W. Joseph Campbell

NYTimes commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, Television, Watergate myth on August 5, 2020 at 11:25 am

To say that prominent media myths, those dubious tall tales about the media and the exploits of journalists, are immune from debunking is to confirm a truism.

Shield him from debates?

Some media-centric tall tales are just too good to die away.

These include the heroic trope that two young, dogged reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal. They include the notion that a pessimistic, on-air assessment by anchorman Walter Cronkite about the Vietnam War in 1968 turned American public opinion against the conflict.

And they include the exaggerated narrative of the first presidential debate in 1960 between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, that the former “won” the debate among radio listeners but, because he perspired noticeably and looked wan, “lost” among television viewers.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement was thoroughly and impressively demolished 33 years ago and yet it lives on; it lives on at the New York Times, which unreservedly offered up the myth in an essay published yesterday.

The essay proposed an end to the presidential debates — a fixture in the U.S. political landscape since 1976 — because “have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership.” The author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew who was on a debate panel 44 years ago, has made such an argument before.

But the essay’s publication yesterday also looked like prospective justification for shielding gaffe-prone Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, from confronting President Donald Trump in three 90-minute debates during the unfolding campaign. Biden’s fumbling, sometimes-bizarre statements may not serve him well in such encounters. (Of course, as Drew has written on other occasions, Trump’s isn’t necessarily an effective or well-prepared debater.)

What most interested Media Myth Alert, though, was Drew’s invoking the myth of viewer-listener disagreement.

“Perhaps the most substantive televised debate of all,” she wrote, “was the first one, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

Nixon “won on substance on the radio” while “Kennedy won on television.”

Uh-huh.

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed sharply about the debate’s outcome, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report on such disparate perceptions — especially in the immediate aftermath of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter, when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Moreover, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “there was no unanimity among newspaper columnists and editorial writers about Nixon’s appearance” on television during the first debate, noting:

Not everyone thought Nixon looked awful (AP photo)

“Not all analysts in late September 1960 thought Nixon’s performance was dreadful — or that Kennedy was necessarily all that appealing and rested.”

An after-debate editorial in the Washington Post declared, for example:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Saul Pett, then a prominent writer for the Associated Press, assigned Nixon high marks for cordiality. “On general folksiness both before and during the debate,” Pett wrote, “my scorecard showed Nixon ahead at least 8 to 1. … He smiled more often and more broadly, especially at the start and close of a remark. Kennedy only allowed himself the luxury of a quarter-smile now and then.”

Nixon’s tactics during the debate, rather than how he looked on television, probably were more damaging.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Nixon “committed then the elementary mistake of arguing on his opponent’s terms — of seeming to concur rather than seeking the initiative. Nixon projected a ‘me-too’ sentiment from the start, in answering Kennedy who had spoken first.”

Surprisingly, Nixon in his opening statement declared that he agreed with much of what Kennedy had just said.

The dearth of evidence that Nixon’s appearance was decisive to the debate’s outcome was underscored in a  journal article in 1987 by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. It remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that no public opinion surveys conducted in the debate’s immediate aftermath were aimed specifically at measuring views or reactions of radio audiences.

Vancil and Pendell also noted: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.” To infer “that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss, or Kennedy’s victory,” they added, “is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Quite so.

Flaws in Drew’s commentary about the presidential debates went beyond mentioning the hoary media myth (which she also invoked in her 2007 book about Nixon). An editorial in the Wall Street Journal referred specifically to Drew’s commentary, asserting:

“What a terrible year to make this argument. The pandemic has put the usual political rallies on hold, so fewer voters will see the candidates in the flesh. The conventions will be largely online. Press aides will shape the news coverage by picking friendly interviewers. … Also, Mr. Biden would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest President in history on Day 1. Mr. Trump is all but calling him senile, and Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries.”

Modifying the format of one-on-one presidential debates would be far preferable to scrapping them, which would look awfully suspicious.

And cowardly.

WJC

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Of Trump’s chances and Mark Twain’s ‘exaggerated’ quip

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2020 at 6:59 am

CNN (really) offered not long ago one of the more coherent recent assessments about the unfolding election campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

A commentary by two Democratic analysts argued against prematurely dismissing Trump’s chances of winning reelection, despite the polls of July that overwhelmingly are in Biden’s favor.

Twain in 1907

“It seems,” wrote Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan, “that Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.

“Those declaring Trump politically finished,” they added, “should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that ‘the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.‘”

The analysis  is persuasive; but what most interests Media Myth Alert is the remark attributed to Twain, the American humorist and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens.

