W. Joseph Campbell

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National Press Club invokes media myths of Watergate

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 30, 2012 at 5:45 am

The National Press Club indulged in a couple of tenacious media myths about Watergate in announcing the other day it was giving its top award to Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on what was the country’s greatest political scandal.

In its statement that Woodward will receive this year’s Fourth Estate Award, the Press Club declared that his “work on the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of an American president” — an interpretation that not even Woodward embraces.

He once told 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 [President] Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And on another occasion, Woodward declared more bluntly:

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

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the simplified notion that Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Post led to Nixon’s resignation serves to diminish “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate required, I write, “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.

“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” — recordings the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to surrender.

So the notion that Woodward’s reporting for the Post was decisive to Watergate’s outcome is absurd.

So, too, is the subsidiary myth that Watergate reporting — and the cinema’s depiction of the Post’s coverage in All the President’s Men — made the field seem so alluring  that enrollments in college journalism programs surged as a result.

The Press Club statement about Woodward’s award invokes that myth, too, asserting that “enrollment in journalism departments rose in the post-Watergate era, especially after ‘All the President’s Men’ was made into a movie.” It was based on a book by the same title, which was written by Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, separate scholarly studies have debunked the notion of Watergate’s  propellant effect on college enrollments in journalism.

One study, conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995, said that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

So why are these Watergate myths so appealing, and so tenacious, that even the National Press Club embraces them?

One reason is that they’re simplistic, easy-to-remember narratives that locate the news media heroically at the heart of unraveling America’s greatest political scandal.

Indulging in myths such as the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate also offers a subtle way of investing the Press Club award with even greater distinction.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong, the tale about how “the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a myth that’s no doubt too resilient, too media-centric, and too widely applicable ever to eradicate.


Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch?

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm

The Washington Post carried a fine story yesterday about Vogue magazine’s apparent removal from its online site of an unaccountably flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Where's the digital version?

The Post said the 3,200-word puff piece in Vogue “apparently proved so embarrassing to the magazine that it scrubbed it from its Web site, an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization and a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

That observation — “violation of digital etiquette” — evoked for me the unavailability online of the Post’s embarrassingly wrong-headed reports in 2003 about Jessica Lynch and her supposed heroism early in the Iraq War.

In an electrifying account published on its front page April 3, 2003, the Post reported that Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

Lynch, according to the Post,  “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in the fighting,” which took place March 23, 2003.

The hero-warrior tale about Lynch turned out to be utterly wrong in all crucial details. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post reported; she suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee fleeing the ambush.

Lynch was taken prisoner and moved to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until her rescue by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

The Post’s hero-warrior tale appeared two days later.

But try finding the Post’s digitized version of that story. Here’s the link; but clicking through turns up the article’s headline, byline, date of publication, and page placement. But no text.

(The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Later in April 2003, the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, published a critical column about the hero-warrior story, noting that “several readers wrote to complain, saying they did not doubt ‘the gravity of Lynch’s situation,’ as one put it, but that The Post, ‘using unnamed sources,’ was ‘creating a sensationalist story riddled with inaccuracies.’ ‘I smell an agenda,’ said one reader, suspecting wartime ‘propaganda.’ Another was suspicious of the ‘Hollywood-like telling of the story.'”

Try finding Getler’s column online.

Here’s the link; but in this case, too, just the headline, byline, publication date, and page reference are available.

In mid-June 2003, the Post revisited and grudgingly walked back from aspects of its hero-warrior story about Lynch. One media critic characterized the article as “the journalistic equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.”

(And as I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the walk-back story “included a nervy attempt by the Post to deflect blame from its central role in spreading the hero-warrior myth of Jessica Lynch.”

