W. Joseph Campbell

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Of Trump’s chances and Mark Twain’s ‘exaggerated’ quip

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2020 at 6:59 am

CNN (really) offered not long ago one of the more coherent recent assessments about the unfolding election campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

A commentary by two Democratic analysts argued against prematurely dismissing Trump’s chances of winning reelection, despite the polls of July that overwhelmingly are in Biden’s favor.

Twain in 1907

“It seems,” wrote Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan, “that Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.

“Those declaring Trump politically finished,” they added, “should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that ‘the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.‘”

The analysis  is persuasive; but what most interests Media Myth Alert is the remark attributed to Twain, the American humorist and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens.

The quotation itself is exaggerated — as it has been over the years — and is more emphatic than it really was.

What Twain said in an interview in early June 1897 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was subdued. Flat, even.

“The report of my death,” he simply said, “was an exaggeration.”

The more evocative version that appeared in the CNN commentary is not unusual. Twain’s line often has been presented as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Or “grossly exaggerated.” And sometimes the Journal is said to have been the source of the erroneous report, not its prompt and thorough debunking.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s comment was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

The Herald reported Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain at the time was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for Hearst’s Journal. That association allowed the Journal to quickly knock down the Herald‘s story.

In a front-page article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald‘s account as false and presented Twain’s straightforward “exaggeration” comment.

The Journal’s article, which carried the byline of Frank Marshall White, began this way:

“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him … of he report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

“He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children, and has only this week finished the narrative of his recent travels ….”

After invoking the remark about the “report of my death was an exaggeration,” White further quoted Twain as saying: “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Interesting, all that, but why bother with an exaggerated, long-ago quotation?

One reason is that quote-distortion happens often, to Twain and other prominent figures.

As I discussed in a chapter in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” For many reasons, the well-known, often-invoked comment is surely apocryphal. Yet it lives on as an presumptive evidence of Hearst’s war-mongering ways in the late 19th century.

Consider, too, the unlikely remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared in February 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was stalemated. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president supposedly uttered in response to Cronkite’s televised comment, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong:

“Bogus quotations share many of the defining features of media-driven myths: They tend to be concise and simplistic, easy to remember, fun to retell, tenacious, and often thinly sourced.”

WJC

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No, WaPo, Nixon never ‘touted a secret plan to end war in Vietnam’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Washington Post on June 2, 2020 at 8:00 pm

The hoary media myth about Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam is circulating anew, and being presented as if genuine.

The tale was invoked yesterday in a Washington Post essay that argued societal rifts and recent civil disorders in contemporary America don’t match those of 1968. “America is polarized today — but not like in 1968,” the essay said. “Today’s polarization is tidy by comparison.”

Maybe. But it’s not a far-fetched assessment. The essay stumbles, though, in claiming without attribution or qualification that Nixon’s “secret plan” was a “tantalizing” pledge that figured significantly in his run for the White House 52 years ago.

The Post presented the claim in this convoluted manner:

Won without a ‘secret plan’

“Besides law and order, he touted a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. Later, we learned that the plan was secret because it didn’t actually exist. But in 1968, Nixon’s secret was tantalizing indeed, and it helped him to his narrow victory, because Americans wanted the war to end and a secret plan was better than no plan at all.”

Right, “a secret plan was better than no plan at all.”

Tantalizing, that.

Except that Nixon never said he had a plan to end the war without disclosing what he had in mind. He never “touted” a “secret plan,” as Media Myth Alert has noted on several occasions.

Nonethless, Nixon’s “secret plan” has become a media myth that won’t die, its tenacity due in part because it seems so cynical, so utterly Nixonian. Like many media myths, it seems almost too good to be false.

Interestingly, the “secret plan” myth took hold despite Nixon’s assertions to the contrary.

He pointedly and publicly dismissed such a notion early in his campaign in 1968. He was quoted as saying in an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late March that year that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” Nixon was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had some sort of “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim wasn’t a feature of his campaign. He didn’t run on a “secret plan” pledge.

