W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1972’

What was Rush Limbaugh talking about?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm

The conservative talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, ruminated on his show yesterday about the power of images — and seemed to err in describing an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War.

In response to a caller’s observation that “the Vietnam War changed when somebody got shot live on the air” — an evident reference to Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph — Limbaugh declared:

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ (AP)

“The Vietnam War, I’ll tell you what began the end of the Vietnam War. It was not Walter Cronkite saying that some operation failed.  It was a picture of young children burned by Agent Orange fleeing an explosion in Time magazine.  That’s what did it.  … Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

It’s most likely the voluble Limbaugh was referring to “Napalm Girl,” the award-winning photograph taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. (At least one radio station thought he was referring to that image, too.)

“Napalm Girl” showed a cluster of Vietnamese children, the terror-stricken victims of a misdirected napalm attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of photograph was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, naked and screaming from the burns she suffered.

Except for the reference to chemical defoliant Agent Orange, “Napalm Girl” — formally titled “The Terror of War” — is the photograph that most closely corresponds to Limbaugh’s description: “Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

More problematic than mistaking the details of one of the Vietnam’s most searing images was Limbaugh’s blithe claim of the photo’s power, that the image — any image — possessed such impact as to mark the beginning of the end of the war.

That’s hardly the case.

By June 1972 when Ut’s photo was taken, the war was essentially over already for U.S. military forces in Vietnam. Nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country. By mid-year 1972, about 49,000 American troops were in Vietnam, well off the peak of 549,000 in early 1969. U.S. casualties were lower, too — from 4,221 killed in 1970 to 1,380 killed in 1971. President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” — of turning over the war effort to South Vietnamese forces — was in full flower.

None of that is attributable to the effects of “Napalm Girl.” Indeed, the beginning of the end for the U.S. military in Vietnam came well before the photograph was taken.

Even so, it’s not uncommon to exaggerate the photograph’s influence; it’s as if the image was so powerful that its effects likewise must be profound.

For example, the Associated Press declared in a retrospective article in 2012, 40 years after the photo was taken, that “Napalm Girl” helped “to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

And more recently, Ut was quoted as saying: “When I pressed the button, I knew. This picture will stop the war.”

It didn’t, of course. The war ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed South Vietnamese troops and seized the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

WJC

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40 years on: The ‘napalm girl’ photo and its associated errors

In Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Photographs on June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

‘Napalm Girl’ image (Nick Ut/AP)

Nearly 40 years have passed since an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled, naked, from a misdirected napalm attack.

In a recent retrospective article, the AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

There’s no denying the stunning quality of what often is called the “napalm girl” image. But whether it helped “end” the Vietnam War is improbable: That’s an exaggeration, a case of locating far too much significance in a single image.

By mid-June 1972, after all, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For American forces, the ground war was quickly winding down.

The “napalm girl” image figured in a recent New York Times obituary about Horst Faas, a gruff, German-born photographer who spent years in Vietnam, covering the conflict for the AP.

Faas won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work in Vietnam and, later, in Bangladesh. And he was instrumental in making sure the AP moved the “napalm girl” photograph across its wires.

The Times quoted Faas as saying in an AP oral history: “The girl was obviously nude, and one of the rules was we don’t — at the A.P. — we don’t present nude pictures, especially of girls in puberty age.” Even so, the Times wrote, Faas “set his mind on ‘getting the thing published and out.'”

Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

The Times’ obituary described the photograph as showing “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

Except that the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American.

It was South Vietnamese (as the AP correctly notes in its recent retrospective, stating: “As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end”).

By referring to “American planes,” the Times‘ obituary insinuates that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph — and I pointed this out in an email to the Times.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied by email, saying:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all central or relevant.

I said as much in replying to Keepnews.

“I think you’re too eager to avoid a correction, or a clarification,” I wrote. “The manufacturer (or ownership) of the aircraft is inconsequential; far more important is who was flying the planes. And the obit’s wording (‘bombings in the countryside by American planes’) clearly suggests the aerial attacks were carried out [by] Americans, and that Americans caused the deaths and injuries. And that wasn’t the case. The aircraft were American-made, but flown by South Vietnamese pilots.

“A clarification seems in order,” I wrote, “to make the distinction clear.”

Keepnews sent this brief, dismissive response:

“Thank you for your feedback.”

