W. Joseph Campbell

Insidious: Off-hand references signal deep embedding of prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 6, 2021 at 11:15 am

The insidious nature of prominent media myths is evident in how casually they are invoked, as if their veracity is beyond question.

These blithe, passing references in news articles and commentary seldom are accompanied by much context or explanation. And their appearance signals how deeply embedded some media myths have become.

Two recent cases serve to illustrate this tendency.

Musings in the New York Times

One example appeared last week in an entertaining if overlong New York Times article that mused about the identity of an elusive and anonymous Instagram user whose handle is rg_bunny1. Over the recent months, user rg_bunny1 has unleashed what the Times called “a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert was the article’s passing reference to Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. Bernstein, we are told, was “one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The “duo” was Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “the source” no doubt refers to “Deep Throat,” the anonymous informant with whom Woodward — but not Bernstein — consulted from time to time as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973.

But he was “the source that brought down the Nixon presidency”?

Nope. Not “Deep Throat.” Not Bernstein and Woodward. Not their reporting for the Washington Post.

Those all are components of a tenacious media myth — what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — a trope that’s erroneous but ever-appealing, easy to retell and easy to grasp.

What really brought down Nixon is far more complicated than a duo of journalists and a well-placed anonymous source.

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

But even then, I noted, “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,” making inevitable the early end to his presidency in August 1974.

The disclosure about the existence of Nixon’s tapes was pivotal in the Watergate saga — and it was a disclosure not by Bernstein and Woodward or by “Deep Throat,” but by a former Nixon aide in testimony before  a U.S. Senate select committee. (In a book about their Watergate reporting, Bernstein and Woodward claimed to have had a lead about the existence of the tapes, but did not pursue it because the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t think it would lead to a high-quality story.)

The “Deep Throat” source was W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official who fed Watergate-related information, and sometimes misinformation, to Woodward (as well as a reporter for Time magazine named Sandy Smith). Felt was motivated not so much by altruism or distate for Nixon’s White House as by ambition to become director of the FBI, a position that opened up in May 1972 with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

By leaking to reporters, Felt believed he could undercut his rivals for the FBI directorship. Those motives were persuasively described in Max Holland’s 2016 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

It’s useful and revealing in this context to recall what Woodward once said about the notion that he and Bernstein toppled Nixon. Woodward told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Another example of a media myth breezily cited appeared the other day in essay posted at the online site of Newsmax, the cable news outlet that has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump.

The essay took up President Joe Biden’s recent gun-control proposal, asserting that it would “strangle the rights of law-abiding gun-owners.” In search of an analogy, the essay landed on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a pessimistic, on-air assessment about the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The Newsmax essay invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” or something to that effect — and declared:

“At that moment, and on that basis, [Johnson] decided that he wouldn’t seek another term as president.”

Again, nope.

Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968, and it is not clear whether the president ever saw the show program on videotape at some undefined later date.

But it is clear that in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite report, Johnson remained publicly and adamantly hawkish about the war. In orher words, when the effects of Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment should have been most potent, Johnson was as insistent as ever about prosecuting the conflict. After the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy.

Just three days after Cronkite’s report, for example, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” he said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, the president declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

The president spoke about Vietnam with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling 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.”

Johnson’s views on Vietnam did change, and he did decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

But not because of what Cronkite had said.

The reasons for the president’s change of heart were political, at least in part.

By mid-March 1968, Johnson was facing insurgent challenges for the Democratic nomination from two anti-war U.S. senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Johnson had nearly lost the New Hampshire primary election on March 12, 1968, to McCarthy and he seemed unlikely to prevail in the upcoming primary in Wisconsin.

Also was influential in swinging Johnson’s views about the war was a coterie of informal advisers who met at the White House in late March 1968.

The advisers, who came to be called the “Wise Men,” included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under-secretary of state.

“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights'” in Vietnam, Ball later recalled.

Johnson, he said, “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.”

The counsel of the Wise Men was a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced limits to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam, as an inducement to the communist regime in Hanoi to enter talks to end the war.

Johnson closed the speech by declaring he would not seek reelection — a bombshell announcement that contained no reference, passing or otherwise, to Cronkite’s on-air assessment of a month before.