That is clear in the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers, including the Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune.

No articles were found during the period January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

The “secret plan” anecdote likely is derived from a speech Nixon made on March 5, 1968, in Hampton, New Hampshire, in which he declared “new leadership” in Washington would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting Nixon’s remarks, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI account also said “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.” Late in his winning campaign for president that year, Eisenhower dramatically announced he would “go to Korea” to begin searching for a peaceful settlement.

A New York Times account of Nixon’s speech, published March 6, 1968, quoted the candidate as saying he “could promise ‘no push-button technique’ to end the war. Nixon also said he was not suggesting ‘withdrawal’ from Vietnam.” A brief follow-on report published in the Times that day quoted Nixon as saying he envisioned applying military pressure as well as diplomatic efforts in seeking to end the war.

William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and later columnist for the Times, used to relish calling attention to published references to the mythical “secret plan,” which he characterized as a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”

In a column published 20 years ago, for example, Safire recalled an occasion “when a New York Times columnist attributed that direct quote to Nixon, a White House speechwriter challenged him to find the quote in anything taken down by pencil or recorder at the time. The pundit searched high and low and had to admit the supposed remark was unsourceable. (Look, the Nixon speechwriter was me and the columnist was my current colleague, Tony Lewis; I didn’t have to research this.)”

Michael Cohen, author of American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division, briefly addressed the “secret plan” notion in his book and dismissed it, stating:

“Though it is often claimed that Nixon spoke of a ‘secret plan’ to end the war, he never uttered those words. Even suggesting that he had a plan would have been too much for Nixon.”

WJC

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Piling on the myths: Claiming ‘energizing’ power for ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 17, 2020 at 7:25 am

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is so raw and exceptional that it must have exerted deep and powerful influences. Or so goes the assumption.

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The image taken in June 1972 shows a cluster of terrorized children fleeing an errant napalm bombing of their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the photograph’s center is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming as she ran, her clothes burned away by the fiery tactical weapon.

It’s been said the image was so moving that it helped end the war.

It’s been said to have turned American public opinion against the war.

It’s even been said to have “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war (even though flame-throwers did not figure in the aerial attack).

Such claims are the stuff of media myths — far-fetched and implausible, supported by no compelling, contemporaneous evidence.

Now comes the Guardian newspaper of London with the undocumented claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the U.S. antiwar movement.

The Guardian‘s assertion was presented in an online essay posted yesterday that ruminated about the dearth of visceral images from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which spread from Wuhan, China, late last year or early this, killing nearly 90,000 people in America and more than 300,000 worldwide.

“The 2020 pandemic is memorable not for [images of] coffins piled high but for data modeling and statistics,” the Guardian essay states, adding:

“In any national or global emergency, the media play an outsized role in conveying extreme experiences to those who have no direct contact. The image of Kim Phuc, the ‘napalm girl’ in the Vietnam war, became the recognized representation of the conflict, energizing the peace movement. Covid-19 has yet to be framed by such an image.”

The claim that “Napalm Girl” was the “recognized representation of the conflict” is certainly open to challenge.

The long war in Vietnam War was illuminated by many evocative images, and it is impossible to say which of them can be called the “recognized representation of the conflict.” Other notable images included the Saigon Execution photo of 1968, and the “Burning Monkimage of 1963. And there were many others.

Less ambiguous is the exaggerated nature of the Guardian essay’s claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the peace movement.

That movement was hardly moribund in the United States in 1972.

In a 2005 journal article about the antiwar movement of the early 1970s (see abstract nearby), Joel Lefkowitz included an extensive list of protests that flared in April and May 1972 — before the “Napalm Girl” image was taken on June 8, 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press.

What catalyzed antiwar protests then was not “Napalm Girl” but President Richard Nixon’s order in May 1972 to mine North Vietnamese ports. That decision energized protests across the United States.

