, her alma mater. Virginia earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1910 and a master’s degree two years later at Columbia University.

She was a teacher in the New York City schools, and became a principal at a school for handicapped children after earning a doctorate from Fordham University in 1935.

At her retirement in 1959, the New York Times observed that Virginia was “one of those rare persons whose given name alone has instant meaning for millions.”

In December 1960, Virginia went on the Perry Como Show and said she had lived “a wonderfully full life.” She told Como in a brief interview that her letter to the Sun had been “answered for me thousands of times.”

She was married for a time to Edward Douglas by whom she had a daughter, Laura Temple. For two years in the 1930s, Temple worked in the advertising office of the Sun.

“They all knew who I was,” she was quoted years as saying about the Sun staff. “And we all had the same feeling about the editorial that my mother had—that it was a classic.”

Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas was 81 when she died at a nursing home in upstate New York.

Her death in May 1971 was reported on the front page of the New York Times beneath the headline:

Virginia O’Hanlon, Santa’s friend, dies.”

Virginia's gravesite (Photo by George Vollmuth, 2009)

She was buried in North Chatham, New York.

At the approach of Christmas in recent years, the North Chatham Historical Society has conducted a reading at Virginia’s gravesite of the letter that brought her fame and of the editorial that it inspired.


Recent and related:

Recalling Mark Twain and the ‘calamity of calamities’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

The first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain–published 100 years after his death–has been a best-seller for the University of California Press, the publisher that brought out my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The Twain volume has received largely favorable reviews, although the New York Times did say, in a critique the other day by the insufferable Garrison Keillor, that “there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation.”

A more generous review, posted online yesterday by the North County Times in California, caught my eye–mostly for its reference to Twain (Samuel Clemens) and yellow journalism. The review quoted this passage from Twain’s autobiography:

“I was converted to a no-party independence by the wisdom of a rabid Republican. This was a man who was afterward a United States Senator, and upon whose character rests no blemish that I know of, except that he was the father of the William R. Hearst of to-day, and therefore grandfather of Yellow Journalism–that calamity of calamities.”

The reference was to George Hearst, an adventurer-miner who struck it rich in the silver fields of the 19th century American West. After securing his fortune, George Hearst became a U.S. senator from California, serving from 1886-1891.

Twain’s reference to “a rabid Republican” is puzzling, though, because George Hearst was a committed Democrat, as was his son, William Randolph Hearst.

More interesting was Twain’s characterization of yellow journalism as “that calamity of calamities.”

It’s an amusing line, but it ignores the generosity young Hearst extended to Twain in 1897, when the writer was down on his luck in London.

Hearst by then was running the provocative and activist-oriented New York Journal — the newspaper that helped give rise in 1897 to the sneer, “yellow journalism.”

The Journal preferred the term “journalism of action” and asserted that a newspaper had an obligation to inject itself routinely and conspicuously into civic life, to address the ills that government wouldn’t or couldn’t.

As I wrote in my 2006 year-study, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst arranged for Twain, then 51, to report for the Journal on Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897.

Lining up Twain to cover the Jubilee was emblematic of Hearst’s willingness to spend money lavishly to recruit big-name talent, if only for spot assignments.

In Twain, though, Hearst must have been disappointed.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming—’a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen,’” as he wrote in a dispatch published June 23, 1897.

Twain’s dispatch to the Journal included this odd observation:

“I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in mind at the time.”

Twain’s association with the Journal in 1897 did give rise to one of his most memorable lines–and allowed the newspaper to puncture rumors about the writer’s health.

In early June 1897, the New York Herald reported that Twain was “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

The Journal promptly exposed the Herald report as erroneous, and published Twain famous, if often-misquoted, denial:

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Twain said.

He lived until 1910.


Recent and related:

‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut many years later, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.


Recent and related:

As inevitable as ‘Yes, Virginia,’ at the holidays

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

The approach of the year-end holidays brings inevitable reference to American  journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

The lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit was first published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, in response to the inquiry of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon.

“Please tell me the truth,” she implored, “is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.”