WJC

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Punctured tale of Trump’s photo op may live on as media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 15, 2021 at 12:24 pm

The insistent media narrative that demonstrators were violently expelled from Lafayette Square outside the White House a year ago to allow then-President Donald Trump to pose for photographs at a fire-damanged church nearby was convincingly and impressively deflated last week in a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Although punctured, the photo op narrative may well live on as a full-blown media-driven myth, as a tale widely believed despite the evidence disputing it.

From the IG’s report

Embedded in the narrative about Trump’s photo op of June 1, 2020, are earmarks of media myths — those well-known tales about and/or by the news media that are widely known and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The inspector general’s report made clear that corporate media exaggerated in declaring that Trump or his aides ordered demonstrators dispersed from Lafayette Park so he could pose at the historic St. John Episcopal Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire in rioting the night before.

Mark Lee Greenblatt, the Interior Department inspector general, said in a statement accompanying the report that “the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park” en route to the church. (USPP is an acronym for United States Park Police, a law enforcement unit of the National Park Service.)

The protests near the White House were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a few days earlier.

“No one we interviewed stated that the USPP cleared the park because of a potential visit by the President or that the USPP altered the timeline to accommodate the President’s movement,” the inspector general’s report stated.

Instead, the report said, Park Police “cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers” that occurred during civil unrest the two nights before. Indeed, fencing material had arrived at the site before Park Police learned of Trump’s plans, according to a timeline included in the report.

Such findings represent a serious blow to an aggressive media narrative that excoriated Trump for arrogance, hubris, and reckless use of power. “The IG’s conclusion could not be clearer: the media narrative was false from start to finish,” wrote prominent media critic Glenn Greenwald, referring to the inspector general’s report.

“In sum,” Greenwald added, “the media claims that were repeated over and over and over as proven fact — and even confirmed by ‘fact-checkers’ — were completely false.”

And yet, it is not at all far-fetched that the tale of Trump’s photo op will live on as a media myth — believed because it’s believable, even though disputed or severely challenged.

The photo op narrative shares central features of media myths in that it’s a prominent tale but yet simplistic, pithy, and easily retold.

Similarly, the photo-op tale is, at least perhaps for foes of Trump, too good not to be true, a truism also characteristic of many media myths.

Likewise, the tale of the photo op is focused on a clear central actor — a clear villain, in this case. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of the central actor in the mythical but enduring tale of William Randolph Hearst, a media bogeyman for all time, and his vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

Moreover, the photo op episode lends itself to readily identifiable shorthand, not unlike the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” in which an editorial comment by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite in 1968 supposedly swung public opinion against the war in Vietnam. The epithet “Trump’s photo op” already is routinely associated with the events near the White House on June 1, 2020.

Another feature of media myths is that high-profile challenges to arise well after the erroneous narrative is in place. Such was the case of the media myth that Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. What I call the heroic journalists interpretation of the Watergate scandal took hold before it was ever prominently challenged. The inspector general’s report was released slightly more than a year after the photo-op episode.

And even then, the inspector general’s report set off little soul-searching by the corporate media, especially by news outlets such as CNN, which ran hard with the photo-op story as it unfolded last year.

 

But rarely do the corporate media take to soul-searching or apologies when they fumble an important story, a point made in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Or as media critic Jack Shafer noted years ago:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Shafer further wrote: “Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”

So it’s been with the Trump-photo op. Corporate media have been disinclined to offer explanations or to revisit their misguided assumptions in any sustained way.

In a few instances, journalists have openly disparaged the inspector general’s report. CNN’s chief domestic correspondent, Jim Acosta, referred to Trump’s private estate in Florida and sneered that the report suggested “this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June 1st.”

Almost a “whitewash”? And what was that about reluctance to concede error “no matter what the facts are”?

WJC

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The impressive and enduring appeal of journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative

In 1897, Newspapers, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on May 29, 2021 at 4:50 pm

American journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative — the escape of Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison in October 1897 — once again has demonstrated remarkable and enduring appeal.

The jailbreak, which was organized by a Havana-based reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s brash New York Journal, is the centerpiece of a recently published fictional account —  the third treatment by a novelist since the early 1990s.

The rescue of Cisneros, then a teenage political prisoner, represented the zenith of Hearst’s “journalism of action,” a paradigm that envisioned newspapers taking high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

The jailbreak is central to Chanel Cleeton’s The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, which was published early this month. It also was a narrative centerpiece of Daniel Lynch’s amusing if improbable Yellow, which was published in 1992, and of Amy Ephron’s White Rose, which came out in 1999 and was billed as part romance, part thriller.

