W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Quotations’

He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Cohen (NYTimes photo)

Roger Cohen, a twice-a-week foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, stirred murmured commentary not long by defending Rupert Murdoch as a phone-hacking scandal swirled around the tycoon’s media holdings in Britain.

“If you add everything up,” Cohen wrote about the tough, old media mogul, “he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.”

Maybe Cohen was being contrarian. Or maybe he didn’t quite grasp what the scandal says about Murdoch and his corporate management.

In a more recent column, Cohen revealed that he’s not fully up to speed with the revised interpretation of Zhou Enlai’s famous comment in 1972 that “it’s too early” to discern the implications of upheaval in France.

The conventional interpretation is that Zhou was speaking about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

As such, his comment suggests a sagacity and a long view of history seldom matched by Western leaders.

Recent evidence has emerged, however, that says Zhou was referring not to the French Revolution but to the more recent political unrest that rocked France in 1968.

The new evidence was offered last month by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired U.S. diplomat who a was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman discussed the context of Zhou’s remark last month at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. London’s Financial Times was first to report on the revised interpretation that Freeman offered about Zhou’s comment.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said that Zhou made the remark during a discussion about revolutions that had failed or succeeded.

He pointed out that it was clear from the context that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to upheaval in France in May 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s misinterpreted comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” adding that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.

And it’s not infrequently repeated.

Cohen invoked the conventional interpretation late last week, in a column that began this way:

“When I asked Gen. David H. Petraeus what the biggest U.S. mistake of the past decade has been, he did a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution number to the effect that it was too early to say.

“The outgoing commander in Afghanistan and incoming Central Intelligence Agency chief is adept at politics,” Cohen wrote, “one reason he’s the object of the sort of political speculation once reserved for Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the face of the military to most Americans before Petraeus assumed that role later in the post-9/11 era.”

The passage, “he did a Zhou Enlai,” suggests how irresistible Zhou’s misconstrued remark really is — a quality that’s typical of quotations that seem just too highly polished.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Among the myths is the remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who after watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic, on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam aired on CBS television on February 27, 1968.

The president wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

At about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was quipping:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”


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‘What’s a couple of centuries’ when it comes to China and Zhou Enlai?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on July 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

When Zhou Enlai observed that it was “too early” to assess the significance of political upheaval in France, he was speaking about the turmoil of 1968, and not, as is often believed, about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

Zhou greets Nixon, 1972

The Independent newspaper in London referred to the Zhou misunderstanding in an editorial posted yesterday, and essentially shrugged it off, stating :

“Revisionists now claim that he was commenting not on the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but on the student riots of 1968. But what’s a couple of centuries to a China still engaged in its own long march to modernity?”

The editorial’s snark and breezy dismissiveness may be because the “revisionists” include the Financial Times, a rival London newspaper.

The Financial Times was first to call attention to the mistaken interpretation of Zhou’s remark.

Zhou, the Chinese premier, said during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 that it was “too early to say” what were the implications of political upheaval in France.

Charles (Chas) Freeman, an American diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the China visit, told a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., last month that Zhou clearly was speaking about the turmoil and student protests in France in 1968 — not the French revolution of nearly 200 years before.

A reporter for the Financial Times moderated the panel discussion and in his article wrote that Freeman said:

“There was a mis­understanding [about Zhou’s remark] that was too delicious to invite correction.”

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said:

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders’ taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history.

Stereotyping helps explain why Zhou’s comment has been so widely quoted — and why debunking its erroneous and more extravagant interpretation really does matter.

Stereotyping, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, can be buoyed by media-driven myths, those dubious media-centric stories that masquerade as factual.

In Getting It Wrong, I note a number of examples of stereotypes that have been bolstered by media myths.

I write: “The misleading if euphonic epithet of ‘bra-burning‘ emerged from a demonstration on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968 to become shorthand for denigrating the emergent feminist movement and dismissing it as trivial and even a bit odd. The widely misreported pandemic of ‘crack babies‘ in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people.”

