W. Joseph Campbell

‘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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More Watergate mythologizing: Woodward, Bernstein ‘let facts speak’ and Nixon fell

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm

It’s almost predictable: When controversy flares about contemporary practices of American journalists, commentators not infrequently reach back to Watergate for reassurance about how effective and admirable high-minded reporting can be.

Nixon, 1974: Quits, leaves D.C.

The Watergate parable is ever-available if not especially precise. It’s more mythical than accurate, as a commentary the other day in the Boston Herald suggested.

The commentary’s author addressed the recent, overwrought controversy about a front-page headline in the New York Times that many of its readers, and staffers, thought was too generous to President Donald Trump.

“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” declared the headline, which survived only the Times’ first print edition of August 6. The newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, later termed it “a f*cking mess” that editors quickly reworked.

What interests Media Myth Alert is not so much the agitation about the Times’ headline as the Herald’s hero-treatment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate in 1972-74.

The Herald’s commentary declared: “News reporters working for newspapers and television networks and online media should have only one job to do – to report the news.” OK, no argument there.

Then it added:

“Back in the days of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or ‘Woodstein’ as they were called, dug deep and reported straight about the allegations that President Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Their stories carried weight because they weren’t trying to convince us at least overtly that Nixon was a crook. These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

Let’s unpack those claims.

Woodward and Bernstein’s digging did not lead them to allege, or disclose, that “Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters,” the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal. Woodward acknowledged as much in an interview in 1973 with Columbia Journalism Review.

Deep in an otherwise congratulatory article, the journalism review noted:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.” (Emphasis added.)

The article quoted Woodward as saying about those crucial elements of Watergate:

“’It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” And I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s personal role in coverup was not revealed until August 1974, with the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” White House audiotape. Its release was ordered in July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and its content sealed Nixon’s fate.

He resigned 45 years ago this month.

And what else about the Herald’s commentary?

Exaggeration lurks in this passage: “These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

That suggests the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was central to Nixon’s downfall when in fact their work represented a marginal contribution to Watergate’s outcome.

Not only did could they not get to the coverup. They did not disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret White House taping system — a revelation by a former White House staffer in July 1973 changed the course and intensity of Watergate investigations.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”

Against the tableau of courts, prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, often insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. ‘Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,’ Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. ‘The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,’ she insisted.”

And Woodward concurred, if in cruder terms.

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he told an interviewer for the former American Journalism Review in 2004.

Why does all this matter now? Watergate, after all, was long ago.

Well, that’s just it: The intervening years have deeply eroded popular understanding about the forces and figures vital to bringing down Nixon — the investigators, the special prosecutors, the judges, the members of Congress. Instead, the heroic-journalist interpretation has become fixed as the dominant narrative of Watergate, that the dogged reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of a president and forced his resignation.

It’s far easier to turn to that mythical interpretation than it is to keep straight the many lines of investigation that did unravel the Watergate scandal.

But as I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

WJC

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‘Johnson is said to have said’: Squishy attribution, thin documentation, and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on July 23, 2019 at 10:14 am

Media-driven myths spring from diverse sources, including what charitably can be called thin documentation.

So it is with the purported “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted on the air what others in the news media had been saying for months — that the war in Vietnam was stalemated.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Given that it was the high-profile Cronkite who made the statement, his words carried exceptional impact. They were so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles and declared something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or so the media myth has it.

But there’s scant documentation that Johnson was much moved by Cronkite’s interpretation, and we do know that the president did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. Johnson at the time was at a black-tie party in Texas to mark the 51st birthday of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that Johnson saw the program at some later date on videotape. Or that the program ever prompted Johnson to say something akin to “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or that he took to heart Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal characterization of the war.

In fact, in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s program, Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy. This was a period when the anchorman’s assessment could have been expected to exert its greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor would have been most pronounced.

Instead, the president mounted an aggressive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart. If, that is, he was aware of it at all.

For example, in mid-March 1968, Johnson told a group of business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson made several similar statements on other occasions following the “Cronkite Moment,” including a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which the president urged a “‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So Johnson at the time hardly was throwing up his hands in despair about his war policy.

A credulous reference to the “Cronkite Moment” appeared the other day in a column by the Los Angeles Times television critic, who waxed nostalgic about TV coverage of the first manned mission to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. (“We went to the moon on television,” the column declared.)

The column also stated that in 1968, Cronkite “took time on the CBS Evening News to declare Vietnam ‘a stalemate,’ which some credit as turning the tide of public opinion against the war: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ President Johnson is said to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

There’s much to unpack in that sentence.

For starters, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization came at the close of an hour-long special report, not on the Evening News show.

More important, “the tide of public opinion” had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s report. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Gallup polling in October 1967 found that for the first time, a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

That plurality edged up to 49 percent in a Gallup poll completed on the day of Cronkite’s special report.

If anything, then, Cronkite was following rather than “turning the tide of public opinion about the war.”

Especially striking in the Times column is the phrase, “Johnson is said to have said.”

That really is thin attributive cover, not unlike invoking “reportedly” to allow the inclusion of material that a writer hasn’t independently confirmed, or has doubts about. It’s a squishy sort of dubious attribution that ought to set off alarms for editors.

And for readers.

We know what Johnson said at about the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment. Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support. He was making a light-hearted comment about John Connally’s age.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

WJC

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