W. Joseph Campbell

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Watergate at 50: Why the ‘heroic-journalist’ myth still defines the scandal

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 16, 2022 at 8:07 am

This essay was first published at the Conversation news site on June 14, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

In their dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That version of Watergate has long dominated popular understanding of the scandal, which unfolded over 26 months, beginning June 17, 1972.

It is, however, a simplistic trope that not even Watergate-era principals at the Post embraced. The newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham, pointedly rejected that interpretation during a program 25 years ago at the now-defunct Newseum (the “museum of news“) in suburban Virginia.

“Sometimes, people accuse us of ‘bringing down a president,’ which of course we didn’t do, and

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

shouldn’t have done,” Graham said. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham’s words, however accurate and incisive, scarcely altered the dominant popular interpretation of Watergate. If anything, the intervening 25 years have solidified the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate, which I dismantled in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.

However popular, the heroic-journalist myth is a vast exaggeration of the effect of their work.

Woodward and Bernstein did disclose financial links between Nixon’s reelection campaign and the burglars arrested 50 years ago tomorrow inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, in the signal crime of Watergate.

The Watergate complex

They publicly tied Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, to the scandal.

They won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post.

But they missed decisive elements of Watergate — notably the payment of hush money to the burglars and the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes.

Even so, the heroic-journalist myth became so entrenched that it could withstand disclaimers by Watergate-era principals at the Post such as Graham.

Even Woodward disavowed the heroic-journalist interpretation, once telling an interviewer that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon.

“Totally absurd.”

So why not take Woodward at his word? And why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate persisted through the 50 years since burglars linked to Nixon’s campaign were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington?

Like most media myths, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate rests on a foundation of simplicity. It glosses over the scandal’s intricacies and discounts the far more crucial investigative work of special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

It was, after all, the court’s unanimous ruling in July 1974, ordering Nixon to surrender tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor, that sealed the president’s fate. The recordings captured Nixon, six days after the burglary, agreeing to a plan to deter the FBI from pursuing its Watergate investigation.

The tapes were crucial to determining that Nixon had obstructed justice. Without them, he likely would have served out his presidential term. That, at least, was the interpretation of the late Stanley Kutler, one of Watergate’s leading historians, who noted:

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The heroic-journalist myth, which began taking hold even before Nixon resigned, has been sustained by three related factors.

One was Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the well-timed memoir about their reporting. All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 and quickly reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list, remaining there 15 weeks, through Nixon’s resignation and beyond. The book inescapably promoted the impression Woodward and Bernstein were vital to Watergate’s outcome.

More so than the book, the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling. The movie, which was released in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was relentlessly media-centric, ignoring the work and contributions of the likes of prosecutors and the FBI.

The book and movie introduced Woodward’s super-secret source, “Deep Throat.” For 31 years after Nixon’s resignation, Washington periodically engaged publicly in guessing games about the source’s identity. Such speculation sometimes pointed to W. Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official.

Felt brazenly denied having been Woodward’s source. Had he been “Deep Throat,” he once told a Connecticut newspaper, “I would have done better. I would have been more effective.”

The “who-was-Deep-Throat” conjecture kept Woodward, Bernstein and the heroic-journalist myth at the center of Watergate conversations. Felt was 91 when, in 2005, he acknowledged through his family’s lawyer that he had been Woodward’s source after all.

It’s small wonder that the heroic-journalist myth still defines popular understanding of Watergate. Other than Woodward and Bernstein, no personalities prominent in Watergate were the subjects of a bestselling memoir, the inspiration for a star-studded motion picture, and the protectors of a mythical source who eluded conclusive identification for decades.

WJC

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50 years on: Revisiting the myths of the ‘Napalm Girl,’ a photo ‘that doesn’t rest’

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on June 8, 2022 at 7:12 am

This essay was first published at The Conversation news site on June 2, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial attack on their village — taken 50 years ago today — has rightly been called “a picture that doesn’t rest.”

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It is one of those exceptional visual artifacts that draws attention and even controversy years after it was made.

Last month, for example, Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the image, and the photo’s central figure, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, made news at the Vatican as they presented a poster-size reproduction of the prize-winning image to Pope Francis, who has emphasized the evils of warfare.

In 2016, Facebook stirred controversy by deleting “Napalm Girl” from a commentary posted at the network because the photograph shows the then-9-year-old Kim Phuc entirely naked. She had torn away her burning clothes as she and other terrified children ran from their village, Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. Facebook retracted its decision amid an international uproar about the social network’s free speech policies.

Such episodes signal how “Napalm Girl” is much more than powerful evidence of war’s indiscriminate effects on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image, formally known as “The Terror of War,” has also given rise to tenacious media-driven myths.

