W. Joseph Campbell

Once-prominent E&P tells media myths about Murrow, Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2021 at 10:29 am

The trade journal Editor & Publisher once was something of a must-read periodical in the news business. It was never much of a crusading magazine, but its announcements about hirings and departures, as well as its classified ads, were closely watched by professional journalists.

E&P, as it’s called, traces its pedigree to the late 19th century but is hardly much of a force these days. It nearly went out of business 12 years or so ago and more recently was sold to a company led by media consultant Michael Blinder.

He is E&P’s publisher and in a column posted this week at the publication’s website, Blinder blamed the news media for exacerbating political divisions in the country. In a passage of particular interest to Media Myth Alert, Blinder wrote:

“I ask you, in today’s media ecosystem, could Edward R. Murrow have really brought that critical ‘truth to power’ that took down Senator Joe McCarthy? Or would Richard Nixon have had to resign over his many documented cover-ups revealed by Woodward and Bernstein? The answer is ‘no!'”

The answer indeed is “no,” because broadcast legend Murrow of CBS did not take down McCarthy. And Nixon did not resign because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Those claims are hoary, media-driven myths — tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or highly exaggerated.

The myths of Murrow-McCarthy and of Watergate are still widely believed despite having been thoroughly debunked.

And not only debunked: they’ve been dismissed or scoffed at by journalists who figured centrally in the respective tales.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, after his famous See It Now television program about McCarthy on March 9, 1954, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said” about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy: red-baiting senator

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Not only that, but as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists [such as muckraking columnist Drew Pearson] had challenged the senator and his tactics” long before March 1954.

Additionally, Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred W. Friendly, scoffed at the notion that Murrow’s program was pivotal or decisive, writing in his memoir: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Even more adamant, perhaps, was Bob Woodward’s dismissing the notion his reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Woodward declared in an interview in 2004:

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

Woodward’s appraisal, however inelegant, is on-target. He and Bernstein did not topple Nixon.

Nor did they reveal, as Blinder writes, Nixon’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate, which began with a botched burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

As Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in 1973, in a lengthy and hagiographic account about Woodward and Bernstein:

“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.”

They “completely missed” the coverup.

The journalism review quoted Woodward as saying this about the coverup and hush money payments: “‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discussed in 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.” 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 guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974, with disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” audiotape, the release of which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

On the “smoking gun” tape — one of many Nixon had secretly recorded at the White House and elsewhere — the president can be heard approving a plan to use the CIA to divert the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in.

The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon may be cheering and reassuring to contemporary journalists. But it is a misleading interpretation that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces — such as the Supreme Court — that were crucial to Watergate’s unraveling and to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.

WJC

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Challenging the media-driven mantra that 9/11 ‘changed everything’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on September 10, 2021 at 3:02 pm

From the hours immediately after the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, news outlets have promoted a mantra that the assault on commercial and military landmarks in New York and suburban Washington “changed everything” in America.

USA Today stated as much on the day after the attacks:

“Days that live in infamy are supposed to be found in dusty history books. Tuesday changed all that. It changed everything. Our world will never be the same.”

The Independent in London declared on the day after:

“Tuesday, 11 September 2001, will go down in America’s annals as the day that changed everything. It was the day that a nation’s confidence was shattered during morning rush-hour in New York City, and its defensive might was mocked at coffee-time in Washington.”

Similar accounts invoking a similar catchcry have appeared in innumerable news reports and commentaries in the 20 years since al-Qaeda terrorists commandeered commercial jets and flew two of them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. They crashed a third into the west facade of the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked jet plunged into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after passengers attempted to wrest control of the aircraft.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, and the lives of thousands of others were shattered or forever altered.

To posit that 9/11 “changed everything” understandably has been a way to make fathomable the shock, horror, and malignant theatricality of that infamous day, a way to invest September 11, 2001, with exceptional and enduring significance.

But exactly what “changed everything” meant remained definitionally elusive — and subject to not infrequent dispute. “Nothing changes everything,” columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11. (The activist Jesse Jackson said at the first anniversary that “9/11 did not change everything. It did change the subject.”)

The Washington Post made a determined effort recently to pin down and elaborate on the “changed everything” mantra. It did so by devoting much of its Sunday magazine (see cover image nearby) to a collection of brief, solicited opinions purporting to describe how 9/11 wrought change in journalism, television, movies, art, fashion, theater, policing, architecture, editorial cartooning, and other fields and pursuits.

The collection was introduced with a sweeping claim that “9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways.”

It was a far-reaching yet ultimately unpersuasive attempt to clarify and bring dimension to the “changed everything” catchcry. Indeed, it was striking that the Post’s collection presented only mixed evidence of significant change incontrovertibly linked to the attacks. Many entries were impressionistic; vagueness stalked more than a few contributions.

For example, one contributor wrote, “Museums have yet to return to the levels of ambition we saw before the attacks.”

Declared another contributor: “The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.”

USA Today front page, day after 9/11

Another contributor alluded to recordings of telephone calls placed by victims aboard the hijacked aircraft or trapped in the stricken Twin Towers and wrote:

“There’s no way to prove, of course, that 9/11 led more people to use the phrase ‘I love you.’ And we might not be thinking of disaster while on a routine call with Mom, Dad, a sibling, a best friend or a spouse. But it was one of the first times Americans got such a visceral window into other people’s intimate conversations — and I believe that, for many of us, it left a mark.”

The attacks of 9/11 certainly led to change — and fresh intrusions — in airport security and personal privacy. The federal government was expanded. The country fought a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda planned the attacks.

But when considered closely, it becomes clear the 9/11 attacks did not “change everything.”

