W. Joseph Campbell

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2019

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2019 at 7:44 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2019 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October, marked its 10th anniversary. The Washington Post figured in three of the year’s top posts.

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate (posted November 27): It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. It’s a trope that’s readily invoked but often too good to check out.

An almost-predictable by-product of the impeachment hearings conducted late in the year by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were media references to the myth that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Among the references was that of the Post’s own managing editor, Cameron Barr, who declared in a speech in November at the University of Oxford that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

The phrase means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting did not cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, senior staff at the Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the newspaper’s reporting brought down Nixon. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

When asked about his “brought to pass” remarks at Oxford, Barr replied by parsing his words:

“You’ll note that I didn’t say that The Post brought down Nixon or took Nixon down or got Nixon – those mischaracterizations [sic] my colleagues have rejected and rightly so. As do you.

“I said The Post’s reporting brought it to pass, and my evidence for that is the historical record. We did our jobs as journalists, setting in motion other factors and forces that compelled him to step down.”

Nice try.

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s quite a stretch to say that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding federal authorities who did uncover the evidence that brought to pass Nixon’s resignation.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the news media and Watergate, “even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

TV made all the difference in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly (posted September 29): The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, made sweeping claims in late September that television had “made all the difference in 1954″ in exposing and bringing down the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. She further wrote that during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, television had had a “disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Such interpretations may reassure journalists, reminding them of their presumed power and influence. Media-driven myths tend to have such an effect. But it’s exceedingly mediacentric to claim television was decisive in McCarthy’s fall or in Watergate’s outcome.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in raising challenges to McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch hunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that proved decisive.

Sullivan wrote in her column: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. But it hardly “shut down the senator.”

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

The hearing transcript show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch. McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch had belonged.

Television came late to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years, before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist, and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

And Pearson, for his work, was physically assaulted by McCarthy in December 1950.

Televised coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 was riveting. But the greatest contribution came from what Senate staffers learned: They found that Nixon had secretly made audio tapes of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Ultimately, when they were pried from Nixon’s possession, the tapes revealed that the president knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said several years ago. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Newspaper rant deplores “debasement of reality” but invokes prominent media myth (posted January 8): The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic early in the year in deploring what it termed “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” asseting that “lies” had become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was an over-the-top screed that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It also extolled journalism, saying “more often than not” over the years, “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.”

The allusion to “forcing a president’s resignation” was, of course, to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

In reality, 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.”

And as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required the collective if not always 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, I wrote, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the recordings he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office — 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.

Fake news about fake news”: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency (posted February 17): Early in the year, the Salt Lake Tribune turned editorially to the hoary media myth about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century. The Tribube invoked the myth as a way to condemn President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the southern U.S.border, to stem illegal immigration.

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

In discussing Hearst’s debunked vow (which supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897), the newspaper said:

“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 done by cable. But the telegrams have never turned up. Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it.

Had such messages been sent, moreover, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as Yankee meddling.

Remington sketch of ‘Cuban war’ (New York Journal)

Not only that, but the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the rebellion in Cuba against Spanish rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to the island. Remington was to draw sketches of the uprising. And he did.

Given the context — given the war in Cuba — it would have made no sense at all for Hearst to send a telegram, vowing to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune editorial acknowledged the Remington-Hearst tale is “thought to be apocryphal at best.” Even so, the newspaper said, the anecdote was “too good” not to turn to at “appropriate moments.”

Interesting argument.

But if it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization invoke the anecdote, given that media myths inevitably impugn and undermine the truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood scarcely makes an editorial argument more compelling. Or more coherent.

Not Hearst’s war

The Tribune’s editorial didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Hearst and the activistyellow journalism“ he practiced “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 resulting from Spain’s cruel tactics to put down the Cuban rebellion.

Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame the long ago war on Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism.

Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (posted April 14): PBS aired in April an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism.

In the PBS treatment, Pulitzer’s talents and commitments seemed endlessly laudatory.

The documentary tells us that Pulitzer was an avid reader, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an accomplished chess player, an unstoppable workaholic. 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, that Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri derailed his career or darkened his reputation.

But the effect of the documentary’s gushing wasn’t uplifting or inspiring.

It was misleading.

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

Pulitzer the irritable (Library of Congress)

Pulitzer was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him.

The meaner, 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 profound failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate.

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 rarely visited the World building.

For years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control, from retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe. To his editors and managers, he regularly fired off telegrams and letters that were full of instructions, guidance, and reproach. This correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial component to Pulitzer’s personality.

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

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and remote-control management were not much explored.

The memory of Joseph Pulitzer has been boosted over the decades by a succession of exceptionally generous biographers.

To that lineup of adulation, the flattery of documentary-filmmakers can now be added.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2019:

  1. […] I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, polling by Gallup indicated that the turning point in public opinion came […]

  2. […] I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most […]

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