I read portions of Cleeton’s novel and was struck by the reminiscence to details first described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. (I also reported findings about the jailbreak in an article, “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” that was published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal American Journalism.)

Cleeton, however, acknowledges no debt to The Year That Defined American Journalism, which specifically rejected the persistent but evidence-thin notion that the jailbreak was a hoax, that Cisneros was freed because Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba had been bribed to look the other way.

I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Cisneros jailbreak instead was “the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles” — roles that had remained obscure for more than 100 years.

To her credit, Cleeton does not embrace the jailbreak-as-hoax notion.

But her discussion of the main actors who conspired to break Cisneros from jail certainly would be familiar to readers of The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Cisneros in 1898

Indeed, several characters discussed in The Year That Defined American Journalism figure in Cleeron’s novel.

They include:

Karl Decker, the jailbreak’s organizer who nominally was the Journal’s correspondent in Havana; Carlos Carbonnel, the Cuban-American banker who secluded Cisneros at his home after the jailbreak and who married her several months later; Walter B. Barker, the headstrong U.S. consular officer in north-central Cuba who acted as Cisneros’ guardian aboard the New York-bound steamer on the final leg of her escape from Havana, and William B. MacDonald and Francisco (Paco) DeBesche, who were Decker’s accomplices in the jailbreak.

Several previously undisclosed details about the Cisneros escape were found in my review of an unpublished manuscript of Fitzhugh Lee, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1896 until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The manuscript offered insights “not to be found in other sources,” I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Lee’s manuscript and his other papers at the University of Virginia — which, at my urging, were opened to scholars in 2001 — also make clear that he, his wife, and daughter took exceptional interest in the plight of Cisneros (whose full name was Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros).

At the time of her escape, she was 19-years-old and had spent 15 months in captivity in Havana’s notorious jail for women, Casa de Recogidas, without being tried.

She was suspected by Spanish authorities of complicity in an assault on a senior Spanish officer on the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth); Cisneros said the officer, Colonel José Bérriz, had made unwelcome advances toward her. The Cisneros case unfolded during the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule, an insurgency that began in 1895 and had spread across Cuba by 1897.

Spanish authorities imposed harsh conditions on Cubans in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which eventually brought U.S. intervention and the Spanish-American War.

His manuscript suggests that Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was aware of the plot to free Cisneros. But he had plausible deniability, given that he was on home leave in the United States when Cisneros escaped in the small hours of October 7, 1897.

Two days later, Cisneros was dressed as a boy and brought aboard the steamer Seneca, which reached New York October 13.

In keeping with his paradigm of activist journalism, Hearst organized a thunderous outdoor reception for Cisneros and Decker, who, under an assumed name, had separately fled Cuba aboard a Spanish-flagged vessel. Nearly 75,000 people came to Madison Square, a turnout the Journal described as “the greatest gathering New York has seen since the close of the [civil] war” in 1865.

The jailbreak and flight of Evangelina Cisneros make for a remarkable story, one without direct equivalent in American journalism. It is a complex and untidy narrative, too. As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “to examine the Cisneros affair in any detailed way is to confront a tangle of contradiction, exaggeration, and misdirection.”

Scrubbing jailhouse floors (New York Journal)

The Journal, for example, probably exaggerated the conditions of her confinement, suggesting that among other indignities she was commanded to scrub the jailhouse floors. Fitzhugh Lee publicly scoffed at such accounts.

Cleeton hinted at the complexity of the jailbreak narrative, writing in an author’s note at the close of her novel, “There were times in telling Evangelina’s story that truth felt stranger than fiction,” adding that “there was no need for dramatic embellishment.”

She said her primary source was The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, which the Journal had arranged for publication in late 1897, based on reporting by Decker and others. The book, however, contained almost no detail about the plot to free her; no reference by name to Decker’s co-conspirators; no specific mention of Carlos Carbonell, the bachelor-banker who, as Lee’s manuscript makes clear, was vital to the success of the covert operation.

Story of Evangelina Cisneros was the only work cited specifically by Cleeton, who she said she “utilized” more than 100 sources “to research different aspects of the novel.”

Given the novel’s reliance on details first published in The Year That Defined American Journalism, acknowledging the book by name would have been fitting.

WJC

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