W. Joseph Campbell

Watergate footnote: WaPo’s Pulitzer-winning entry included a false story

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2022 at 6:55 pm

The latest burst of self-congratulatory hoopla about Watergate and the Washington Post  subsided weeks ago, with the 50th anniversary of the foiled break-in that set off the country’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

Interest, of course, still percolates in the details and finer points of the scandal that toppled Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

So allow Media Myth Alert to add a Watergate footnote with this post about a seldom-discussed oddity in the Post’s entry that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for its Watergate reporting.

The Post’s entry included an article by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that proved false.

Until recently, MediaMythAlert was unaware the false story had been part of the Pulitzer-winning package.

That it was surely is intriguing.

What makes this something less than a big deal, however, is uncertainty as to when the Post realized its error. It’s difficult to know for sure nearly 50 years later, but that realization may have come after the Pulitzers were announced in early May 1973.

The false report was published October 6, 1972, on the Post’s front page beneath the headline, “Bug memos sent to Nixon aides.”

In the article, Bernstein and Woodward identified by name three men associated with Nixon’s White House or his reelection campaign. The trio supposedly had been sent “memos describing wiretapped conversations of Democratic Party officials” at offices of Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington. The illegal wiretaps had been planted in late May 1972.

The three men denied the claims in the “Bug memos” story.

As it turned out, none of them had been sent the wiretap memos. They had been falsely accused by Bernstein and Woodward — as the journalists acknowledged in All the President’s Men, their 1974 memoir about reporting the Watergate scandal.

So how did the “Bug memos” article come to be part of the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry?

That’s a mild mystery, and even Media Myth Alert — no friend of the mythical claim that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting brought down Nixon — finds it hard to believe the Post intentionally entered a false report.

More likely, the “Bug memos” article was thought credible at the Post until sometime after the submission deadline for Pulitzer entries in 1973. The deadline that year was February 1.

That hypothesis seems plausible, given that the Post had referred in follow-on articles in late October 1972 and in January 1973 to the central claims of the “Bug memos” story.

Doubt about the accuracy of the “Bug memos’ story can be traced to testimony at trial in January 1973 of suspects accused in the thwarted Watergate burglary of mid-June 1972, the scandal’s seminal crime.

The testimony was given January 19, 1973, by Alfred Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who who had been the lookout for the Watergate burglars arrested inside DNC headquarters.

Baldwin said in his testimony that he wasn’t sure to whom wiretap memos had been given.

The Post‘s news report about the testimony suggested Baldwin was dissembling. The article, published January 20, 1973, said: “Baldwin is reported to have told others, The Washington Post has learned, that he could remember the names of three White House or Nixon aides who received memos describing the telephone conversations.” The article then mentioned the three men, again by name.

So as late as January 20, 1973, or about two weeks before the Pulitzer-entry deadline, the Post was adhering to a belief the “Bug memos” story was accurate. That seems clear from the tone and content of the article about Baldwin’s testimony.

In a curious and rather sloppy way, Baldwin had been cited as the principal source in the “Bug memos” story. Bernstein and Woodward reported in the article that Baldwin was “known to have told the FBI” names of three men to whom the wiretap logs had been given. Bernstein and Woodward had not spoken directly to Baldwin; the allegations about the three men came from a source described vaguely in All the President’s Men as “a Democratic Party investigator.” They also wrote that the details were confirmed by “a Justice Department source” who was not identified by name.

The day before the “Bug memos” article was published, Baldwin had been the subject of a breakthrough Watergate report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times’ account was based on a lengthy, in-person interview with Baldwin, which Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged in All the President’s Men “was a major break, not just because it contained a great deal of new information, but because it made the Watergate operation, and the siege mentality behind it, real.” It was an unprecedented, on-the-record, first-hand account by a participant in the unfolding scandal.

Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged their “Bug memos” story had been rushed into print in response to the Times’ report about Baldwin. While it wasn’t a major Watergate story, “Bug memos” turned out to be a story in major error. And a search of Washington Post contents at the ProQuest historical newspapers database does not indicate that it was specifically corrected by the newspaper.

The correction, as it were, appeared in All the President’s Men, which was published in June 1974, about 20 months after the “Bug Memos” article appeared.

“Three men had been wronged,” Bernstein and Woodward wrote in the book. “They had been unfairly accused on the front page of the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of their families, neighbors, and friends.” They said in the book they “[e]ventually became convinced” that memos the three men received “had nothing to do with wiretapping.”

Among the men falsely accused was William E. Timmons, who in 2009 sat for an interview for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project. Timmons noted he had contemplated suing the reporters, about whom he had little good to say.

“Woodward and Bernstein accused me on the front page of the Washington Post of being one of those that received the illegal fruits of the break-in,” Timmons said, referring to the erroneous “Bugs memo” article.

