W. Joseph Campbell

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Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.

PBS the other night aired an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper champion of the poor, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth. In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890 Pulitzer pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of  telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer.

The documentary-makers might have plumbed that correspondence for its insights. They might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

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Murrow-McCarthy, 65 years on: Tenacious media myth and a telling reminder

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 6, 2019 at 12:02 pm

The 65th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s report about Joseph R. McCarthy — extravagantly called “television’s finest half-hour” — falls this week. Over the intervening years, the program has become infused with a tenacious media myth.

Murrow

And yet the program resonates still, particularly in Murrow’s comments about dissent and false allegations.

The program about McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin who had unsettled the country with allegations about communist infiltration of U.S. government agencies, aired on the CBS “See It Now” newsmagazine show on March 9, 1954.

The myth has it that Murrow, alone in American journalism, had the courage, will, and stature to stand up to McCarthy and expose him as the demagogue he was.

That makes for an appealing trope about media power and the agency of a committed, high-profile journalist. But neither Murrow nor his producer, Fred Friendly, embraced the myth that “See It Now” took down McCarthy, or stopped him in his tracks.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed.” By then, McCarthy and his tactics were quite well-known.

Indeed, the senator’s troubles had been building for months. By the time Murrow’s program aired — a show that journalism educator Loren Ghiglione has termed “television’s finest half-hour” — McCarthy’s favorability ratings had crested and were in terminal decline.

During the week when Murrow’s show was broadcast, the Army accused McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, of exerting pressure to win favorable treatment for Cohn’s friend and assistant, David Schine, who had been drafted into military service.

The charges were a centerpiece of the Army-McCarthy hearings of the Spring of 1954, which led to the senator’s censure later that year.

Murrow’s program about McCarthy was nothing if not belated. Referring to Murrow, the CBS News commentator Eric Sevareid observed in an interview in 1978:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

Indeed, Murrow’s show came more than four years after McCarthy launched his communists-in-government attacks — and more than four years after muckraking journalist Drew Pearson began challenging the senator’s claims in his syndicated column, “Washington Merry Go Round.”

Pearson wasn’t a very likable or popular journalist. The media critic Jack Shafer described him several years ago as “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”

Pearson was self-important, overbearing, and readily made enemies. But he recognized the suspect quality of McCarthy’s charges and went after the senator hard and relentlessly — and paid a price for doing so.

Pearson dismissed McCarthy’s claims that communists had infiltrated the State Department, writing that when the senator “finally was pinned down, he could produce … only four names of State Department officials whom he claimed were communists.”

Two of the four people named by McCarthy had resigned years earlier; another had been cleared, and the fourth had never worked for the State Department, Pearson wrote.

He followed up with another column, writing that “the alleged communists which he claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Pearson also scrutinized the senator’s tax troubles and his accepting suspicious campaign contributions back in Wisconsin.

The probing angered McCarthy. In December 1950, the hulking senator physically assaulted Pearson after a private dinner at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington.

McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat-check room and either punched or slapped the columnist, or kneed him in the groin. Accounts varied.

Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in a U.S. Senator just days before, intervened to break up the assault. Nixon in his memoir RN recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Not long afterward, McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “fake,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Pearson: hat-wearing columnist

McCarthy also aimed a threat at the sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program, Adam Hat Stores Inc., declaring that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

A week later, Adam Hat said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s program, citing “a planned change in advertising media.”

So Murrow was hardly the first prominent journalist to confront McCarthy. Others besides Pearson were Richard Rovere of the New Yorker and James Weschler of the New York Post.

Despite the myth that distorts it, the “See It Now” program of 65 years ago reverberates in our times. Murrow’s concluding peroration that night stands as an abiding reminder about the primacy of evidence and the importance of dissent.

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” Murrow said in a two-minute commentary to close the program. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. … And remember, we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

In a time of fake news and sham allegations, a time that can resemble “an age of unreason,” Murrow’s sentiments stand as pointed and enduring reminders.

WJC

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‘Fake news about fake news’: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 17, 2019 at 12:15 pm

They’re pretty sure it’s apocryphal.

But they use it anyway.

Media myths can be appealing like that: Too good to resist. Too good for media outlets not to revive when they think the occasion is fitting.

So it was the other day when the Salt Lake Tribune editorially condemned President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the country’s southern border.

In its editorial, the Tribune resurrected William Randolph Hearst’s debunked vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

“You want fake news?” the Tribune‘s editorial began. “Here’s some fake news about fake news.”

In other words, we’re turning to Hearst’s debunked “furnish the war” vow as seemingly a clever editorial device to impugn Trump’s claims about illegal cross-border immigration.

The Tribune went on, introducing Hearst and “yellow journalism“:

“William Randolph Hearst, impresario of yellow journalism around the end of the 19th century, was described as such a powerful press baron that, it was said, he basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s cruel tactics to put down a rebellion against its rule of Cuba. Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame that long ago war on young Heart’s flamboyant yellow journalism. Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

The Tribune then invoked Hearst’s purported but purported vow, declaring:

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.'”

The Remington-Hearst exchange supposedly was by cable, but the telegrams presumed to contain their words have never turned up. Had such messages been sent, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as a clear case of Yankee meddling.

On assignment for Hearst

What’s more, the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in early 1897. Given that context, it would have made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune acknowledges the Remington-Hearst tale is dubious but justifies its use as “too good” not to invoke when “appropriate”:

“That story is now thought to be apocryphal at best. But it was too good not to mimic in Orson Welles’ version of Hearst’s life, ‘Citizen Kane,’ and not to otherwise be brought out in appropriate moments.”

If it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization knowingly invoke the anecdote, especially as media myths undermine the normative, truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood hardly makes an editorial argument compelling. Or coherent.

Welles did paraphrase the Remington-Hearst exchange in an early scene in Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture that Hearst wanted to kill. As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the adaptation in Kane “firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow … into the public’s consciousness.”

And sometimes into the service of scoring points, editorially.

WJC

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Newspaper rant deplores ‘debasement of reality’ but invokes prominent media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2019 at 8:54 am

The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic the other day in deploring “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” declaring that “lies” have become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was a long-form screed alright, which appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It was not unlike many other rants written during the war between the press and President Donald Trump.

Journos didn’t do it

What most interested Media Myth Alert was not so much the hyperventilating as the credulous reference to the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — that reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past,” the Seattle Times article asserted, adding:

“But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

Uh-huh: “forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion, of course, is to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

But forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

No, the forces essential to rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance: Indeed, they were marginal to Watergate’s outcome.

And this by no means is a new interpretation.

The first edition of Getting It Wrong came out in 2010.

Five years before that, the Washington Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

And in 1974, Edward Jay Epstein had cast a highly skeptical look at the notion the Washington Post was central to Watergate’s unraveling.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, the best-selling book about their Watergate reporting, Epstein wrote:

“The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s autobiographical account of how they ‘revealed’ the Watergate scandals. …  In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the ‘behind-the-scenes’ investigations which actually ‘smashed the Watergate scandal wide open’ — namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees.”

So why does the hero-journalist myth persist? Why is it so often invoked, and credulously so, despite having been repeatedly debunked over the years?

It lives on for several reasons, including the need to support claims that the news media are decisive actors in American culture and political life.

But as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

What’s more, I noted, media myths tend to be “self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

WJC

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