Media myths are those well-known stories about or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The distorting effects of four media myths have become attached to the photograph, which Ut made when he was a 21-year-old photographer for the Associated Press.

Prominent among the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” which I address and dismantle in my book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, is that U.S.-piloted or guided warplanes dropped the napalm, a gelatinous, incendiary substance, at Trang Bang.

Not so.

The napalm attack was carried out by propeller-driven Skyraider aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force trying to roust communist forces dug in near the village – as news accounts at the time made clear.

The headline over the New York Times report from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.”

The Chicago Tribune front page of June 9, 1972, stated the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for United Press International: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability at Trang Bang began taking hold during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referred to the photograph in a televised speech. The napalm that badly burned Kim Phuc, he declared, had been “dropped in the name of America.”

McGovern’s metaphoric claim anticipated similar assertions, including Susan Sontag’s statement in her 1973 book “On Photography,” that Kim Phuc had been “sprayed by American napalm.”

(The Associated Press, in an article posted online yesterday, erroneously described the aerial attack at Trang Bang as “an American napalm strike on a Vietnamese hamlet.” See screenshot nearby. The news agency later in the day corrected the error after it was noted on Twitter.)

Two other, related media myths rest on assumptions that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful that it must have exerted powerful effects on its audiences. These myths claim that the photograph hastened an end to the war and that it turned U.S. public opinion against the conflict.

Neither is accurate.

Although most U.S. combat forces were out of Vietnam by the time Ut took the photograph, the war went on for nearly three more years. The end came in April 1975, when communist forces overran South Vietnam and seized its capital.

Americans’ views about the war had turned negative long before June 1972, as measured by a survey question the Gallup Organization posed periodically. The question – essentially a proxy for Americans’ views about Vietnam – was whether sending U.S. troops there had been a mistake. When the question was first asked in summer 1965, only 24% of respondents said yes, sending in troops had been a mistake.

But by mid-May 1971 – more than a year before “Napalm Girl” was made – 61% of respondents said yes, sending troops had been mistaken policy.

In short, public opinion turned against the war long before “Napalm Girl” entered popular consciousness.

Another myth is that “Napalm Girl” appeared on newspaper front pages everywhere in America.

Front page here, but not everywhere

Many large U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it depicted frontal nudity.

In a review I conducted with a research assistant of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers – all of which were Associated Press subscribers – 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers – more than one-third of the sample – did not publish “Napalm Girl” at all in the days immediately after its distribution by AP. These included newspapers in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark.

Only three of the 40 newspapers examined – the Boston Globe, the New York Post and the New York Times – published editorials specifically addressing the photograph. The editorial in the New York Post, then a liberal-minded newspaper, was prophetic in saying:

“The picture of the children will never leave anyone who saw it.”

WJC

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Drinking the ‘heroic-journalist’ Kool-Aid in run-up to Watergate’s 50th anniversary

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 7, 2022 at 8:02 am

It wouldn’t be a major Watergate anniversary without prominent references to the heroic-journalist myth — that risible, media-centric view that the Washington Post’s reporting exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Risible?

For sure.

Not exactly, Jerry Ford

Not even the Post’s Watergate principals embraced the heroic-journalist interpretation. As Bob Woodward, one of the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, proclaimed in an interview in 2004:

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

Such pointed disclaimers notwithstanding, the myth seems as robust as ever in the run-up to next week’s 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglary touched off a spiraling scandal.

Any more, even the Post drinks the heroic-journalist Kool-Aid.

For example, in its obituary the other day about Barry Sussman, the newspaper’s Watergate editor who died June 1, the Post said of Woodward and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein:

“Their incremental and inexorable revelations of the political sabotage, corruption and coverup that began with the Watergate break-in helped send numerous Nixon associates to prison and ultimately precipitated Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.”

The article did not explain exactly how newspaper reporting “precipitated Nixon’s resignation.”

Of course, newspaper reporting didn’t have that effect. As Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period, said in an interview 25 years ago at the old Newseum in northern Virginia:

“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.”

Quite so.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling the Watergate scandal “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.

“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, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972. Five men wearing business suits were arrested in the burglary at the Watergate complex.

Deep in the Post’s obituary about Sussman appearing a revealing passage about his assessment of Woodward and Bernstein.

“I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them,” Sussman was quoted as having said years earlier, after Woodward and Bernstein had spurned his idea about co-writing a book about Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein’s double-bylined memoir about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, was a best-seller in 1974.

The movie helped make the myth

The book and the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling and, as such, contributed mightily to the emergence and tenacity of the heroic-journalist trope.