“I protested and had [White House press secretary Ron] Ziegler go out in the press office and deny it. Didn’t know anything about it. … Because Woodward and Bernstein must be right, they always have sixteen sources and they are wonderful and so forth. So I protested. And so I call the general counsel to the President and I said, ‘I want to sue these guys. This is not fair that I’ve been slammed here and surely by now they know that I wasn’t involved in this thing.'”

Timmons said he was dissuaded from taking legal action. “It will just fan the fires,” he said he was advised. “This will blow over. You can’t sue.”

That advice came from then-White House counsel John Dean, who in October 1973 pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and agreed to cooperate with Watergate investigators. Dean served four months of one-to-four-year prison sentence at a small prison at a former Army base in Baltimore.

Timmons, a Republican insider, was never accused of wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Years later, he led the would-be transition office for Bob Dole, the losing Republican candidate for president in 1996.

It remains unclear why the “Bug memos” article was included with the Post’s entry, which won the Pulitzer for public service journalism.

Discussing the matter recently by email, Woodward said: “As you may know, the entries for these prizes are made by management and I did not know what they were entering. It was their decision.”

He also said he did not know when he and Bernstein may have determined the “Bug memos” story was in error, adding that the discussion in All the President’s Men “is the only information I have about this now [as to] when we corrected the story and said, ‘Three Men had been wronged.’ It could have been done any time we were writing the book.” (Woodward said they began writing All the President’s Men in July 1973.)

Leonard Downie, who was a deputy metro editor at the Post during the Watergate period, said in by email recently that while he “was one of the editors on the Watergate investigation,” he was “too junior to be involved in the selection of stories for prize entries, and I don’t remember what was in the entry or why.”

An interesting coda to this Watergate footnote is that the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry in 1973 included 12 additional stories identified as “supplemental reportage.”

Among them was the Bernstein-Woodward article published October 25, 1972, that wrongly attributed to federal grand jury testimony the disclosure that H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s top aide, controlled disbursements from a campaign slush fund. In All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward described their blunder as “a grievous error” and said they thought it might force them to resign.

The misstep prompted them to confront the superior of an FBI field agent in Washington with whom Bernstein had spoken about the Haldeman story. They believed the agent had misled them.

They said they realized that confronting the agent’s superior “was unethical as soon as they had done it,” according to All the President’s Men. “They had endangered the agent’s career, betrayed his trust and risked their credibility with other sources.”

Years later, in an interview with the CBS News “Sunday Morning” program, Woodward referred to the encounter with the agent’s superior as “the worst of journalism.”

WJC

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Watergate at 50: Why the ‘heroic-journalist’ myth still defines the scandal

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 16, 2022 at 8:07 am

This essay was first published at the Conversation news site on June 14, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

In their dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That version of Watergate has long dominated popular understanding of the scandal, which unfolded over 26 months, beginning June 17, 1972.

It is, however, a simplistic trope that not even Watergate-era principals at the Post embraced. The newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham, pointedly rejected that interpretation during a program 25 years ago at the now-defunct Newseum (the “museum of news“) in suburban Virginia.

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

“Sometimes, people accuse us of ‘bringing down a president,’ which of course we didn’t do, and

shouldn’t have done,” Graham said. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham’s words, however accurate and incisive, scarcely altered the dominant popular interpretation of Watergate. If anything, the intervening 25 years have solidified the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate, which I dismantled in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.

However popular, the heroic-journalist myth is a vast exaggeration of the effect of their work.

Woodward and Bernstein did disclose financial links between Nixon’s reelection campaign and the burglars arrested 50 years ago tomorrow inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, in the signal crime of Watergate.

The Watergate complex

They publicly tied Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, to the scandal.

They won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post.

But they missed decisive elements of Watergate — notably the payment of hush money to the burglars and the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes.

Even so, the heroic-journalist myth became so entrenched that it could withstand disclaimers by Watergate-era principals at the Post such as Graham.

Even Woodward disavowed the heroic-journalist interpretation, once telling an interviewer that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon.

“Totally absurd.”

So why not take Woodward at his word? And why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate persisted through the 50 years since burglars linked to Nixon’s campaign were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington?

Like most media myths, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate rests on a foundation of simplicity. It glosses over the scandal’s intricacies and discounts the far more crucial investigative work of special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

It was, after all, the court’s unanimous ruling in July 1974, ordering Nixon to surrender tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor, that sealed the president’s fate. The recordings captured Nixon, six days after the burglary, agreeing to a plan to deter the FBI from pursuing its Watergate investigation.

The tapes were crucial to determining that Nixon had obstructed justice. Without them, he likely would have served out his presidential term. That, at least, was the interpretation of the late Stanley Kutler, one of Watergate’s leading historians, who noted:

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

The heroic-journalist myth, which began taking hold even before Nixon resigned, has been sustained by three related factors.

One was Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the well-timed memoir about their reporting. All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 and quickly reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list, remaining there 15 weeks, through Nixon’s resignation and beyond. The book inescapably promoted the impression Woodward and Bernstein were vital to Watergate’s outcome.