(The Post, I note, “faulted the U.S. military and the administration of President George Bush for failing to correct an error for which the Post was responsible. ‘Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticized initial version of her capture,’ the Post said, ‘helping to foster the myth surrounding Lynch and fuel accusations that the Bush administration stage-managed parts of Lynch’s story.’  It was an astounding assertion: The Post, alone, was responsible for propagating the ‘romanticized initial version’ that created the hero-warrior myth. To claim the Pentagon and the White House should have done more to dispel that report was, in short, exceedingly brazen.”)

Well, good luck in finding the Post’s walk-back story online.

Here’s the link; but, again, only the headline, byline, publication date, and page reference show up.

So has the Post excised the digital reminders of an embarrassing misstep, of a dramatic story that it thoroughly and singularly botched? Has it, at a minimum, committed a “violation of digital etiquette”?

Rather looks like it. (The Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, promised to “check into” my questions. He also said in an email today: “It’s very hard to trace some of this back when The Post has gone through several computer systems since that time, but I’ll make an effort.”)

Separately, I’ve been told that Post stories published before 2005 have largely been placed behind a paywall. For the most part, that is, they’re not freely available online.

But some special sections are accessible online without payment — and they include the Post’s link-rich “War in Iraq” digital archive.

And in a box at the lower right corner of the digital archive is an Army photograph of none other than Jessica Lynch.

Lynch photo at WaPo's Iraq War archive

The box carries the headline, “Saving Pfc Lynch,” and offers a link to an article published in the Post April 4, 2003, a day after the botched hero-warrior tale.

The April 4 article ran to 1,500 words in discussing the Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion Lynch’s rescue.

And that article is available in full.


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CBS marks a Cronkite anniversary, invokes a tenacious media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on April 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm

CBS News yesterday marked what has to be among the more obscure anniversaries in broadcast journalism — the 50th anniversary of the debut of Walter Cronkite’s old evening news show.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And in a flattering writeup recalling the occasion, CBS invoked a prominent media-driven myth — the notion that Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 about the war in Vietnam exerted enormous influence. Until late in his life, not even Cronkite believed that was the case.

Even so, the CBS article declared:

“Cronkite’s intense focus on objectivity gave his rare dose of opinion — especially his 1968 assessment of the war in Vietnam — an enormous weight.”

The writeup quoted an executive producer, Susan Zirinsky, as saying:

“Lyndon Johnson remarked, because he looked at that broadcast, and he said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

President Lyndon Johnson’s purported comment lies at the heart of this tenacious media myth — one of the 10 I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Interestingly, the comment so often attributed to Johnson has been described in so many ways. That is, there is no single version of what the president supposedly said in reacting to Cronkite’s assessment that the war was stalemated.

There’s the version Zirinsky invoked: “‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

More common is: “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Another variant has the president saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And so on.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Version variability of that magnitude signals of implausibility. It is a marker of a media-driven myth.”

And it’s highly likely that Johnson said nothing of the sort.

He did not, after all, not see Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968. The president that night was not in front of a television set when, near the close of the program, Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson at that moment was at a black-tie birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally. The president poked fun at Connally, who was marking his 51st birthday.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see. And the power of what often is called the “Cronkite Moment” stems from the supposedly immediate and visceral effect the anchorman’s assessment had on the president.

But what Cronkite had to say on air that night was hardly earth-shaking, hardly stunning or novel.

If anything, Cronkite’s observation about “stalemate” was a rehash of what other news organizations, such as the New York Times, had been saying for months.

For example in August 1967, the Times inserted “stalemate” into the headline over a front-page news analysis about the war. The Times headline read:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The newspaper’s analysis was filed from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and noted:

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

Before that, on July 4, 1967, the Times published a news analysis that said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

So in the context of the war in Vietnam, “stalemate” was hardly new by the time Cronkite turned to the word.


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Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2012 at 5:11 am

The 40th anniversary of the debut of the Watergate scandal falls in two months and we’re certain read many effusive tributes to the Washington Post’s reporters who often —  but wrongly — are said to have exposed the scandal and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

It’s a safe bet that many of the tributes to the Post and its Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will be exaggerated and erroneous.

