W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward’s latest Trump book prompts myth-telling about Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 22, 2020 at 7:24 pm

It was predictable. Inevitable, even.

It was all but certain that news accounts and reviews of Rage, Bob Woodward‘s latest book about Donald Trump and his presidency, would credulously recite the hardy media myth that Woodward’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Not he: didn’t bring down Nixon

Sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has tried, occasionally, to dampen as absurd.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press, for example, described Woodward as “famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon.”

The New York Post, in reporting last week that Trump found Rage “very boring,” referred to Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, and declared they had “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

The Toronto Sun likewise asserted that the Woodward and Bernstein‘s “1970s Watergate reporting … brought down Richard Nixon.”

The Guardian of London asserted in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

Among the more reverential if complex characterizations of Woodward and his Watergate work came the other day from Henry Zeffman, a reviewer for the Times of London, who wrote:

“Woodward is the doyen of Washington’s sober and self-regarding journalistic elite, and I am wary of criticizing someone who has won two Pulitzer prizes and brought down a president.”

The bit about Washington’s “self-regarding journalistic elite” is true enough. And the claim about Woodward having brought down a president seems irresistible, for Zeffman returns to and reiterates that point deeper in his review, calling Woodward “a reporter who felled a president.”

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is not Woodward’s take on Trump but the inclination of journalists to dust off and invoke the mythical effects of Woodward’s Watergate reporting nearly 50 years ago.

And why are they so inclined to embrace so blithely what long ago has been debunked as a media myth?

It’s a question not infrequently considered at Media Myth Alert — a question also taken up in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of the Watergate scandal — “that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — is endlessly appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, might one day result in powerful effects.

The trope also represents “ready shorthand,” I noted, for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” Watergate after all was a tangle of lies, deceit, and criminality, and popular understanding of the details has faded considerably since Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Even so, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — one that even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004:

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

On another occasion, Woodward complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program 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.

“The Washington Post stories had some part in a chain of events … that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

Woodward was right: simply put, he and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

And we would do well to take Woodward at his word.

Or the word of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of Watergate’s seminal crime — the botched breakin at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

“The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” Graham added.

Indeed.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s sprawling dimensions, I noted in Getting It Wrong, “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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up [of the breakin] and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money” to the burglars and others convicted in the crime.

WJC

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Cronkite did all that? The anchorman, the president, and the Vietnam War

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on August 23, 2020 at 6:07 am

The endless appeal of media-driven myths rests largely in affirming that journalists are powerful actors whose work and words can exert great and decisive effects on war, politics, and public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam

This thread runs through all prominent media myths, from William Randolph Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century to the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, that exposés by two Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The thread also defines the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the Vietnam War.

Cronkite’s assessment, which came after he visited what then was South Vietnam in the wake of the communist-led Tet offensive, was unremarkable for the times. Even so, it has taken on legendary status as a moment of telling unvarnished truth to power, as an occasion when an anchorman’s words brought clarity to a President who, as if in an epiphany, realized his war policy was a shambles.

Journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote of Cronkite’s assessment, “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Cronkite of course had declared no such thing and the war in Vietnam ground on until 1975. But Halberstam’s hyperbole is emblematic of the mythical proportions the “Cronkite Moment” has reached.

Late August brings the anniversary and inevitable reminders of the bloody 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. The approach of the anniversary this year was the occasion for the Guardian of London to post an essay of reminiscences by a photographer who was there.

What particularly interested Media Myth Alert was this passage, crediting Cronkite with decisive influence and power:

“President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the years-long Vietnam war, chose not to run for re-election after a critical editorial by the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, the man then dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Losing Cronkite’s confidence, Johnson believed he had lost Middle America as well.”

There’s much to unpack and dismantle in those two sentences, which imply that Cronkite’s assessment about the war, offered in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, led Johnson not to seek reelection.

But we know that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired. The President that night was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for a long-time political ally, John Connally. And it is not clear whether, when, or under what circumstances Johnson may have seen the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, the power of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” resides in the immediate, unexpected, and visceral effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect likely would have been muted or absent had Johnson seen the program, or excerpts, on videotape.

Even if he did screen the program on videotape soon after February 27, it is clear Johnson did not take Cronkite’s assessment to heart. In the days and weeks afterward, the president mounted a vigorous public defense of his war policy. In mid-March 1968, for example, he told a meeting of business leaders 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.”

Two days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Not only that, but the anchorman’s characterization of “stalemate” was hardly novel in late February 1968.

The term had been invoked frequently by critics — and for months before Cronkite’s program — to describe the war. In early August 1967, the New York Times published a lengthy, front page news analysis about the war beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The analysis, filed from Vietnam by R.W. Apple Jr., said in part:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the fighting in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The essay won Apple an Overseas Press Club award.

What tipped Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 were his declining political fortunes and the views of an informal group of advisers — and not, as the Guardian essay suggests, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

By the end of March 1968, when he announced he would not run for another term, Johnson had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary election to an antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. And an even more formidable rival for the Democratic party nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had entered the race. Johnson was becoming a spent force, politically.

His informal advisers, collectively known as the “Wise Men,” had gathered in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s war policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” one adviser, George Ball, later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted.

A few days afterward, Johnson announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection.

The Guardian essay also claims that Cronkite was known at the time as “the most trusted man in America.”

In fact, that characterization was applied to him years after 1968 — when CBS publicists touted him as such in advertising the network’s Election Night news coverage in 1972.

Their basis? A survey conducted that year of 8,780 respondents in 18 states by the pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company. The poll sought to assess and compare levels of public trust among U.S. politicians. Oddly, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaningn that he was being compared to the likes of Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent, which as media critic Jack Shafer once noted, “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.” The generic “average senator” came in second at 67 percent.

CBS publicists nonetheless embraced the survey’s results. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads encouraged readers to tune into the CBS election coverage — and proclaimed Cronkite the “most trusted American in public life.”

WJC

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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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