Almost as inevitable as the editorial’s reappearance this time of year are sightings of myths and misconceptions associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Today, for example, an online reference site for journalists, Followthemedia.com, says in an essay that “Is There a Santa Claus?” was published on the front page of the Sun, on September 21, 1897.

The date is correct. But the famous editorial was given obscure placement in its debut. As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms:

“‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ appeared inconspicuously in the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on 21 September 1987. It was subordinate to seven other commentaries that day, on such matters as ‘British Ships in American Waters,’ the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.”

“Is There A Santa Claus” appeared on page six, the editorial page of the Sun.

Interestingly, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus–appearing as it did more than three months before Christmas–prompted no comment from the many newspaper rivals to the Sun.

That’s somewhat curious because the New York City press of the late 19th century was prone–indeed, eager–to comment on, and disparage, the content of their rivals.  That’s how the enduring sneer “yellow journalism” was coined, in early 1897.

In its headline today, Followthemedia suggests the editorial’s most-quoted passage — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — are the words most famous in American journalism.


But a stronger case can be made for  the New York Times logo, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which in 1897 took a permanent place in the upper left corner of the newspaper’s front page, a spot known in journalism as the “left ear.”

As I noted in a blog post nearly a year ago: “The ‘Yes, Virginia,’ passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. ‘Yes, Virginia,’ long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.”

I also suggested then that the famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“–may be more famous in journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

The Hearstian vow, as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost certainly apocryphal. But like many media-driven myths, it lives on as an anecdote too delicious not to be true.

What is striking and perhaps exceptional about “Is There A Santa Claus?” is its timeless appeal–how generations of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in its passages.

A letter-writer to the Sun in 1914 said, for example: “Though I am getting old,” the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

In 1926, a letter-writer told the Sun that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the editorial to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”


Recent and related:

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling timing “lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”


Recent and related:

Sales of ‘Getting It Wrong’ brisk at NPC’s Book Fair

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Year studies on November 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm

The National  Press Club’s Book Fair last night was quite a success.

Getting It Wrong was among some 90 titles chosen for the book fair, and sales of the book were gratifyingly brisk. I didn’t keep count, but easily two dozen copies were sold during the three-hour event. Or more.

A volunteer at the checkout counter stopped by as the program was winding down to ask about the book. She said she had seen a lot of people buying it. And she decided to buy a copy, too.

The venue was the Press Club’s ballroom and it was jammed with book-buyers. I thought the crowd was larger than that of four years ago, when I was chosen to attend the book fair to sell copies of The Year The Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

I shared a display table this year with Gayle Haggard, the charming author of Why I Stayed, who traveled from Colorado for the book fair. We were across an aisle from Captain Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, who safely landed a stricken USAirways jet on the Hudson River early last year.

Sullenberger was quite the draw, and he left about an hour early, after selling the available copies of his book,  Highest Duty.

I received only one, mild challenge about Getting It Wrong. A small lady who must be in her 70s, thumbed through the book and announced that she disagreed with my take on Edward R. Murrow’s famous television report about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his witch-hunting ways.

Murrow “broke the bubble” on the McCarthy scourge, she told me as she returned the book to the stack on the table. I was tempted to point out that Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy, doing so only after a number of other journalists had taken on the senator. I was tempted as well to note that Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, both dismissed the view that Murrow’s 1954 program was decisive in McCarthy’s fall.

But I let it pass.

Another visitor to the table asked whether Getting It Wrong has much attracted from criticism from journalists who find it dismaying that the book busts some of American journalism’s best-known stories.

Some people have resisted giving up on these stories, I replied. But more often the reaction has been one of some surprise that these tales were myths. Others have said they had rather suspected these tales were too good to be true, I added.

During the pre-event reception for authors and guests, I spoke for a while with James Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and more recently of Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse. Swanson said his next project is a fiction-thriller series. I also chatted with Maurine Beasley, a journalism historian at the University of Maryland who is one of my favorite scholars. Her latest book is Eleanor Roosevelt: Transformative First Lady.

I’m in Florence, Alabama, today, to deliver the first Parker-Qualls Lecture in Communications at the University of North Alabama. It’s a program that I’m very honored to inaugurate.