Take, for example, this passage, which appeared over the weekend in a column in the Toronto Sun:

“The only superstars newspapers ever produced were Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post investigative team who broke the Watergate story that led to the downfall of U.S. president Richard Nixon.”

Maybe they were the only superstars of newspaperdom, although that claim might provoke an argument from the committee at New York University that recently selected 100 outstanding U.S. journalists of the past 100 years. (The list included several dubious entries, such as the self-important Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. Murrow.)

Woodward and Bernstein made NYU’s rather predictable list, too.

If they are newspapering’s lone superstars, their self-promotion had a lot to do with it.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, came out in June 1974, about two months before Nixon’s resignation.

The book, a months-long best-seller, had been written with the movies in mind; the cinematic version of All the President’s Men came out in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

But more important than Woodward and Bernstein’s superstar status is the claim in the Sun’s column that they “broke the Watergate story.”

They did no such thing.

The signal crime of Watergate — the June 1972 burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — wasn’t broken by the Post. The break-in was interrupted by police and within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex.

The story in the Post about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and its opening paragraph made quite clear that details were from investigators:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

Watergate reporting by the Post did not expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter about the media myths of Watergate, Woodward was quoted in 1973 as saying that those crucial aspects of the scandal were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward: 'held too close'

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

The tapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured him approving a plan in June 1972 intended to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.

That contents of that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and directly led to his resignation in August 1974.

The White House taping system had been disclosed 11 months before, not by Woodward and Bernstein but by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein later claimed to have had a solid lead about the taping system.

In All the President’s Men, the book, Woodward recalled having spoken with Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the lead.

Bradlee advised:

“I wouldn’t bust one” in checking it out.

Had they followed the lead, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about Watergate.

But they didn’t.


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Did Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ know he was ‘Deep Throat’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 15, 2012 at 11:48 am

Felt: Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

Barry Sussman, the Washington Post’s Watergate editor in the early 1970s, raises a provocative question about the newspaper’s famous high-level source, W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official when the Watergate scandal was unfolding.

Did Felt realize that the Post regarded him as “Deep Throat,” as a vital source in reporting the unfolding Watergate scandal? Sussman asks.

The question is pertinent and intriguing, Sussman writes in a recent commentary at the Nieman Watchdog blog, because Felt as a source offered “so little” to Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate.

And yet it is widely believed Felt offered vital information to Woodward about the emergent scandal.

Although Sussman doesn’t specifically address it, the implication of his observation is that “Deep Throat” may have been more composite than a single source — a literary device to infuse drama in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting.

It has long been suspected, though never confirmed, that “Deep Throat” was a composite.

Adrian Havill, the author of Deep Truth, a deliciously scathing biography of Woodward and Bernstein, speculated that “Deep Throat” was “a hybrid of three or four main sources.”

Edward Jay Epstein, in his fine 1976 essay about the Post and Watergate, stated he believed “Deep Throat” was “a composite character.”

More recently, James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, speculated in a book review that “‘Deep Throat’ was more than just Mark Felt.”

Prodded by his family, Felt came forward in 2005 and pronounced himself the source who had been “Deep Throat.” Woodward soon confirmed Felt’s self-disclosure.

But Felt was frail and suffering from dementia. He was forgetful and seldom able to carry on prolonged interviews. (Woodward quoted Felt’s daughter as saying in 2002 that Felt “goes in and out of lucidity.”)

Sussman, as he has on other occasions, asserts that “Deep Throat wasn’t an important source at all” to the Post.

“He was nice to have around, helpful on occasion,” Sussman writes, adding that Woodward and Bernstein “have blown up Felt’s importance for almost four decades or nodded in assent when others did….”

Sussman acknowledges he didn’t know that Felt was supposedly “Deep Throat” before 2005. He also notes that Felt, who died in 2008, often denied having been “Deep Throat.”

And that’s true. In a memoir published in 1979, Felt insisted: “I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!”

