W. Joseph Campbell

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 27, 2019 at 9:01 am

It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. The trope has such narrative power that it’s easy to invoke, if usually too good to check.

Perhaps an inevitable by-product of the recent bombshell-free and wholly unrevealing impeachment hearings conducted by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were news media references to the Watergate scandal and the myth that the Washington Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Not the Post’s doing: Nixon quits

That’s the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate. It centers around the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, and it was invoked blithely.

Last week, for example, the Guardian of London referred to the Post as “the paper that owned the [Watergate] story and ultimately brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

As the House committee’s hearings were about to go public, David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote that televised hearings during the Watergate scandal “didn’t bring [Nixon] down,” but “the grinding, steady work of the Washington Post led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did along with some courageous members of Congress, who signaled their willingness to vote for impeachment across party lines.”

A speech the other day at the University of Oxford was the occasion for Cameron Barr, the Post’s managing editor, to recall Watergate. His remarks included this myth-evocative passage:

“Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

That means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting didn’t cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, in fact, senior staff at the Washington Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the Post’s reporting brought down Nixon.

None other than Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, declared in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

In starkly cruder terms, Woodward concurred, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal as sweeping and complex as Watergate required the combined if not always coordinated forces of special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, and bipartisan congressional panels. Not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon had to surrender to prosecutors White House audiotapes that captured his guilty participation in the Watergate coverup.

That’s what Katharine Graham was referring to in saying that the “processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

By email, I asked Barr about evidence supporting his claim that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by” the Post’s reporting.

He replied by parsing his claim, saying:

“You’ll note that I didn’t say that The Post brought down Nixon or took Nixon down or got Nixon – those mischaracterizations [sic] my colleagues have rejected and rightly so. As do you.

“I said The Post’s reporting brought it to pass, and my evidence for that is the historical record. We did our jobs as journalists, setting in motion other factors and forces that compelled him to step down.”

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s highly unlikely that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding authorities who did uncover the evidence that brought to pass Nixon’s resignation.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the news media and Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein “were not the only ones publicizing the case” in the summer of 1972. “Immediately after the arrest of the Watergate burglars and throughout the [presidential] campaign, Senator George McGovern denounced Watergate in most of his speeches and suggested in no uncertain terms that the White House was behind the burglary.”

Additionally, Epstein noted, the Democratic National Committee brought a civil lawsuit against Nixon’s reelection committee. “The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a quasi-public foundation, meanwhile forced Republican officials to disclose information about campaign contributions which indirectly added to the publicity about Watergate,” Epstein wrote, adding:

“In short, even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

Epstein also correctly noted that federal prosecutors had developed “an airtight case” the the Watergate burglars and their handlers in the summer of 1972, “well in advance of, and without any assistance from, Woodward, Bernstein, or any other reporters.”

Barr’s remarks at Oxford were an occasion to extol the news media and what he called “high-risk, high-impact journalism.”

He also shed some light on the adoption of the Post’s smug and heavy-handed motto, “Democracy dies in darkness,” saying it was embraced “at the urging of Jeff Bezos, who has owned The Post since 2013.” Bezos is the multi-billionaire boss of Amazon.com.

That motto was adopted soon after President Donald Trump took office and was promptly ridiculed by, among others, Jack Shafer, the prominent media critic. Shafer said on Twitter that “‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ is something a sincere goofball would say in a Preston Sturges movie.”

The executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, said “Democracy dies in darkness” reminded him of “the next Batman movie.”

WJC

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Media myth as cliché: ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio ‘panic’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2019 at 8:27 pm

The anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 inevitably brings news media references to the panic and hysteria the program supposedly set off across the United States.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner, Halloween, 1938

Such references have become like a cliché, unoriginal assertions blithely made, and yet immune to compelling contrary evidence.

Take, for one example, the claim casually offered the other day on a local television news program in Salt Lake City. The news reader introduced a segment recalling the 1938 show by declaring:

“In eight decades, nothing has really scared our country like the old War of the Worlds broadcast.”

