W. Joseph Campbell

Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2019

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2019 at 7:44 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2019 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October, marked its 10th anniversary. The Washington Post figured in three of the year’s top posts.

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate (posted November 27): It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. It’s a trope that’s readily invoked but often too good to check out.

An almost-predictable by-product of the impeachment hearings conducted late in the year by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were media references to the myth that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Among the references was that of the Post’s own managing editor, Cameron Barr, who declared in a speech in November at the University of Oxford that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

The phrase means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting did not cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, senior staff at the Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the newspaper’s reporting brought down Nixon. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, said 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.”

When asked about his “brought to pass” remarks at Oxford, Barr replied by parsing his words:

“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.”

Nice try.

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s quite a stretch to say that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding federal 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, “even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

TV made all the difference in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly (posted September 29): The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, made sweeping claims in late September that television had “made all the difference in 1954″ in exposing and bringing down the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. She further wrote that during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, television had had a “disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Such interpretations may reassure journalists, reminding them of their presumed power and influence. Media-driven myths tend to have such an effect. But it’s exceedingly mediacentric to claim television was decisive in McCarthy’s fall or in Watergate’s outcome.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in raising challenges to McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch hunt. 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 proved decisive.

Sullivan wrote in her column: “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. But it hardly “shut down the senator.”

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

The hearing transcript show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch. McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch had belonged.

Television came late 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.

And Pearson, for his work, was physically assaulted by McCarthy in December 1950.

Televised coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 was riveting. But the greatest contribution came from what Senate staffers learned: They found that Nixon had secretly made audio tapes of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Ultimately, when they were pried from Nixon’s possession, the tapes revealed that the president 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 unlikely 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,” Kutler said several years ago. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Newspaper rant deplores “debasement of reality” but invokes prominent media myth (posted January 8): The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic early in the year in deploring what it termed “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” asseting that “lies” had become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was an over-the-top screed that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It also extolled journalism, saying “more often than not” over the years, “reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion to “forcing a president’s resignation” was, of course, to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

In reality, forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, I wrote, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the recordings he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Fake news about fake news”: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency (posted February 17): Early in the year, the Salt Lake Tribune turned editorially to the hoary media myth about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century. The Tribube invoked the myth as a way to condemn President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the southern U.S.border, to stem illegal immigration.

“You want fake news?” the Tribune‘s editorial stated. “Here’s some fake news about fake news.”

In discussing Hearst’s debunked vow (which supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897), the newspaper said:

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.’”

The Remington-Hearst exchange supposedly was done by cable. But the telegrams have never turned up. Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it.

Had such messages been sent, moreover, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as Yankee meddling.

Remington sketch of ‘Cuban war’ (New York Journal)

Not only that, but the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the rebellion in Cuba against Spanish rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to the island. Remington was to draw sketches of the uprising. And he did.

Given the context — given the war in Cuba — it would have made no sense at all for Hearst to send a telegram, vowing to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune editorial acknowledged the Remington-Hearst tale is “thought to be apocryphal at best.” Even so, the newspaper said, the anecdote was “too good” not to turn to at “appropriate moments.”

Interesting argument.

But if it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization invoke the anecdote, given that media myths inevitably impugn and undermine the truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood scarcely makes an editorial argument more compelling. Or more coherent.

Not Hearst’s war

The Tribune’s editorial didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Hearst and the activistyellow journalism“ he practiced “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis resulting from Spain’s cruel tactics to put down the Cuban rebellion.

Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame the long ago war on Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism.

Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (posted April 14): PBS aired in April an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism.

In the PBS treatment, Pulitzer’s talents and commitments seemed endlessly laudatory.

The documentary tells us that Pulitzer was an avid reader, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an accomplished chess player, an unstoppable workaholic. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, that Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri derailed his career or darkened his reputation.

But the effect of the documentary’s gushing wasn’t uplifting or inspiring.

It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper publisher, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer the irritable (Library of Congress)

Pulitzer was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him.

The meaner, darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

In the end Pulitzer’s profound failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890, Pulitzer rarely visited the World building.

For years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control, from retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe. To his editors and managers, he regularly fired off telegrams and letters that were full of instructions, guidance, and reproach. This correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial component to Pulitzer’s personality.

The documentary-makers might well have plumbed the correspondence for its insights. And they might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in what was a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and remote-control management were not much explored.

The memory of Joseph Pulitzer has been boosted over the decades by a succession of exceptionally generous biographers.

To that lineup of adulation, the flattery of documentary-filmmakers can now be added.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2019:

‘Richard Jewell,’ pack journalism, and a cinematic disappointment

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on December 23, 2019 at 8:22 am

It’s not terribly surprising Richard Jewell the movie has fared poorly in its opening days, grossing about $9.5 million since its debut December 13.

Richard Jewell, which revisits the case of the eponymous, media-maligned hero of the deadly bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, is a disappointment on a number of levels.

The lead character is a beefy, 33-year-old security guard who on July 27, 1996, raised warnings before a pipebomb packed with screws and nails blew up at Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others. Jewell’s warnings surely saved dozens of lives.

Jewell, who is played by Paul Walter Hauser, is quirky, officious, and rather heavy-handed — the kind of irritating, self-important security guard who routinely oversteps his position to boss people around.