Years later, Felt told a Connecticut newspaper that had he been “Deep Throat,” he “would have done it better.”

Felt may have been a liar. Or, as Sussman says, he may not have fully understood that he was considered the source whom the Post referred to as “Deep Throat.”

Sussman’s commentary was prompted by a recent book titled Leak, which claims that Felt was a crucial if sometimes duplicitous source for Woodward on Watergate. (Bernstein, by the way, met Felt only weeks Felt’s death.)

Sussman asserts that Leak “is way off base when it comes to the Post.”

The author of Leak, Max Holland, “accepts a key part of the Watergate myth that really is hokum – that Deep Throat was an important, sine qua non source for the Washington Post,” Sussman writes.

“He not only accepts it; it is his basic premise. This is where his book runs into trouble.”

So why does all this matter now, nearly 40 years after the Watergate scandal began unfolding?

It matters because the mystery of “Deep Throat” was central to establishing the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the enduring if misleading notion that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged reporting, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The identity of “Deep Throat,” as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, was the subject of a 30-year, post-Watergate guessing game — a guessing game that “provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

Those reminders helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which to this day endures as the dominant thought misleading narrative about the country’s greatest political scandal.

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Why WaPo should reveal sources on bogus Jessica Lynch tale

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Today is the ninth anniversary of the Washington Post‘s stunningly wrong hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch, a botched report published on its front page beneath the headline:

She was fighting to the death

Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the attack of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, according to the Post, which cited anonymous “U.S. officials” as its sources.

One of them told the Post that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds “and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the ambush March 23, 2003.

It was electrifying stuff and the Post’s report was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But it was wrong in all important details. Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed. She did not fire a shot in the ambush. She suffered crushing injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it attempted to flee the ambush.

She was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

As Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser).

Nine years on, it’s time for the Post to disclose just who it was that led it astray. It’s time to reveal the sources on the bogus story about Lynch.

It may be akin to sacrilege to argue that a newspaper should lift the veil of anonymity. But reasons  for making something of an exception in the Lynch case are several and compelling.

For one, news organizations owe little to anonymous sources that provide bad information. The grant of confidentiality isn’t meant to be a vehicle for diffusing falsehood.

In this case, the embarrassment quotient remains high enough for the Post to identify its Lynch sources — if not by name, then by affiliation.

Another compelling reason to lift the veil of anonymity is that the veil has been partly lifted already. One of the reporters on the botched story, Vernon Loeb, is on record as saying who the sources were not.

So it should be a small step to saying who they were.

Loeb, in an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” program in December 2003, stated unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He also said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” he added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Loeb also described them as “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington.

Despite Loeb’s insistence that the sources weren’t Pentagon sources, the narrative has taken hold that the military made up the story about Lynch’s heroics and somehow persuaded the Post  to buy it.

Indeed, this has become the dominant narrative of the Lynch case, as I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

By identifying its sources on the Lynch story, the Post could demolish the military-made-it-up narrative and, by doing so, strike a blow for accuracy and truth-telling.

There’s another compelling reason for the Post to lift anonymity in this case: The newspaper’s long silence on its sourcing has allowed twisted and erroneous claims to circulate as factual.

Notable in this regard are the claims Jon Krakauer made in his 2009 book Where Men Win Glory about Jim Wilkinson, an aide to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003, General Tommy Franks.

Krakauer wrote that Wilkinson “duped reporters and editors at the Washington Post” by giving them exclusive access to the bogus tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics.

Krakauer in the book also called Wilkinson a “master propagandist” and said he was “the guy who deserved top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

Wilkinson denied Krakauer’s allegations and met with the author to discuss a retraction.

Krakauer quietly retreated from his unattributed charges about Wilkinson, removing the unflattering passages from a recent paperback edition of Where Men Win Glory. That edition also contains a footnote, saying:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

Had the Post been transparent about the sourcing on its Lynch story,  Krakauer’s unsubstantiated allegations likely never would have been raised.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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