W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Dubious quotes’

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.”


More from Media Myth Alert:


A thumbsucker commentary and the Zhou misinterpretation

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war on December 2, 2011 at 12:49 am

A thumbsucker is what some American journalists call a self-indulgent article or commentary that tends to go on and on, usually about an obscure or time-worn topic.

At its online site yesterday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper posted a thumbsucker that ruminated about the close of historical periods, offering observations such as this:

“Bloodied soldiers didn’t stand around on the battlefield at Bosworth and immediately reflect that, though it had been a hard-fought day, at least the later Middle Ages had now ended.”

Obscure, perhaps, but not altogether uninteresting.

But what caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the reference to the conventional but erroneous version of Zhou Enlai’s famous and often-quoted comment in 1972, that it was “too early” to assess the implications of the French Revolution.

That version is frequently offered as evidence of China’s sage, patient, and far-sighted ways. That’s rather how the Guardian thumbsucker-commentary referred to it, saying:

“If, as Zhou Enlai said, it is too soon to have a view of the French Revolution, then it is probably too soon to say if the [governing] coalition [in Britain] is a failed government.”

But Zhou was not referring to the French Revolution that began in 1789.

He was speaking about the political turmoil in France of 1968.

We know this from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Freeman, who was Nixon’s interpreter during the historic, weeklong trip, offered the revised interpretation almost six months ago at a panel discussion in Washington.  The discussion’s moderator was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert who wrote about Freeman’s comments for the Financial Times of London.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman elaborated on his recollection about Zhou’s comment, saying it probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a conversation about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The discussion, Freeman said, touched on the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was “absolutely clear” from the context of the discussion that Zhou was speaking about 1968.

Just how Zhou’s remark came to be so dramatically misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” Freeman said. “It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

Stereotyping is but one hazard of dubious quotes like Zhou’s.

Dubious and misinterpreted quotes tend to are falsehoods masquerading as the truth — as suggested by the delicious but apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Dubious quotes also dishonor their purported authors — as in the comment often attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing newsman Walter Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war in Vietnam, Johnson supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

But as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, there’s no persuasive evidence that Johnson ever made such a comment.

Besides, he didn’t see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired in late February 1968.

So it’s very difficult to believe the president could have been much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Or that he would have uttered such a comment, if he had seen the program.


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