W. Joseph Campbell

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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Hearst, Remington, and the half-embrace of a hoary media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 17, 2019 at 10:31 am

It’s unusual for media myths to be embraced partially — a half-embrace, as it were, of those prominent tall tales about journalists and their supposed exploits.

On assignment for Hearst

But half-embrace is how a new book treats the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of 19th Century.

Hearst supposedly made the declaration in a telegraphic reply to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The exchange of telegrams purportedly went this way:

Remington: “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Clay Risen’s new book, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century, does a half embrace of that well-known but thoroughly dubious tale. Specifically, Risen treats Hearst’s supposed reply as improbable but embraces the Remington portion.

And he does so flatly, writing: “Remington telegraphed Hearst to tell him that there was no war, and that there wasn’t going to be one.”

Risen repeats the purported Remington message: “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

He then says Hearst “allegedly, infamously, replied, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

“In fact,” Risen adds, “it’s unlikely Hearst wrote anything of the kind. … Whatever his reply, Remington ignored him and left Cuba.”

As sources, Risen cites two books, Frederic Remington and the Spanish-American War and The Chief, David Nasaw’s fine biography of Hearst. Both are secondary sources published before my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which devotes a chapter to dismantling the presumptive Remington-Hearst exchange. (I first addressed the Remington-Hearst tale in 2000, in an article for the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.)

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation” — the purported telegrams have never turned up; Hearst denied such an exchange, and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The anecdote’s sole original source was an exaggeration-prone journalist named James Creelman, who mentioned the purported exchange in a book of reminiscences in 1901. But Creelman did not explain how or when he learned about it.

For those and other reasons, the tale is almost certainly untrue. And that goes for the Remington portion, which Risen, deputy op-ed editor at the New York TImes, embraced in his book. It’s highly unlikely Remington wrote anything close to “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war.” His work and words give lie to that supposed message.

Cuba at the time was scarcely trouble-free: It was in the midst of an island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule and that armed conflict — that war — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington and Davis to the island. Remington hardly found everything “quiet” in Cuba when he arrived in early January 1897, in the company of the correspondent Richard Harding Davis.

As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Remington sketches, as published in Hearst’s Journal, “depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.”

The subject matter impugns the notion that Remington had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

Remington sketch, Cuba 1897

What’s more, the headlines accompanying the sketches emphasized the conflict in Cuba. Remington’s work appeared in the Journal beneath headlines such as “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington” and “Frederic Remington Sketches a Familiar Incident of the Cuban War” (see nearby).

Following his return to New York, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he described the Spanish regime in Havana as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”

In 1899, Remington described the assignment to Cuba in a magazine article that further challenges the notion “everything” was “quiet” in Cuba when he was there in early 1897.

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, Remington wrote, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a fortress near Havana harbor. The country-side, Remington said, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

He wrote that he shook his fist in anger at Havana as he left for New York aboard a passenger steamer in mid-January 1897, saying he looked forward to returning only in the company of 100,000 American soldiers.

Remington’s sketches and words, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “leave no doubt that he had seen a good deal of war-related disruption in Cuba. The island during his brief visit was anything but ‘quiet.'”

Still, I noted, “it remains some-thing of a mystery why Remington never publicly addressed Creelman’s anecdote.”

In any event, the evidence is overwhelming that the Remington-Hearst anecdote is false. And it is not divisible; if one half is apocryphal, the other must be, too.

A half-embrace is wholly untenable.

WJC

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