W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on July 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The “critic at large” essay in the latest number of the New Yorker includes references to my myth-busting latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite: His ‘moment’ wasn’t so special

The essay by Louis Menand is largely a searching review of Cronkite, the recent, so-so biography about legendary CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

Menand calls the book “long and hastily written.”

He discusses in detail the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the Vietnam War was stalemated supposedly was so powerful that it influenced American war policy and moved American public opinion. The Cronkite biography says as much.

But Menand scoffs at the notion the “Cronkite Moment” was very important at all, writing:

“The trouble with this inspiring little story is that most of it is either invented or disputed.”

He specifically refers to Getting It Wrong in dismissing the supposed effects of Cronkite’s pronouncement about the war — notably, that Cronkite’s assessment prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Menand notes that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report about Vietnam when it aired, pointing out that the president was in Austin, Texas, “attending a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally. … There is no solid evidence that Johnson ever saw the show on tape, either, though the White House did tape it.”

Further drawing on Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter debunking the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” Menand writes that even after Cronkite “stalemate” assessment, “Johnson’s speeches on Vietnam … were as hawkish as ever.

“Not only is there little evidence that the broadcast had an effect on Johnson; there is little evidence that it had an effect on public opinion.” And that’s certainly true.

Menand also notes that the author of the Cronkite biography, Douglas Brinkley, “implies that it was Cronkite’s commentary that emboldened the [Wall Street] Journal to criticize the war, but the Journal editorial appeared four days before the broadcast.”

The Journal’s editorial of February 23, 1968, said “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat [in Vietnam] beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The editorial was strong stuff. And it undeniably preceded Cronkite’s on-air assessment which, given the times, was tepid and unoriginal. Leading U.S. news organizations such as the New York Times, had taken to calling the war a “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program.

As Menand observes: “In 1968, you did not need an anchorman to know which way the wind blew” on Vietnam.

Menand’s essay also challenges the notion that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” dissecting a 1972 survey that rated the anchorman more trustworthy than the leading national politicians of the time. Not much of a comparison, that. As media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009, shortly after Cronkite’s death, the anchorman’s score in the survey “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Menand touches on Edward R. Murrow’s famous program in 1954 that addressed the smears and bullying tactics of the red-baiting U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. Menand notes that Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow’s televised assessment of McCarthy came “very late in the day.” By 1954, Menand writes, “McCarthy had been hunting witches for four years….”

He also offers a thoughtful and telling assessment about why media myths take hold.

“Journalism and history,” Menand writes, “are about getting things right. But the past has many uses, and one of them is to inspire the present. … More honorably, if not necessarily more accurately, we imagine our predecessors as nobler and braver than our small selves — as men and women who stuck up for principle and, by their righteousness, moved the world.”

That’s well said, and offers revealing insight about the tenacity of such myths as the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

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‘New Yorker’ misinterprets Zhou’s ‘too early’ remark

In Debunking, Media myths on October 14, 2011 at 12:28 am

The New Yorker magazine ruminates in its latest number about the amorphous and bizarre Occupy Wall Street protests and in doing so invokes the mythical quotation about Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and the French Revolution.

About the protest movement, the New Yorker asked:

“[W]hat’s the meaning of it all? So far, the best answer is the one that Zhou Enlai, the Great Helmsman’s great henchman, supposedly gave when President Nixon supposedly asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”

Except that Zhou wasn’t referring to the French Revolution, which began in 1789. Rather, he was alluding to the civil unrest and protests that had seized France in 1968.

We know this from Nixon’s interpreter, a former U.S. diplomat named Charles W. (Chas) Freeman Jr., who was present at the meeting in Beijing in 1972 when Zhou made the remark.

First to call attention the Zhou misinterpretation was London’s Financial Times, which quoted Freeman’s remarks at a panel discussion four months ago in Washington, D.C.

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

Freeman said Zhou’s remark probably was made over lunch or dinner, during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. They included, Freeman added, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union had crushed.

Freeman characterized 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.

Nixon meets Zhou, 1972

The misinterpretation of Zhou’s remark long ago took on life of its own, offering as it did apparent confirmation about the sagaciousness of China’s leaders and their willingness or inclination to take an exceptionally long view of history.

But the misinterpreted version, Freeman noted, “conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment, he added, fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe.”

And so it told hold.

As the New Yorker essay suggests, the conventional interpretation — the erroneous version — retains broad appeal, despite Freeman’s well-publicized corrective.

Which does makes you wonder about the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checkers, though.

WJC

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