I also will speak with several classes at UNA on media theory, journalism ethics, and political communication.


Recent and related:

The sporting version of the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies on November 9, 2010 at 8:01 am

The mythical “Cronkite Moment” is a hardy and impressively flexible tale.

As a presumptive lesson about journalism’s capacity to tell truths to power, the “Cronkite Moment” turns up in the media in all sorts of ways.

He of the 'Cronkite Moment'

It appears even on the sports pages.

The “Cronkite Moment“–in which the downbeat assessment of CBS New anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to understand the futility of his Vietnam War policy–turned up yesterday in a column posted at cbssports.com.

In discussing the firing of Wade Phillips as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, columnist Ray Ratto wrote:

“Cronkite one night came out against the war, right there on the evening news (when there were just three networks and the evening news meant something), and Johnson knew at that moment that he was finished. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ Johnson is alleged to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.””

Flexibility may make the anecdote appealing and long-lived. But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the “Cronkite Moment” is  a media-driven myth, a tall tale about the news media masquerading as factual.

Let’s unpack what Ratto wrote:

  • Cronkite didn’t really come “out against the war”: He described the U.S. military effort in Vietnam as “mired in stalemate,” which hardly was a striking or novel interpretation at time his assessment was offered in early 1968.
  • Cronkite didn’t present his “mired in stalemate” commentary on the evening news: It came at the end of an hour-long special report about Vietnam that aired February 27, 1968.
  • Johnson did not know “at that moment that he was finished.” Johnson, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, didn’t even see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

At about the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” comment, Johnson wasn’t in front of a television set. He didn’t exclaim, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”–or words to that effect. He said:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

There was no woe-is-me about having “lost Cronkite.” There was no epiphany for the president that his war policy was a shambles.

Only a light-hearted comment about Connally’s turning 51.

The power of the “Cronkite Moment,” I write in Getting It Wrong, lies “in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president.” Had Johnson seen the program later, on videotape, it would not have carried the sudden, unexpected punch that the “Cronkite Moment” is presumed to have had.

Indeed, I write, “Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

As I say, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” view was neither notable nor extraordinary in early 1968. Mark Kurlansky wrote in his fine year-study about 1968 that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, a report in the  New York Times had cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.” Victory, the Times reported, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

This analysis was published on the Times’ front page in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”


Recent and related:

‘Getting It Wrong’ among 90 titles at NPC Book Fair

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Year studies on November 8, 2010 at 11:55 am

I will be among more than 90 authors signing and selling their recent books tomorrow evening at the annual National Press Club Book Fair and Authors’ Night.

My latest book, Getting It Wrong, will be among the titles at the Press Club event.

The book fair this year brings together a variety of authors, including one of my favorite journalism historians, Maurine Beasley of the University of Maryland; Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening To News, and Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a stricken passenger airliner on the Hudson River in January 2009.

The Book Fair is a fine occasion. I attended the event in 2006 and had a great time. My book at that event was The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

Getting It Wrong, which came out during the summer, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. These are stories about and/or by the news media that widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

I liken them to the “junk food” of journalism–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not terribly healthy or nutritious.

The myths debunked in Getting It Wrong include some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself, including:

“Because it takes on some of the most treasured stories in American journalism,” I write in the introduction to Getting It Wrong, the book “is a work with a provocative edge. It could not be otherwise.”

I further write that Getting It Wrong “aligns itself with a central objective of newsgathering—that of seeking to get it right, of setting straight the record by offering searching reappraisals of some of the best-known stories journalism tells about itself.

“Given that truth-seeking is such a widely shared and animating value in American journalism,” I add, “it is a bit odd that so little effort has been made over the years to revisit, scrutinize, and verify these stories. But then, journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

I point out that media myths take hold for a variety of reasons: Because they delicious stories that are almost too good not to be true; because they are reductive in offering simplistic interpretations of complex historical events, and because they are self-flattering in that they place journalists at the decisive center of important developments.

The Book Fair opens at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free for members, and $5 for non-members.