More so than the book, the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling. The movie, which was released in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was relentlessly media-centric, ignoring the work and contributions of the likes of prosecutors and the FBI.

The book and movie introduced Woodward’s super-secret source, “Deep Throat.” For 31 years after Nixon’s resignation, Washington periodically engaged publicly in guessing games about the source’s identity. Such speculation sometimes pointed to W. Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official.

Felt brazenly denied having been Woodward’s source. Had he been “Deep Throat,” he once told a Connecticut newspaper, “I would have done better. I would have been more effective.”

The “who-was-Deep-Throat” conjecture kept Woodward, Bernstein and the heroic-journalist myth at the center of Watergate conversations. Felt was 91 when, in 2005, he acknowledged through his family’s lawyer that he had been Woodward’s source after all.

It’s small wonder that the heroic-journalist myth still defines popular understanding of Watergate. Other than Woodward and Bernstein, no personalities prominent in Watergate were the subjects of a bestselling memoir, the inspiration for a star-studded motion picture, and the protectors of a mythical source who eluded conclusive identification for decades.

WJC

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50 years on: Revisiting the myths of the ‘Napalm Girl,’ a photo ‘that doesn’t rest’

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on June 8, 2022 at 7:12 am

This essay was first published at The Conversation news site on June 2, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial attack on their village — taken 50 years ago today — has rightly been called “a picture that doesn’t rest.”

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It is one of those exceptional visual artifacts that draws attention and even controversy years after it was made.

Last month, for example, Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the image, and the photo’s central figure, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, made news at the Vatican as they presented a poster-size reproduction of the prize-winning image to Pope Francis, who has emphasized the evils of warfare.

In 2016, Facebook stirred controversy by deleting “Napalm Girl” from a commentary posted at the network because the photograph shows the then-9-year-old Kim Phuc entirely naked. She had torn away her burning clothes as she and other terrified children ran from their village, Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. Facebook retracted its decision amid an international uproar about the social network’s free speech policies.

Such episodes signal how “Napalm Girl” is much more than powerful evidence of war’s indiscriminate effects on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image, formally known as “The Terror of War,” has also given rise to tenacious media-driven myths.

Media myths are those well-known stories about or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The distorting effects of four media myths have become attached to the photograph, which Ut made when he was a 21-year-old photographer for the Associated Press.

Prominent among the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” which I address and dismantle in my book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, is that U.S.-piloted or guided warplanes dropped the napalm, a gelatinous, incendiary substance, at Trang Bang.

Not so.

The napalm attack was carried out by propeller-driven Skyraider aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force trying to roust communist forces dug in near the village – as news accounts at the time made clear.

The headline over the New York Times report from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.”

The Chicago Tribune front page of June 9, 1972, stated the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for United Press International: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability at Trang Bang began taking hold during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referred to the photograph in a televised speech. The napalm that badly burned Kim Phuc, he declared, had been “dropped in the name of America.”

McGovern’s metaphoric claim anticipated similar assertions, including Susan Sontag’s statement in her 1973 book “On Photography,” that Kim Phuc had been “sprayed by American napalm.”

(The Associated Press, in an article posted online yesterday, erroneously described the aerial attack at Trang Bang as “an American napalm strike on a Vietnamese hamlet.” See screenshot nearby. The news agency later in the day corrected the error after it was noted on Twitter.)

Two other, related media myths rest on assumptions that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful that it must have exerted powerful effects on its audiences. These myths claim that the photograph hastened an end to the war and that it turned U.S. public opinion against the conflict.

Neither is accurate.

Although most U.S. combat forces were out of Vietnam by the time Ut took the photograph, the war went on for nearly three more years. The end came in April 1975, when communist forces overran South Vietnam and seized its capital.

Americans’ views about the war had turned negative long before June 1972, as measured by a survey question the Gallup Organization posed periodically. The question – essentially a proxy for Americans’ views about Vietnam – was whether sending U.S. troops there had been a mistake. When the question was first asked in summer 1965, only 24% of respondents said yes, sending in troops had been a mistake.

But by mid-May 1971 – more than a year before “Napalm Girl” was made – 61% of respondents said yes, sending troops had been mistaken policy.

In short, public opinion turned against the war long before “Napalm Girl” entered popular consciousness.

Another myth is that “Napalm Girl” appeared on newspaper front pages everywhere in America.

Front page here, but not everywhere

Many large U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it depicted frontal nudity.

In a review I conducted with a research assistant of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers – all of which were Associated Press subscribers – 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers – more than one-third of the sample – did not publish “Napalm Girl” at all in the days immediately after its distribution by AP. These included newspapers in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark.

Only three of the 40 newspapers examined – the Boston Globe, the New York Post and the New York Times – published editorials specifically addressing the photograph. The editorial in the New York Post, then a liberal-minded newspaper, was prophetic in saying:

“The picture of the children will never leave anyone who saw it.”

WJC

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