On May 10, 1972, for example, the New York Times described a “coast‐to‐coast outburst of demonstrations,” describing them as “the most turbulent since May, 1970, when protests over the United States invasion of Cambodia closed universities across the country.

The following day, the Times discussed how “antiwar protests [had] convulsed cities and college campuses across the country … as demonstrators blocked highways, occupied buildings, and — at night — fought against club‐wielding policemen under clouds of tear gas. The fighting was particularly violent in Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif., and Minneapolis.”

Memorable though the photograph was, no contemporaneous evidence suggests that “Napalm Girl” had discernible effects of stoking or “energizing” antiwar protests.

And it’s not as if the photograph was displayed on front pages of newspapers across America. Many did give “Napalm Girl” prominent display, including the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia (see nearby).

But many other U.S. newspapers that subscribed to Associated Press services — including titles in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Omaha, and Pittsburgh — did not publish the photograph. A few others placed the image on an inside page.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: “Reservations about the frontal nudity shown in Napalm Girl no doubt led some U.S. newspapers to decline to publish the photograph prominently, if at all.”

More useful than speculating about why the pandemic has produced no image as evocative as “Napalm Girl” is to consider why mainstream media have been reluctant or disinclined to revisit and evaluate predictions they’ve made about the pandemic and its morbidity.

This disinclination was addressed the other day by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, in an essay posted at that popular news-and-polling aggregation site.

“Some [media] ‘feeding frenzies’ have panned out, but many have failed to do so; rather than acknowledging this failure, the press typically moves on,” Trende wrote, noting that “there are dangers to forecasting with incredible certitude, especially with a virus that was detected less than six months ago.”

Revisiting lapses and erroneous projections is an undertaking the news media quite dislike.

Consider how little time they devoted to examining why they got it wrong in anticipating Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016. Or why they got it wrong in anticipating Special Counsel Robert Mueller would find President Donald Trump had colluded with the Kremlin to win the presidency. In that presumptive scandal, staffs of the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize  in 2018 — for what Pulitzer jurors called their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.”

WJC

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Even in a pandemic, media myths play on

In 'Napalm girl', Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth on April 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

The U.S. news media have scarcely distinguished themselves in reporting the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 54,000 Americans since spreading from Wuhan, China, early this year. Criticism abounds about the substance and tone of the media’s reporting.

Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll late last month ranked the media last among American leaders and institutions in their response to the coronavirus.

Watergate myth will never die

Even amid a pandemic, peddling media myths — those prominent stories about and/or by the media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal — has proven irresistible to some news outlets.

Familiar media myths about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, the exaggerated influence of the “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972, and the hero-journalist trope of the Watergate scandal all have circulated in recent weeks.

Their appearance signals not only how ingrained these myths become in American media; it also suggests an eagerness among journalists to believe their field can project decisive influence.

Take, for example, a lengthy recent article in USA Today about staggering death tolls the country has endured before the coronavirus, in wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks.

The article mentioned the Vietnam War, which claimed 58,000 American lives, and said the conflict “had a notable turning point in the court of public opinion. It happened when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said in a 1968 broadcast that he believed the war was, at best, a ‘stalemate.’ Weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.”

No evidence was offered for the “turning point” claim; no evidence was presented for the presumptive link to Johnson’s not running for another term.

On both counts, in fact, the evidence runs the other way.

Cronkite’s editorial statement, delivered in late February 1968, that the Vietnam War was stalemated was hardly a novel interpretation. “Stalemate” had been in circulation for months to characterize the conflict.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, polling by Gallup indicated that the turning point in public opinion came in Fall 1967, about 4 1/2 months before Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment. By then, and for the first time, a plurality of Americans said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam.

Other appraisals similarly indicated the turning point came in the second half of 1967.

At the end of that year, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, described what he called “a time of switching” in Summer and Fall 1967, “when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

In a very real sense, then, Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation was a matter of his following, rather than leading, American public opinion as it turned against the war.