Recent and related:

Mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’ invoked in ‘USA Today’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

In his column this week, Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, invokes the dubious “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and suggests an outspoken television journalist today could help end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Neuharth’s column refers to Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. Near the end of the report, the CBS anchorman declared the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite suggested that negotiations might represent a “rational” way out of Vietnam.

Neuharth then invokes the mythical component of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that President Lyndon Johnson, upon hearing “the CBS shocker,” declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other prominent media-driven myths, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Nor is there evidence he watched the program later, on videotape.

Johnson on the night of the program was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

Johnson at Connally's party

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

It represented no epiphany for him.

Indeed, in the days and weeks immediately following Cronkite’s program, Johnson’s rhetoric on the war remained hawkish. On March 18, 1968, for example, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

He also declared in that speech:

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

Moreover, it’s clear that by early 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment about the war was unremarkable. Mark Kurlansky said as much in his well-received year-study about 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, the New York Times published a front-page news analysis that said victory in southeast Asia “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis was published in August 1967 and carried the headline, “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

And as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, former NBC newsman Frank McGee offered an analysis about Vietnam in March 1968 that was more forceful and direct Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization.

“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

“Being lost,” McGee said: No hedging there.

But almost no one remembers Frank McGee’s blunt assessment.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the purported “Cronkite Moment” has become for many American journalists “an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in wartime reporting. It is an objective that contemporary practitioners at times seem desperate to recapture or recreate.”

Neuharth’s column makes  just that point, stating:

“The TV man—or woman—who suggests a ‘rational’ way out of Afghanistan could become today’s Cronkite.”

Not likely, not in today’s diverse and splintered media landscape in which audiences for network television have been in sustained decline.

In any case, it’s interesting to note that until late in his life, Cronkite disputed the notion that his 1968 report on Vietnam had much of an effect.

In his 1997 memoir, for example, Cronkite characterized his “mired in stalemate” assessment in decidedly modest terms, stating that it represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

He reiterated the “just one more straw” analogy in interviews promoting the book.

But by 2007, two years before his death, Cronkite had embraced the purported power of the “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with the Gazette of Martha’s Vineyard:

“There are a lot of journalists out there today who if they chose to take that strong stand and course [in opposing the Iraq War] would probably enjoy a similar result.”



Country turned against Vietnam before ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on August 12, 2010 at 6:33 am

Politico posted an item yesterday asserting that President Barack Obama “has lost the most trusted man in the Hispanic media”–the Univision anchorman, Jorge Ramos.

Ramos and Obama, in chummier times

Ramos, Politico said, “has been called the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language media, an unparalleled nationwide voice for Hispanics. And just like the famed CBS newsman’s commentary helped turn the country against the Vietnam War, Ramos may be on the leading edge of a movement within the Hispanic media to challenge the president on immigration—a shift that some observers believe is contributing to Obama’s eroding poll numbers among Latino voters.”

There’s no doubt Obama’s poll numbers are sliding. But the Cronkite analogy is in error. And misleading.

Cronkite’s commentary–an on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate”–did little to “turn the country against the Vietnam War.”

That’s because public opinion had been souring on Vietnam for months before Cronkite’s commentary aired on February 27, 1968.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, the Gallup Organization reported in October 1967 that a plurality of Americans (47 percent to 44 percent) said deploying U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.

A roughly similar response was reported in early February 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

Anecdotally, journalists also detected a softening in support for the war.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 “that the ‘summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters—along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials—appeared to be changing their views about the war.'”

More recently, Greg Mitchell, then editor of the trade journal Editor & Publisher, noted in 2005: “Those who claim that [the Cronkite program] created a seismic shift on the war overlook the fact that there was much opposition to the conflict already.”

By late February 1968, then, “Cronkite’s ‘mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary,” I note in Getting It Wrong. I cite Mark Kurlansky’s year-study of the 1968 which said that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, just four days before Cronkite’s assessment, the Wall Street Journal declared 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.”

So reservations and pessimism were abundant and growing by the time of Cronkite’s commentary (which nowadays is often referred to as the “Cronkite Moment”).

As Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in a column soon after the purported “Cronkite Moment,” the anchorman’s assessment about America’s predicament in Vietnam “did not contain striking revelations.”



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