Likewise unconvincing is the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the police beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who, in an extra edition published July 30, 1996, disclosed that Jewell was a focus of the FBI’s investigation into the bombing.

Scruggs is presented as a loud, hard-edged floozy, willing to trade sex for information from a FBI source, who tells her the agency suspects Jewell planted the bomb. But Jewell was never charged in the bombing. Time was when journalists wouldn’t identify suspects by name until they had been formally accused.

The film, directed by Clinton Eastwood, has been assailed for its portrayal of Scruggs, which is too bad because the controversy has dimmed the spotlight Richard Jewell tries to direct to the perils that can arise when the news media are in league with federal investigators.

After Scruggs and a colleague, Ron Martz, wrote their unattributed story that Jewell was a suspect in the bombing, a media pack took after the naive and beleaguered security guard, staking out the apartment where he lived with his mother. The pack mostly made his life hell, until federal authorities told him three months later he was not a target. (The day after that, the Journal-Constitution published seven stories that dissected “everything about the case except its own role in starting the media lynching of the hero turned suspect,” Atlanta magazine reported in December 1996.)

Jewell may have been exonerated, but his reputation never recovered. He died in 2007. Scruggs died in 2001.

Pack journalism and its close relative, group think, are deep flaws that mainstream American journalism is little inclined to explore. They contributed to the media’s failure to anticipate Donald Trump’s election in 2016. For more than two years afterward, the news media touted and pursued a dubious narrative that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election  — a narrative for which the Washington Post and the New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize.

The Pulitzer citation praised the newspapers for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.” The citation seems utterly risible now, given how the Trump-Russia narrative came such a cropper.

Eastwood’s movie could have been withering in portraying the media pack that hounded Jewell, a pack motivated by thin suspicions, a vague stereotype, and the Journal-Constitution’s unsourced, but authoritative-sounding, extra-edition article.

From time to time, the pack was shown in massed and menacing pursuit of Jewell. But the portrayal is not especially searching or nearly complete.

The movie doesn’t much consider the AJC’s follow-on reporting. Steven Geimann recalled in 2003 in an article for Media Ethics magazine that as “the scramble intensified to get the story, the AJC stayed in front of the pack, running countless stories not only about the investigation, but about Jewell’s personal life, work history, and potential motives as the ‘lone bomber.'”

Geimann, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, also wrote:

“Legally, the AJC may have been allowed to treat this private citizen as a public figure. But was it the right thing to do? In the frenzy to stay in front of the pack, the editors and reporters of the AJC stopped asking themselves that simple, yet all-important question.”

Howard Kurtz, then the media writer for the Washington Post, made similar observations three weeks after the Centennial Park bombing.

In the aftermath of the attack, Kurtz noted, “few journalists asked the hard questions about the lack of physical evidence or the unwillingness of any federal official to make an on-the-record case against Jewell. In the hyper-competitive world of news gathering, such details are often lost as everyone chases the latest hot scoop.”

Kurtz deplored the “pack mentality” which he said “makes it all too easy for each news organization to blame its behavior on others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put Jewell in play by rushing out an extra edition July 30, with a 378-word story saying he ‘is the focus of the federal investigation’ ….

“CNN quickly followed suit. Major newspapers — including The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and USA Today — checked with their sources and trumpeted the allegations on the front page.”

Had he emphasized such criticism about the media’s pack-like conduct, Eastwood would have given his movie a sharper, more powerful, even devastating focus.

Notably absent from the media frenzy that swept up Jewell was the New York Times.

From time to time, Media Myth Alert  has called out the Times for its questionable judgment and its invoking media-driven myths. But in the Jewell case, the Times merited praise for declining to run with the pack. It not as easy decision, as Kevin Sack, the Times’ Atlanta-based reporter in 1996, pointed out several years ago.

Sack recalled that Joseph Lelyveld, the Timesexecutive editor at the time, “decreed that we would not join the news media herd in reporting that Mr. Jewell was the leading suspect. Nor would we in any way suggest that Mr. Jewell’s actions or personality merited suspicion, as The [Atlanta] Journal had in publishing, without attribution, that he ‘fits the profile of the lone bomber.’

“Instead,” Sack said, “I was to write a modest article — 642 words, as it ended up, less than half the length I figured it merited — about the media riot that followed The Journal’s revelation. In stark contrast to front-page coverage with screaming headlines around the world, my article would be buried deep inside the next day’s newspaper.”

Sack disagreed with the decision to downplay the suspicions about Jewell.

But in retrospect, Sack said, “the rabbinical wisdom” of Lelyveld, “in the face of intense competitive pressure, provided one of the greatest journalistic lessons of my career. While The Times has demonstrated over the years that it is not immune to misjudgment … we stood out in the coverage of the Jewell story for our restraint. Mr. Lelyveld’s call saved the paper, and me, from embarrassment and perhaps from the litigation that Mr. Jewell later pursued against several news organizations. There but for the grace of Joe went I.”

The Olympics bomber turned out to have been Eric R. Rudolph. He arrested in 2003 after hiding for years in remote reaches of North Carolina. Rudolph was accused of three other bombings and sentenced in 2005 to four life terms plus an additional 120 years in prison.

Rudolph is jailed at the SuperMax federal prison in Colorado. His infamous fellow inmates include Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Terry Nichols, principal accomplice to Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

WJC

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