W. Joseph Campbell

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WaPo review indulges in myth, claims Bernstein’s ‘work brought down a president’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 16, 2022 at 10:00 am

You’d think editors at the Washington Post might have turned to statements by its Watergate-era principals before allowing a mythical claim about the scandal to appear in a book review that was published today.

The claim appears in a predictably favorable critique of Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History, a memoir about his early days in journalism.

The book, the Post’s review notes, “doesn’t mention Watergate. The occasional references to [President] Richard Nixon have nothing to do with the scandal that Bernstein” reported on with Bob Woodward for the Post in the early 1970s.

“Bernstein has no interest in retelling an already well-known tale,” the review assures us. “Instead of the staccato just-the-facts brag you might expect from an investigative reporter whose work brought down a president, ‘Chasing History’ is a lovingly detailed memoir composed in a humble register.”

Media Myth Alert is only faintly interested in a memoir by Bernstein, a bloviating commentator for CNN nowadays. It’s the review’s unsourced passage, claiming his “work brought down a president,” that commands attention. (The review appears today on the first page of the Post’s “Outlook” section; see image nearby.)

The brought-down-a-president claim not only is mythical; it runs counter to unequivocal statements by the likes of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period; by Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor at that time, and by Woodward, himself.

At the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972 — Graham asserted at a program at the former Newseum in suburban Washington:

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

Bradlee likewise rejected the simplistic notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon.

Bernstein

“The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to cover up crimes of Watergate. The disclosures forced Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

And Woodward once asserted, in an interview with the now-defunct American Journalism Review:

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

Woodward was right. Rolling up a multidimensional scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, 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.

Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his presidential term if not for revelations about the existence of the White House tapes  — 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 Watergate crimes.

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

And this by no means is a novel 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 offered a deeply skeptical assessment of the notion the Post was central to Nixon’s fall.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, a best-selling memoir 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 sources disputing what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate are not difficult to locate. But they’re often disregarded in favor of a reflexive embrace of the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the dominant narrative of Watergate.

The trope is, for example, “a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication,” I noted in Getting It Wrong, adding that the tale is “deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s so ingrained that its casual mention can prompt little challenge from editors. As the Post demonstrates in its book review today.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘I’ll furnish the war’: 25 reasons why it’s a towering media myth

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 10, 2022 at 9:30 am

If William Randolph Hearst ever promised to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century, the vow would have been made 125 years ago next week, in a purported exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington.

Young publisher Hearst

Although Hearst’s supposed vow is one of American journalism’s most memorable anecdotes — it has been presented as genuine in innumerable histories, biographies, newspaper and magazine accounts, broadcast reports, podcasts, and essays posted online — the evidence is overwhelming the publisher made no such pledge.

The anniversary of what is a towering media-driven myth offers an appropriate occasion to revisit the “furnish the war” anecdote and understand why embracing it as accurate is little more than sloppy history.

Considered dispassionately, the evidence offers a powerful case that Hearst, then the 33-year-old publisher of the New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner, never made such a vow.

Here are 25 reasons why:

  1. The artifacts — the telegrams between Remington and Hearst — have never turned up. Remington was in Cuba for six days in January 1897, on assignment to draw sketches for Hearst’s Journal of scenes of the Cuban armed rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. The artist purportedly cabled Hearst, requesting permission to return to New York, saying “everything is quiet” and “there will be no war.”
    Hearst supposedly replied by stating: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.
  2. The anecdote — which I have examined in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong and in an earlier work, Yellow Journalism — founders on an internal inconsistency. That is, why would Hearst pledge to “furnish the war” when war — the island-wide Cuban rebellion against Spain — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place? The armed struggle had begun in February 1895, or almost two years before Remington traveled to Cuba on assignment.
  3. Hearst publicly denied the tale in 1907 as so much “clotted nonsense.”
  4. His eldest son also quoted Hearst as denying the anecdote. In a memoir published in 1991, Hearst’s son wrote: “Pop told me he never sent any such cable. And there has never been any proof that he did.”
    Of course, Hearst’s denials have never counted for much. That’s because he’s routinely caricatured as one of American journalism’s most disreputable characters.
  5. The anecdote lives on because it represents apparently unequivocal evidence for the  notion that Hearst brought about the Spanish-American War. That dubious, media-centric interpretation is, however, endorsed by no serious contemporary historian of the Spanish-American War.
  6. Spanish censors who rigorously controlled Cuba’s in-coming and outgoing telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted the telegrams — had they been sent. Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” was so provocative that undoubtedly it would have caught the attention of the censors.
    At the time of Remington’s assignment to Cuba, Spanish censorship was reported by the New York Tribune to be more rigorous than ever.” As such, telegrams would not have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.
  7. The censors not only would have intercepted Hearst’s provocative message, they could have been expected to share its incendiary contents with friendly Spanish (and American) newspaper correspondents on the island — leading to contemporaneous publication of the “furnish the war” exchange. There was, however, no such reporting.
  8. No one can say precisely when the purported exchange of telegrams took place. Some sources have placed the date in 1898, which clearly is in error. Remington’s only trip to Cuba before the Spanish-American War of 1898 was in January 1987. He spent six days there before leaving for New York on 16 January 1897 — 125 years ago next week — aboard the passenger steamer Seneca.

    Cuba in War Time: Repurposed dispatches

  9. After returning from Cuba, Remington privately criticized Hearst but made no mention of the presumptive exchange of telegrams. Rather, Remington complained in a letter to the journalist and author Poultney Bigelow about the mediocre techniques at Hearst’s Journal’s for reproducing artist sketches.
  10. Nonetheless, the illustrations Remington made in Cuba depicted unmistakable scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban noncombatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound, and a formation of Spanish troops firing at insurgents.
    Although they hardly were his best work, Remington’s sketches from Cuba belie the notion that he had found “everything … quiet” there.
  11. Additionally, Remington’s writings make clear he had seen a good deal of war-related violence and disruption in Cuba. Soon after his return to New York, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he disparaged the Spanish regime as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”
    In a short magazine article in 1899, Remington recalled his assignment to Cuba for the Journal,  stating: “I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” the grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor.
  12. Richard Harding Davis, the writer with whom Remington traveled to Cuba, never discussed the anecdote. His private correspondence, though, made clear that he loathed Hearst, indicating that Davis would not have kept silent had he been aware of a vow to “furnish the war.”

    On assignment for Hearst, 1897

  13. It was Davis who persuaded Remington to return home after just six days in Cuba. Davis’ role is quite clear from his contemporaneous correspondence, which includes no mention of Remington’s exchanging telegrams with Hearst.
    That Davis was the prime mover in Remington’s departure significantly minimizes Hearst’s presumed role in Remington’s leaving Cuba — further diminishing the likelihood the artist ever sent Hearst a telegram seeking permission to return to New York.
  14. Davis’s contemporaneous correspondence underscores that, contrary to the content of Remington’s purported telegram to Hearst, “everything” was hardly “quiet” in Cuba at the time Remington would have sent the cable. In fact, Davis bluntly declared in a contemporaneous letter from Cuba: “There is war here and no mistake.”
    Davis repurposed his dispatches to the Journal (as well as Remington’s sketches) in a book published in 1897; its title: Cuba in War Time.
  15. Commentary in rival New York newspapers also disputes the notion that “everything” was “quiet” in Cuba in January 1897. The New York Sun, a fierce critic of Hearst’s Journal, described the rebellion as a Spanish-led “war of extermination” and condemned the Spanish leader on the island, Captain-General Valeriano Weyler, as a “savage” who had turned Cuba into “a place of extermination.”
    Even the New York Herald, which advocated diplomatic resolution to the Cuban war, referred in late January 1897 to the “destructive conflict in which neither side is able to vanquish the other by force.”