In reply, I pointed out to Keepnews that the brief bios the Times published of the Pulitzer winners in 1973 correctly said that Ut had taken the photo “after South Vietnamese dropped napalm on own people by mistake.”

Keepnews sent no response, and the Times has neither corrected nor clarified the erroneous reference in the Faas obit to the aircraft that dropped the napalm.

The Times should.

After all, Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s executive editor, asserted in a column last year that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

It’s advice worth following.

WJC

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The Zhou misinterpretation

In Debunking, Media myths on August 31, 2011 at 11:17 am

It’s been debunked, but even so the tale lives on about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s  taking a long and sage view of history in saying in 1972 that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French revolution, which began in 1789.

A commentary today at Time magazine’s “Global Spin” blog effectively testifies to the enduring appeal of Zhou misinterpretation.

The  commentary considered the wider implications of the fall of Moammar Khadafy’s regime in Libya and, in closing, invoked the conventional version of Zhou’s remark, stating:

“[T]o borrow from Chinese leader Zhou Enlai’s 1972 answer when asked about the historical significance of the French Revolution, when it comes to Libya’s grander significance, it may simply be ‘too early to tell.'”

Zhou’s comment — made during a discussion in China with President Richard M. Nixon — was about political upheaval in France in 1968, not the French Revolution, according to Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr., a former U.S. diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip and who was present at the conversation.

First to debunk the Zhou misinterpretation was London’s Financial Times, which quoted Freeman’s remarks at a panel discussion in June in Washington, D.C.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the conversation that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to the turmoil of 1968.

Freeman described Zhou’s remark as “a classic of the genre of a constantly repeated misunderstanding that has taken on a life of its own.”

He’s quite right about that. It long ago took on life of its own.

Further evidence of that is offered in a superficial commentary by McClatchy newspapers about the effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The commentary asserted that the United States is “in some ways a very different country.

“How different?

“First, a story: It’s said that when President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Communist China in 1972, he asked Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution.

“It’s unclear if Zhou thought Nixon was asking about the political upheaval of 1789 or the Paris student demonstrations just four years earlier. In any case he replied: ‘Too soon to tell.'”

Well, no: It’s not unclear what Zhou meant, as Freeman’s recollections demonstrate.

The Zhou misinterpretation, moreover, was inspiration for a clever and amusing observation the other day, in a blog post by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times.

Rachman’s post considered the legacy at the International Monetary Fund of Dominique Straus-Khan, the agency’s former director-general known as “DSK.”

He resigned in May after being arrested in New York on felony sex charges. Those charges recently were dropped.

“Sometimes,” Rachman noted, “an early exit is good for your legacy.”

He added:

“So, DSK’s legacy? As Zhou Enlai never said about the French Revolution: too early to tell.”

“As Zhou Enlai never said.”

Wonderful.

WJC

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The journos who saved us

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Murrow: Savior?

At their extreme, media-driven myths are hero-worshipping devices, invoked to venerate journalists as saviors.

Thankfully, such treatment is rare, and typically reserved for such journalists the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the Watergate reporting duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Brian Unger, host of a history program on cable television, indulged in a bit of journalists-idolatry in compiling for an Entertainment Weekly blog a list of a dozen heroic figures from TV shows and the movies.

On the list was Ed Murrow, whom Unger praised for “saving us from someone who pretended to be a great American patriot, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Also selected were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie stars who played Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President’s Men. “Armed only with a pen,” Unger wrote, “they saved the country from itself.”

Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible.

Murrow hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March 1954.

The show was aired four years after McCarthy began his communists-in-government witch-hunt, and four years after muckraking columnist Drew Pearson piercingly challenged and punctured many of McCarthy’s claims.

Pearson

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow in the days after the show felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Years later, Murrow’s CBS colleague, Eric Severaid, chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid 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.”

As I write in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Americans in early 1954 weren’t “hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

By then they knew, thanks to the work of journalists such as Pearson.

Murrow no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the country from itself.”

Whatever that means.

It is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such subpoena-wielding entities as special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon “likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting” to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

Interestingly, principals at the Washington Post over the years have scoffed at the mythical and mediacentric interpretation that the newspaper brought down Nixon.

In 2005, for example, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Woodward, himself, declared in 2004, in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

But undoubtedly it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the country.

All the President’s Men easily is the most-viewed movie made about Watergate. And as I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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