Rather than reflecting China’s supposedly long and patient view of history, Zhou’s “too early” observation was cautious analysis about events that were fairly recent and still under interpretation.

Zhou’s was a pragmatic observation, hardly sage or long-sighted.


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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, posted an intriguing column yesterday about appealing but dubious quotations that journalists seem especially prone to cite, noting that such famous lines “often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations.”

It’s an important reminder, given the endless popularity of quotations that are neat, tidy, and irresistibly delicious. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

Silverman’s column, titled “Misquotes that refuse to die,” was centered around a comment attributed in 2009 to David Plouffe, Barrack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008.

Plouffe supposedly said he felt a bit “queasy” about the prospect of Obama’s facing Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor, in the presidential election in 2012.

“Plouffe never said it,” Silverman wrote, describing how the queasy line took on life of its own.

Journalists can be particularly susceptible to such succinct “little gems,” as Silverman put it, because the gems are so effective in making a point or in distilling complexity.

Silverman’s column noted two famous, dubious quotes that I dismantle in Getting It Wrong.

One of them is the comment misattributed to President Lyndon Johnson who,  in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

The other dubious quote discussed in Getting It Wrong and mentioned by Silverman is William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Reasons for doubting the Hearstian vow are many, I write, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement has never turned up. Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

A number of other famous and delicious quotes favored by journalists likewise have proven to be false, made-up, or of mythical dimension; among them:

  • Too early to say.” It’s often said that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered the observation in 1972, as sage, far-sighted analysis about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. But according to a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., Zhou’s comment, which came during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, was about political turmoil in France in 1968. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history, Freeman said recently. Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip.

So what to do about these delicious but dubious and phony quotations?

Keep pounding away at them, calling them out for what they are, whenever they appear. That’s the only effective way of debunking.

But even then, thorough and utter debunking can be rare.


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Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 17, 2011 at 7:37 am

Did he say it?

I’ve written occasionally at Media Myth Alert about a suspect quotation attributed to broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow.

Here’s the quotation:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The quotation is half true. That is, the first part was indeed spoken by Murrow; the other part is just too good to be true.

I happened to find the full quotation posted at the welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

By email, I asked the dean, Lawrence Pintak, what he could tell me about the quote’s provenance.

I noted in my email that the first portion  of the passage – “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” – was spoken by Murrow near the end of his 1954 See It Now program about the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

“But the rest of quotation – ‘When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it’ – was not spoken during that program,” I noted in my email. I added that “I’ve not been able to determine where and when it was spoken or written.”

I further noted that I had consulted a database of historical newspapers — a full-text repository that includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times — but no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage were returned.

I also mentioned in my email that a search of the LexisNexis database “produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001.” None of them state where and when Murrow made the purported comment.

Pintak, who became the first dean of the Murrow College in 2009, stated in reply that the online site had been constructed before his arrival at Washington State. He added:

“My suspicion is that the site was built by the university marketing comm. people and they may well have just pulled it from the web, rather than original source. If it’s not correct, we certainly need to get it pulled.”

He referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty, Paul Mark Wadleigh, whom he asked to investigate.

A few hours later, Wadleigh sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While it seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

Wadleigh also wrote that the transcript of Murrow’s closing comments in the 1954 show about McCarthy “reveals a different language and tone than the ‘loyal opposition’ quote.”

Good point.

His bottom line?

“I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this,” Wadleigh wrote.

By the end of the day, the suspect quote had been pulled from the dean’s welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remains posted there.

The College’s move to pull the quote not only was commendable; it stands as further evidence that the “loyal opposition” line attributed to Murrow is dubious. It may have been made up well after Murrow’s death in 1965, perhaps to score points politically.

I’ve noted that if it were genuine, if Murrow had uttered the line, then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

Moreover, the quotation seems too neat and tidy to be authentic — which can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as [William Randolph] Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war‘ and even to euphonic phrases such as ‘bra burning.’

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy,” I write, “often are too perfect to be true.”


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