The attacks were not fatal to American political or economic power. Public opinion polls reported that after 9/11 many Americans felt a surge of patriotic fervor, a deeper commitment to the religious and spiritual side of life, and a newfound sense of political unity.

Such responses proved fleeting, however. They faded in time.

Even the Post’s collection acknowledged, perhaps unintentionally,  that change after 9/11 wasn’t always so enduring. The syndicated cartoonist Steve Breen wrote, for example, that after the attacks “there seemed to be an unspoken rule that our favorite target, President George W. Bush, was off-limits. Luckily, that didn’t last long, and we were free to go after Bush (as well as Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, etc.) unfettered.”

Gene Weingarten, the newspaper’s humor columnist, observed: “Pretty quickly [after 9/11], humor returned. It was, I think, the first return to normalcy after that ghastly day, the first good thing to happen.”

(Just a week after the 9/11 attacks, Weingarten had lamented the diminished state of humor in America. “The problem,” he wrote then, “is we are finding no humor, anywhere. When will we be able to laugh again?”)

An assessment far more tempered and thoughtful about the effects of 9/11 was offered not long ago by Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown University professor who pointed out:

“In the United States, the long-term impact of 9/11 does not compare to the great underlying tensions that have shaped American life over generations and centuries: racial tensions and oppression, fears created by immigration, concern about cultural change and the threat to religion and morality, fears about the impact of alcohol and drugs, and the Cold War.

“The impact of 9/11 rather resembles one of the ‘moral panics’ analyzed by James A. Morone in Hellfire Nation; a wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again, leaving behind a new layer of US security institutions and practices.”

Akin to a “wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again”: that’s a fair point — a tenable interpretation given the analytical distance allowed by the passage of 20 years.

“The events of 9/11,” Lieven observed in closing, “have not … defined the world in general, and certainly not ‘our’ world in the West.

“The truly defining factors are quite different,” he wrote, citing the “geopolitical struggle with China” and the domestic troubles of Western democracies.

What’s notable and refreshing about Lieven’s commentary is that it did not proceed from an assumption that 9/11 “changed everything.” It is instead a detached and critical assessment, of which we could use more.

WJC

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Afghanistan is ‘Biden’s Katrina’? Afghanistan is dramatically worse

In Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Scandal on August 27, 2021 at 10:12 am

USA Today suggested in an editorial the other day that the chaos accompanying Joe Biden’s botched and precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military personnel could turn into a kind of Hurricane Katrina for the president.

New Orleans, post-Katrina

The reference was to the damage done to President George W. Bush’s administration by the fitful federal response to the storm that tore into the U.S. Gulf Coast 16 years ago, leaving much of New Orleans under water.

The newspaper’s analogy, while interesting, was cliched and badly misplaced: the hasty and unprovoked U.S. flight Biden ordered from Afghanistan after a 20 year commitment there, and the country’s rapid takeover by Taliban extremists, represent a foreign policy debacle of towering and unprecedented dimensions — a humiliation likely to reverberate for years.

So, no, Afghanistan is hardly “Biden’s Katrina.”

It is scandalously worse, as was confirmed yesterday by the deadly terrorist bombings near Kabul’s international airport, the lone exit from Afghanistan for untold thousands of Americans, other Westerners, and Afghans who allied with them since the U.S.-led invasion in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

It is true that New Orleans in Katrina’s wake conjured comparisons to a war zone. The dominant media narrative in late summer 2005 told of mayhem and unimaginable horror that supposedly had been unleashed across the flooded city.

The Miami Herald, to take just one example, said on September 1, 2005, that a “major American city [had] all but disintegrated … and the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands. Bodies floated down streets. Defeated survivors waded waist-deep and ghost-like through floods. Packs of looters rampaged through the ruins and armed themselves with stolen weapons, and gunfire echoed through the city.”

Paula Zahn, for another example, said on her CNN program that day, “We are getting reports that describe [New Orleans] as a nightmare of crime, human waste, rotten food, dead bodies everywhere. Other reports say sniper fire is hampering efforts to get people out.” She referred to “very discouraging reports out of New Orleans tonight about bands of rapists going from block to block, people walking around in feces, dead bodies floating everywhere.”

In her column published September 3, 2005, in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd referred to New Orleans as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning.”

But much of the reporting about Katrina’s aftermath — the horror, the anarchy, the city’s disintegration — was highly exaggerated and erroneous. Few if any of the nightmarish accounts that pulsated through the news media proved true.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly” in describing post-Katrina horrors in New Orleans. What’s more, I wrote, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was no “quintessentialgreat moment in journalism, as some credulous commentators (including former CBS News anchor Dan Rather) declared.

Instead, the exaggerated coverage had the effect of tainting a proud city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability. It also had the effect of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans.

If anyone rioted, it was the media,” a bipartisan congressional report on Katrina stated, adding, pointedly:

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Some of the most troubling conduct by public figures was not that of the Bush administration but of local government, notably the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass. They were sources for some of the most gruesome and exaggerated reporting about lawlessness in Katrina’s aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the New Orleans Superdome. He claimed that conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass told of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” Compass said about the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were taken at face value and widely reported — but proved almost completely without foundation. Months later, Compass said he passed along the rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”

Compass quit his job in late September 2005. Nagin, who won reelection less than two years after Katrina struck, was convicted in 2014 and sent to prison on 20 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud — charges unrelated to the hurricane and its aftermath. He was released early last year.

Katrina was a powerful, destructive natural disaster, the coverage of which the news media botched.

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is a bloody, self-inflicted disaster, borne of Biden’s blundering, impatience, and ineptitude.

WJC

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