W. Joseph Campbell

Insidious: Off-hand references signal deep embedding of prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 6, 2021 at 11:15 am

The insidious nature of prominent media myths is evident in how casually they are invoked, as if their veracity is beyond question.

These blithe, passing references in news articles and commentary seldom are accompanied by much context or explanation. And their appearance signals how deeply embedded some media myths have become.

Two recent cases serve to illustrate this tendency.

Musings in the New York Times

One example appeared last week in an entertaining if overlong New York Times article that mused about the identity of an elusive and anonymous Instagram user whose handle is rg_bunny1. Over the recent months, user rg_bunny1 has unleashed what the Times called “a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert was the article’s passing reference to Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. Bernstein, we are told, was “one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The “duo” was Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “the source” no doubt refers to “Deep Throat,” the anonymous informant with whom Woodward — but not Bernstein — consulted from time to time as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973.

But he was “the source that brought down the Nixon presidency”?

Nope. Not “Deep Throat.” Not Bernstein and Woodward. Not their reporting for the Washington Post.

Those all are components of a tenacious media myth — what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — a trope that’s erroneous but ever-appealing, easy to retell and easy to grasp.

What really brought down Nixon is far more complicated than a duo of journalists and a well-placed anonymous source.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions and intricacy of Watergate “required 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.”

But even then, I noted, “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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” making inevitable the early end to his presidency in August 1974.

The disclosure about the existence of Nixon’s tapes was pivotal in the Watergate saga — and it was a disclosure not by Bernstein and Woodward or by “Deep Throat,” but by a former Nixon aide in testimony before  a U.S. Senate select committee. (In a book about their Watergate reporting, Bernstein and Woodward claimed to have had a lead about the existence of the tapes, but did not pursue it because the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t think it would lead to a high-quality story.)

The “Deep Throat” source was W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official who fed Watergate-related information, and sometimes misinformation, to Woodward (as well as a reporter for Time magazine named Sandy Smith). Felt was motivated not so much by altruism or distate for Nixon’s White House as by ambition to become director of the FBI, a position that opened up in May 1972 with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

By leaking to reporters, Felt believed he could undercut his rivals for the FBI directorship. Those motives were persuasively described in Max Holland’s 2016 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

It’s useful and revealing in this context to recall what Woodward once said about the notion that he and Bernstein toppled Nixon. Woodward told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Another example of a media myth breezily cited appeared the other day in essay posted at the online site of Newsmax, the cable news outlet that has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump.

The essay took up President Joe Biden’s recent gun-control proposal, asserting that it would “strangle the rights of law-abiding gun-owners.” In search of an analogy, the essay landed on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a pessimistic, on-air assessment about the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The Newsmax essay invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” or something to that effect — and declared:

“At that moment, and on that basis, [Johnson] decided that he wouldn’t seek another term as president.”

Again, nope.

Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968, and it is not clear whether the president ever saw the show program on videotape at some undefined later date.

But it is clear that in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite report, Johnson remained publicly and adamantly hawkish about the war. In orher words, when the effects of Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment should have been most potent, Johnson was as insistent as ever about prosecuting the conflict. After the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy.

Just three days after Cronkite’s report, for example, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” he said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, the president declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

The president spoke about Vietnam with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson’s views on Vietnam did change, and he did decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

But not because of what Cronkite had said.

The reasons for the president’s change of heart were political, at least in part.

By mid-March 1968, Johnson was facing insurgent challenges for the Democratic nomination from two anti-war U.S. senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Johnson had nearly lost the New Hampshire primary election on March 12, 1968, to McCarthy and he seemed unlikely to prevail in the upcoming primary in Wisconsin.

Also was influential in swinging Johnson’s views about the war was a coterie of informal advisers who met at the White House in late March 1968.

The advisers, who came to be called the “Wise Men,” included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under-secretary of state.

“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights'” in Vietnam, Ball later recalled.

Johnson, he said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

The counsel of the Wise Men was a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced limits to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam, as an inducement to the communist regime in Hanoi to enter talks to end the war.

Johnson closed the speech by declaring he would not seek reelection — a bombshell announcement that contained no reference, passing or otherwise, to Cronkite’s on-air assessment of a month before.

WJC

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