    The U.S. consul-general in Havana, a former Confederate cavalry officer named Fitzhugh Lee, wrote in early February 1897: “As a matter of fact, the war here is not drawing to a close. Not a single province is pacified.”
  16. The “furnish the war” anecdote first appeared in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a self-important journalist with acute and widely known credibility problems. In the period from 1894 to 1898, Creelman’s reporting was respectively disputed in an official U.S. government report, condemned by Spanish authorities who kicked him out of Cuba, and openly mocked by fellow journalists. Given his blighted credibility, it is not out of the question that Creelman concocted the tale for the book, On the Great Highway.
  17. Creelman never explained how, where, or when he learned about the purported anecdote. It had to have been second- or third-hand, as he was not with Remington in Cuba, nor was he with Hearst in New York. Creelman at the time was in Spain.
  18. Reading Creelman’s 1901 account in context makes clear that he intended the “furnish the war” anecdote as a compliment to Hearst, as an example of Hearst’s aggressive, activist, and forward-looking “yellow journalism.” Creelman did not mean the anecdote as the condemnation it has become.

    Creelman, of blighted credibility

  19. The anecdote lie mostly dormant for years after Creelman’s book came out. It was resuscitated about the time of Hearst’s political break with the Democratic party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hearst, a lifelong Democrat who had served in Congress, endorsed Republican Alf Landon for president over Roosevelt in 1936. Ferdinand Lundberg, the most truculent of Hearst’s biographers, uncritically cited Creelman’s account of “furnish the war” in Imperial Hearst, a slim polemic that appeared in 1936  and called for “a Congressional inquiry into the Hearst enterprises from top to bottom lest they smash American democracy.”
    The Remington-Hearst anecdote was paraphrased and incorporated in Orson Welles’ outstanding (if unmistakably anti-Hearst) film, Citizen Kane, ensuring that the tale would live on. Kane, which was released in 1941, is recognized as one of the best motion pictures, ever.
  20. It is far-fetched to suggest that Remington’s supposed claim that “everything is quiet” in Cuba, and Hearst’s presumed “I’ll furnish the war” reply were encrypted messages. In describing the Remington-Hearst exchange, Creelman gave no indication that the purported telegrams were coded, or an indirect expression, in any way.
  21. Credulously embracing this tale is to believe that Hearst — a tough-minded young publisher seeking to establish a permanent foothold in New York City journalism — would have tolerated insubordination by Remington.
    Hearst gave prominent display to Remington’s sketches in the Journal, touting them in headlines as the work of the “gifted artist.” It is extremely unlikely that Hearst and his flagship newspaper would have been so generous to Remington had the artist disregarded the publisher’s explicit instructions to “remain” in Cuba.
  22. Far from being irritated and displeased with Remington, Hearst, as I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, “was delighted with his work.” He recalled years later that Remington, and Davis, “did their work admirably and aroused much indignation among Americans” about Spain’s harsh rule of the island.
  23. Hearst’s supposed vow to “furnish the war” runs counter to the Journal’s editorial positions in January 1897. In editorials at the time, the Journal was neither campaigning nor calling for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. It was, rather, anticipating the collapse of Spanish efforts to put down the rebellion.
    For example, the Journal declared at the end of January, while Davis was still in Cuba, that the insurgents needed only to persevere to secure the island’s independence. “They must now know that it is but a little more battle and struggle to win, even without the help of the great Republic where dearth of action matched verbal exuberance of sympathy,” the newspaper said in an editorial. The Journal added that Spain had “practically already lost her magnificent colony.”
    It is highly unlikely that Hearst, a hands-on publisher, would have contradicted his newspaper’s editorial views by pledging to “furnish the war.”
  24. The epigrammatic character of the purported reply to Remington is atypical of Hearst’s telegrams. He usually offered specific suggestions and instructions in messages to his representatives assigned to important tasks and missions. Had Hearst exchanged telegrams with Remington in January 1897, his messages likely would have contained such detail.
  25. The purported anecdote bears hallmarks of other prominent media myths, in that it is (a) pithy, (b) easy to remember and retell, and (c) suggestive of the presumed vast power of news media — in this case the malign power to bring about a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have entered.

As those 25 factors make clear, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is an exceedingly dubious and improbable tale, richly deserving the epithet “media-driven myth.” The weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly against the veracity of the “furnish the war” anecdote, which bears no resemblance to conditions prevailing in Cuba in January 1897.

The tale, in a word, is untenable.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert about the Remington-Hearst myth:

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