He Says It Isn’t So

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W. Joseph Campbell: He busts myths.

By Mike Feinsilber

True or false?

—After watching Walter Cronkite’s 1968 CBS broadcast in which Cronkite concluded that the war in Vietnam had become “mired in stalemate,” President Lyndon Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” and within a month announced he would not run again.

—After newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst sent illustrator Frederick Remington to Cuba, Remington sent back word that he wanted to return home because there was nothing to illustrate. Hearst cabled back, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

—In 1938, an Orson Welles broadcast of the novel “The War of the Worlds” told in breathless we-interrupt-this-program fashion of an invasion of the Earth by Martians. It was so realistic that tens of thousands of listeners fled their homes and jammed telephone lines, highways, and houses of worship.

False, false, false, all misleading, spurious, overstated, hyperbolic, hoaxy bullshit, says W. Joseph Campbell, who is something of a Paul Revere of journalistic inaccuracy. He is also a journalism professor at Washington’s American University with more than 20 years as a journalist, including four years abroad with the AP, my alma mater.

On the wall at the fabled Chicago News Bureau there hung a banner proclaiming, “IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.” Campbell has taken that ukase to heart. He’s carved out a niche as the guy who tracks down things everyone knows to be true and proves that everyone’s wrong. He is a dedicated debunker.

He’s also the author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, a heavily documented—and persuasive—book published by University of California Press. It came out in 2010 but I just tumbled upon it and thought you might want to know about it too.

On his website Media Myth Alert, Campbell nails repetitions of myths that keep appearing despite his best efforts. He may be something of a zealot about all this. But in an interview he says no one has challenged the accuracy of his finger pointing.

Take what’s become known as LBJ’s “Cronkite moment.” In the biggest campaign of the Vietnam war, the Tet offensive of 1968, more than 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces fought their way into more than 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns, including the capital, Saigon, and 36 of the 44 provincial capitals.

In Tet’s aftermath, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam on a see-for-myself mission. Back on the air, Cronkite exuded pessimism. He said the optimism of American officials in Vietnam and Washington was unjustified. He suggested it was time for a negotiated settlement.

For years the belief has held firm that LBJ had watched the Cronkite show, had snapped off the TV and had told his press secretary the fateful words, “If I’ve lost Cronkite…”

The late David Halberstam was the first or among the first to offer the Johnson-Cronkite account, Campbell writes. Halberstam did so in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. Interestingly, Halberstam did not put the famous non-quote inside quotation marks; he paraphrased.

But none of it is right, says Campbell: “Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction so often attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired….Even if he later heard—or heard about—Cronkite’s assessment, it was no epiphany for Johnson. Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

At the time the Cronkite program was broadcast, Campbell notes, Johnson actually was en route to the University of Texas to attend a black-tie birthday party for the governor of Texas, John Connally.

Moreover, writes Campbell: “there is scant evidence that the Cronkite program had much influence at all on American popular opinion about the war. Polling data clearly show that American sentiment had begun shifting months before the Cronkite program. And other U.S. news organizations had offered gloomy assessments about Vietnam in the days, weeks, and months before.…”

Cronkite himself at first shrugged off suggestions that he had changed Johnson’s mind or hastened the end of his presidency and of America’s presence in Vietnam (which, in fact, continued until 1975). Later, he bought into it. In 2006 he told Esquire, “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Yet the belief became embedded. In 2001, in a piece on Cronkite, the Columbia Journalism Review quotes Johnson: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
That’s one of Campbell’s debunked myths. “Some of them are almost too good to be false,” he writes.

In a Wall Street Journal review of Campbell’s book, Edward Kosner, former editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News, summed up some of Campbell’s debunkery:

“William Randolph Hearst never said, ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’ Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast didn’t panic America. Ed Murrow’s ‘See It Now’ TV show didn’t destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn’t talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing ‘Oh, God help us’ and never fired a shot.”

Campbell also upends the belief that the relentless Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard M. Nixon. It’s a gross exaggeration which grew out of the movie, “All the President’s Men,” he says. Even Woodward agrees; “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he told a media researcher. The Post reporters turned the spotlight on the Watergate breakin and coverup, but it was the courts and Congress’ investigations that made RMN say adieu.

As for the belief that the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed the press at its finest, that’s folderol, Campbell establishes. Katerina coverage was soaked in inaccuracies. Parts of broadcast and print journalism reported—wrongly—that snipers fired at medical aides, that shots were fired at helicopters, that roving gangs attacked tourists, that raping and killing occurred among survivors jammed into New Orleans’ Superdome.

“None of those reports were verified or substantiated,” writes Campbell. “No shots fired at rescue helicopters, no child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood…” In 93 footnotes, he documents the press’ exaggerations (some of them committed by the AP, my former employer and Campbell’s, though we never met).

In a C-Span interview with Brian Lamb in 2010, Campbell called the Hearst-Remington yarn “perhaps the hardiest myth in American journalism….“

“It is almost too good not to be true,” he said. But: “It’s almost certainly untrue. Hearst himself denied having said that.”

What would Campbell do to stamp out what he calls “media-driven myths”?

“Journalists would do well to deepen their appreciation of complexity and ambiguity,” he says. He wants enhanced training for journalists who cover disasters and health issues and he’d like to instill “skepticism and a tolerance for viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms, places that sometimes seem to be a bastion of groupthink.” And he’d like journalists to use the internet to scrutinize source material from the past; it’s never been easier, he says.

But he doesn’t seem optimistic that journalists, at a time when the pressure to get it out first or fast has never been greater, will quit citing as true what they and everyone think to be true.

Maybe the Chicago solution is still relevant: “IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.”

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions. He confesses he might have used one of Campbell’s myths — the Hearst quote comes to mind — back in his writing days. But he was much younger then. He won’t do it again.


  1. Claude Morita says

    I am led to believe that FDR wanted to destroy Japan ever since he was Assistant Scretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration, influenced by Admiral Heihachiro Togo destroying the Russian Fleet in Tsushima Straits. From this background FDR warned repeatedly of the need to protect the West Coast from Japanese attack. Racism lay in his background with the popularity of eugenics arising at this time and Theodore Roosevelt supporting its theories. FDR did not order the bombing of hologaust crematoriums in Germany when B-17s flew right over them. Your FOI results are very much in line with goading Japan into war. Can I say, “He started the war?”

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