The quotation itself is exaggerated — as it has been over the years — and is more emphatic than it really was.

What Twain said in an interview in early June 1897 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was subdued. Flat, even.

“The report of my death,” he simply said, “was an exaggeration.”

The more evocative version that appeared in the CNN commentary is not unusual. Twain’s line often has been presented as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Or “grossly exaggerated.” And sometimes the Journal is said to have been the source of the erroneous report, not its prompt and thorough debunking.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s comment was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

The Herald reported Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain at the time was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for Hearst’s Journal. That association allowed the Journal to quickly knock down the Herald‘s story.

In a front-page article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald‘s account as false and presented Twain’s straightforward “exaggeration” comment.

The Journal’s article, which carried the byline of Frank Marshall White, began this way:

“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him … of he report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

“He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children, and has only this week finished the narrative of his recent travels ….”

After invoking the remark about the “report of my death was an exaggeration,” White further quoted Twain as saying: “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Interesting, all that, but why bother with an exaggerated, long-ago quotation?

One reason is that quote-distortion happens often, to Twain and other prominent figures.

As I discussed in a chapter in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” For many reasons, the well-known, often-invoked comment is surely apocryphal. Yet it lives on as an presumptive evidence of Hearst’s war-mongering ways in the late 19th century.

Consider, too, the unlikely remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared in February 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was stalemated. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president supposedly uttered in response to Cronkite’s televised comment, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong:

“Bogus quotations share many of the defining features of media-driven myths: They tend to be concise and simplistic, easy to remember, fun to retell, tenacious, and often thinly sourced.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

No, WaPo, Nixon never ‘touted a secret plan to end war in Vietnam’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Washington Post on June 2, 2020 at 8:00 pm

The hoary media myth about Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam is circulating anew, and being presented as if genuine.

The tale was invoked yesterday in a Washington Post essay that argued societal rifts and recent civil disorders in contemporary America don’t match those of 1968. “America is polarized today — but not like in 1968,” the essay said. “Today’s polarization is tidy by comparison.”

Maybe. But it’s not a far-fetched assessment. The essay stumbles, though, in claiming without attribution or qualification that Nixon’s “secret plan” was a “tantalizing” pledge that figured significantly in his run for the White House 52 years ago.

The Post presented the claim in this convoluted manner:

Won without a ‘secret plan’

“Besides law and order, he touted a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Later, we learned that the plan was secret because it didn’t actually exist. But in 1968, Nixon’s secret was tantalizing indeed, and it helped him to his narrow victory, because Americans wanted the war to end and a secret plan was better than no plan at all.”

Right, “a secret plan was better than no plan at all.”

Tantalizing, that.

Except that Nixon never said he had a plan to end the war without disclosing what he had in mind. He never “touted” a “secret plan,” as Media Myth Alert has noted on several occasions.

Nonethless, Nixon’s “secret plan” has become a media myth that won’t die, its tenacity due in part because it seems so cynical, so utterly Nixonian. Like many media myths, it seems almost too good to be false.

Interestingly, the “secret plan” myth took hold despite Nixon’s assertions to the contrary.

He pointedly and publicly dismissed such a notion early in his campaign in 1968. He was quoted as saying in an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late March that year that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” Nixon was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had some sort of “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim wasn’t a feature of his campaign. He didn’t run on a “secret plan” pledge.

That is clear in the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers, including the Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune.

No articles were found during the period January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

The “secret plan” anecdote likely is derived from a speech Nixon made on March 5, 1968, in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which he declared “new leadership” in Washington would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting Nixon’s remarks, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI account also said “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.” Late in his winning campaign for president that year, Eisenhower dramatically announced he would “go to Korea” to begin searching for a peaceful settlement.

A New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted the candidate as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. Nixon also said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief follow-on report published in the Times that day quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in seeking to end the war.

William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and later columnist for the Times, used to relish calling attention to published references to the mythical “secret plan,” which he characterized as a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”

In a column published 20 years ago, for example, Safire recalled an occasion “when a New York Times columnist attributed that direct quote to Nixon, a White House speechwriter challenged him to find the quote in anything taken down by pencil or recorder at the time. The pundit searched high and low and had to admit the supposed remark was unsourceable. (Look, the Nixon speechwriter was me and the columnist was my current colleague, Tony Lewis; I didn’t have to research this.)”

Michael Cohen, author of American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, briefly addressed the “secret plan” notion in his book and dismissed it, stating:

“Though it is often claimed that Nixon spoke of a ‘secret plan’ to end the war, he never uttered those words. Even suggesting that he had a plan would have been too much for Nixon.”

WJC

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