W. Joseph Campbell

CBC modifies its Bay of Pigs claim — but still has it wrong

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

After my post Sunday that called attention to its erroneous characterization of  the New York Times reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, CBC News in Canada modified its claim that at “the direct request” of the President John F. Kennedy, the Times “played down” its story about the pending invasion of 50 years ago.

The CBC now says the Times “played down their story at the direct request of the Kennedy administration.” It’s a slight modification, but a significant shift in storyline, away from Kennedy to an unnamed person or persons in his administration.

Even so, the CBC offered no compelling evidence about who in the Kennedy administration made such a request to the Times, when, to whom, or how.

The modification does little more than muddy matters.

And the CBC still doesn’t have it right about Kennedy, the Times, and the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that devotes a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, there is no compelling evidence that Kennedy or anyone in his administration pressured, lobbied, or persuaded the Times to modify, emasculate, or sanitize the article it published April 7, 1961, which lies at the heart of this media-driven myth.

Szulc of the Times

That article was written by a veteran correspondent named Tad Szulc, who reported that a force of Cuban exiles had been training in the United States and Central America, preparing to launch an armed assault on the regime of Fidel Castro.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the recollections of none of the principal figures in the Times-suppression episode say that Kennedy pressured the newspaper’s editors about the Szulc story.

These recollections, I write, “include the memoirs of Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of the Times; of James (Scotty) Reston, then the chief of the Times’ Washington bureau; of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, and of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an award-winning Harvard historian who was a White House adviser to Kennedy.”

It’s highly improbable that a such juicy detail as Kennedy’s purported interference with the Times’ news judgment would have been so thoroughly ignored by such a disparate cast.

Moreover, the compelling insider’s account written by Harrison E. Salisbury, a former Times senior editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, asserted that the Kennedy White House neither knew about, nor meddled in, the newspaper’s deliberations about its pre-invasion coverage.

Salisbury was unequivocal about that, writing in his 1980 work, Without Fear or Favor:

“The government in April 1961, did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of its internal discussions and deliberations.

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story.” The newspaper, he wrote, “believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

Even with the modification of its article about the Bay of Pigs, the CBC was not inclined to abandon entirely the notion that Kennedy, somehow, took a direct role in meddling with the Times. In a sidebar article posted Sunday, the CBC asserted:

“Numerous sources say that President Kennedy spoke with someone at the New York Times about their reporting there was going to be an invasion of Cuba.”

Many sources may have made such a claim. But assertion is not evidence. And none of the sources mentioned by the CBC offered documentation for their claims.

The CBC sidebar referred specifically to David Halberstam, who wrote The Powers That Be, and Peter Wyden, author of Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story.

Halberstam offered a highly colorful  yet uncorroborated claim that Kennedy called Reston “and tried to get him to kill” Szulc’s article.

Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately about what the Szulc story would do to his policy,” Halberstam wrote, adding that the president warned that the Times would risk having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion a failure.

Wyden claimed that Orvil Dryfoos, then the Times president, “was in touch with” Kennedy, and the president “was upset” by plans to publish the report.

In a footnote, Wyden added: “It can no longer be determined whether Dryfoos contacted the President or whether Kennedy was told about the story and took the initiative.”

The CBC sidebar referred to yet another version, offered in a history of the Times titled The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. According to that account, Reston took the initiative to call the CIA director, Allen Dulles, to speak with him about Szulc’s story as it was being prepared for publication.

“Dulles advised Scotty [Reston] that, for national security reasons, it would be best not to publish the story,” according to The Trust’s version. “However, if the Times decided it absolutely must publish, it should keep [references to] the CIA out of it.”

Such a conversation, however, was neither mentioned nor hinted at by Reston in his memoir, Deadline, which discussed in some detail the Times’ handling of the Szulc story.

And if it Dulles did offer such pre-invasion advice, the suggestions were made in response to Reston’s inquiry — which is quite apart from the Kennedy administration’s calling on, and lobbying, the Times.

Significantly, the versions of Halberstam, Weyden, and The Trust do not agree on who called whom, or what was discussed. Collectively, they offer a great deal of version variability — shifting accounts of what Kennedy supposedly said, and with whom at the Times he supposedly spoke.

Version variability of such magnitude can be a marker of a media-driven myth, as I point out in Getting It Wrong.

That Kennedy took the initiative and called on the Times to encourage the newspaper to tread lightly in its pre-invasion reporting is at the heart of this media myth. And there’s no evidence to support that claim — as the CBC’s modification indicates.


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