Additionally, the USA Today article suggested that in Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment about the war, President Johnson “sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.” But Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired; the President at the time was at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Governor John Connally, in Austin, Texas.

And there’s no certain evidence about when or whether he saw the Cronkite program on videotape at some later date.

Factors other than Cronkite’s program weighed more powerfully in discouraging Johnson from seeking reelection. Notably, he faced a serious internal challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. The latter entered the race for president after McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating defeats in primary elections after New Hampshire’s, Johnson quit the race.

The war Vietnam gave rise to other tenacious media myths, especially those associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph taken in June 1972. The image showed a clutch of children fleeing a napalm strike on Trang Bang, their village in what then was South Vietnam.

Near the center of the photograph was a naked 9-year-old girl, screaming from her wounds.

It is said the photograph was so powerful that it swung U.S. public opinion against the war (in fact, as we’ve seen, it turned years before June 1972) and hastened an end to the conflict (in fact, the war went on till April 1975). Another myth of the “Napalm Girl” image was that it showed the effects of a U.S. aerial attack (also false: a warplane of the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped the napalm).

To that lineup of myth, the National Interest introduced another powerful effect — namely, that  the “Napalm Girl” image “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The post, however, offered no evidence of a linkage between the photograph and views about flamethrowers — which did not figure in the aerial attack at Trang Bang.

By email, I asked the editor of the National Interest for elaboration about the claim, saying: “I am interested in evidence such as public opinion polling that demonstrates or points to a linkage.”

I further wrote:

“I ask because I have addressed and disputed other claims about the photograph’s presumed impact — notably that it hastened an end to the Vietnam War, that it turned public opinion against the conflict, and that it showed the effects of a U.S. napalm attack on South Vietnam.”

The email was sent nearly three weeks ago. The editor has never replied.

Then there’s the dominant narrative of Watergate, the ever-enticing notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post uncovered evidence that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. It’s a myth that has survived scoffing and rejection by principals at the Post — Woodward among them.

As he told an interviewer in 2004:

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

In less earthier terms, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate scandal, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Against that tableau, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

And yet, the hero-journalist myth lives on — as suggested the other day in a column by the entertainment critic for the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. The column presented a rundown about the top films with a journalism theme. Atop the critic’s list was All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous, best-selling book.

It’s the “best newspaper picture ever,” the Journal Star critic wrote, declaring that movie showed how Woodward and Bernstein “ferreted out the Watergate scandal and brought down a president.”

And brought down a president.

Right.

The hero-journalist trope of Watergate knows few bounds. It’s surely one of those media myths that’s never going to die.

WJC

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The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 27, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Fifty-two years ago tonight, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about the war in Vietnam and declared in closing that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid analysis, hardly novel. But over the years, Cronkite’s assessment has swelled in importance, taking on the aura of a vital, media-inspired turning point. It is so singularly important in American journalism that it has come to be called the “Cronkite Moment.

In reality it is a moment steeped in media myth.

Notable among the myths of the “Cronkite Moment” is that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Versions vary.)

Cronkite’s remarks supposedly were an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists, representing a memorable instance of media influence and power.

But Cronkite’s program on February 27, 1968, hardly had decisive effects. Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

Johnson: Didn’t see Cronkite show

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — and fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the war effort.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were decidedly more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Four days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.” Not long after Cronikte’s report, Frank McGee of NBC News declared the war was being lost if judged by the Johnson administration’s definition. Not stalemated. Lost.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time (see photo nearby) and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, unexpected, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if, in effect, he had brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort. At one point in March 1968, Johnson called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite dismissed the notion that his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He considered its impact as akin to that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun to shift against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said a month before but on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

It is far easier to embrace the notion that Cronkite’s report 52 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than it is to dig into its back story and understand it for what it was: A mythical moment of marginal influence in a war that lasted until 1975.

WJC

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Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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