No supporting evidence accompanied that claim, as if the presumed effects of the broadcast of October 30, 1938, are so accepted that documentation isn’t necessary.

The War of the Worlds dramatization aired over CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. It told of the invasion of the United States by waves of Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Welles

And that makes for quite an intriguing tale.

But like most media myths, it’s a tale with scant evidentiary support.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, if panic and hysteria had swept America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma, turmoil, and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

Whatever radio-induced fright there was that night 81 years ago hardly reached nationwide proportions.

Indeed, a far more compelling case can be made that most listeners to the program recognized it for what it was — an imaginative, fast-paced, and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with the long-ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely exaggerated and misstated?

It is, for starters, famous for what it suggests about the presumptive and lurking dark power of mass media.

It also is a clever example of dramatic storytelling that’s well-suited for Halloween. The show is often rebroadcast, or reenacted, at this time of year — which serves not only to celebrate the performance but to keep it alive in the popular consciousness.

The War of the Worlds program also is inextricably linked to the career and theatrical genius of Orson Welles who, within three years of the radio dramatization, released Citizen Kane, which he directed and in which he starred. Kane arguably is the finest motion picture ever made.

Welles, who lived until 1985, did his most memorable work before turning 30. He was 26 when he made Kane.

WJC

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‘Television made all the difference’ in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, offered the facile observation in an essay yesterday that last week brought “a tectonic shift of media attention, [with] every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story” about President Donald Trump, a story he “can’t control.”

Sullivan

As if Trump could “control” the frenzy over disclosures he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate shady dealings in that country by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As if anyone could “control” such a bizarre frenzy.

We’ll see how long this latest frenzy lasts. For now, allegations of Trump’s misconduct seem too nebulous to support impeachment, let alone conviction after trial before the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of keener interest to Media Myth Alert were passages in Sullivan’s column that touted the presumptive power of television in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

“Television,” she wrote, “made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Television made all the difference?

That interpretation may of comfort or reassurance to journalists; media-driven myths tend to be that way. But it’s mediacentric claim that grants television far too much credit as a decisive force in national politics.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in challenging McCarthy and his communists-in-government witchhunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that was decisive to the outcome of the Watergate scandal.

Let’s take first Sullivan’s claims about television and Joe McCarthy.

She wrote: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. It hardly “shut down the senator.”

The hearing transcript, excerpts of which the New York Times published the following day, show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch.

“I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’ll say it hurts,” Welch said.

McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch once belonged.

What were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. But only then-fledgling ABC and the dying Dumont network carried the hearings in sustained fashion. Neither network reached a nationwide audience.

Besides, McCarthy was then falling from his peak influence. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polls by the Gallup organization showed McCarthy’s approval ratings were ebbing by late 1953 and early 1954.

The other television moment often said to have been pivotal in the senator’s downfall came on March 9, 1954, when Edward R. Murrow devoted his half-hour See It Now program to a critical report about McCarthy. See It Now made devastating use of unflattering footage of the senator and closed with Murrow’s declaring:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

It wasn’t a decisive moment, though. More important were the Army’s allegations, raised the same week the Murrow program aired, that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, tried to obtain special treatment for David Schine. He was a member of McCarthy’s investigative staff who had been drafted into the Army. The allegations led to the hearings that Sullivan mentioned in her column.

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate.

Television came belatedly to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

In fact, Pearson’s challenges were so searching and aggressive that they prompted McCarthy to physically assault the columnist in the coat-check room after a dinner in December 1950 at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon, then a newly appointed U.S. Senator, broke up the one-sided encounter between the beefy senator and the smaller columnist.

In his memoir RN, Nixon recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Televised coverage of the extended Watergate hearings, convened in Spring 1973 by a Senate select committee, certainly was extensive andriveting. But the greatest contribution came from what the committee staff uncovered — the existence of audio tapes that Nixon secretly had made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes proved conclusively that Nixon knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s not likely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” he said in a presentation in 2011, almost four years before his death.

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The tapes, not TV, “made all the difference” in Watergate.

WJC

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