References to the heroic-journalist interpretation have appeared elsewhere in the run-up to the 50th anniversary. An article posted yesterday at CNN declared, for example, that Woodward and Bernstein’s “groundbreaking Watergate reporting … led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

And a columnist for the New York Post — discussing the bitterness these days at the Washington Post — invoked Watergate’s heroic-journalist narrative in setting up his essay, writing:

“Two dogged reporters patiently dig into the details of a strange burglary at Democratic Party headquarters, diligently assemble facts, cultivate sources and put together a package of revelations that will lead to the first presidential resignation in history.”

Left unexplained was just how the “package of revelations” led “to the first presidential resignation in history.”

But it’s not difficult to understand why references to the heroic-journalist myth are appearing in the run-up to what is a milestone anniversary. The myth offers a convenient way of explaining the essence of Watergate — that Nixon was forced to quit — while sidestepping the scandal’s formidable tangles and complexity.

After all, media myths, invariably offer trite and simplistic versions of history.

WJC

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How ‘alone’ was WaPo in reporting emergent Watergate scandal? Not very

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 30, 2022 at 12:32 pm

It’s long been a misleading element of media lore that the Washington Post was mostly alone in reporting the unfolding scandal of Watergate, which broke nearly 50 years ago and eventually brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

The claim reemerged yesterday in a commentary by the newspaper’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan. She referred to the Post‘s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, declaring that they “were almost alone on the story for months.”

Not exactly.

The scandal burst into public view on June 17, 1972, with the arrests of five burglars at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. In the weeks that followed, details about the emergent scandal emerged fitfully and the Post certainly did not have a lock on the evolving coverage — however reassuring that interpretation may be to its self-view.

Washington Post, June 19, 1972

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post certainly had company: “rival news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972.

“The Los Angeles Times, for example, published an unprecedented first-person account in early October 1972 by Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who had acted as the lookout man in the Watergate burglary.”

Well before then, as Garret Graff described in his well-reviewed new book, Watergate: A New History, the now-defunct Washington Daily News reported about “the suspicious contents of E. Howard Hunt’s safe at the White House.” (Hunt was a former CIA agent who helped plan the Watergate burglary.) The Daily News article was published in late June 1972; it was a one-off contribution to Watergate coverage. By mid-July, the newspaper had gone out of business.

And soon, Graff wrote in an excerpt from his book, “Woodward and Bernstein drifted away from the story.

“The Post had all but moved on by mid-July. Bernstein was sure that the break-in was bigger than anyone imagined, but the Post had a daily newspaper to run, and despite his protests, his editors assigned him back to his normal Virginia beat. Woodward took a July vacation home to Michigan, where his Republican father urged him to vote for Nixon in the fall.

“Meanwhile,” Graff added, a steady drip of stories about the FBI’s stalled investigation emerged from Time magazine’s Sandy Smith, a gruff former organized-crime reporter who was well-sourced in law enforcement.” Smith’s reporting on Watergate has been largely forgotten — eclipsed by what I call the heroic-journalist myth in which Woodward and Bernstein are central actors.

Graff further wrote that “a late July scoop by the New York Times’ Walter Rugaber … jolted the capital back to attention” on Watergate.

Rugaber reported that one of the Watergate burglars, Bernard Barker, had in the weeks before the break-in repeatedly called offices of Nixon’s reelection campaign. Rugaber’s front-page article, Graff wrote, prompted the Post to reassemble its Watergate team, meaning “Woodward and Bernstein were back on the beat until further notice.”

Woodward: took vacation in July 1972

Graff also noted that the Los Angeles Times interview with Alfred Baldwin “rocked Washington” as it represented the first acknowledged “direct link between the burglars and the Nixon campaign.” Baldwin described how listening devices had been installed at Democratic headquarters and how he had kept logs of the eavesdropping which were shared with Nixon’s reelection campaign.

In an attempt at rallying from having missed the Baldwin story, Woodward and Bernstein identified by name a trio of men as recipients of Baldwin’s logs. Their story was in error; as they acknowledged in All the President’s Men, a memoir of their Watergate work:

“Three men had been wronged. They had been unfairly accused on the front page of the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of their families, neighbors and friends.”

Print media were by no means “alone” in pursuing the emergent scandal.

As Edward Jay Epstein noted in his classic essay about Woodward, Bernstein, and Watergate, the Post and other newspapers were joined in the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation promoting accountability in government, in calling attention to the emergent scandal.

Moreover, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil lawsuit against Nixon’s reelection committee, the Committee to Re-elect the President, which ultimately compelled statements under oath.

And Nixon’s Democratic opponent for president, George McGovern, often invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances in summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary. And McGovern termed the break-in ‘the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.'”

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the Post was in the scandal’s early days “one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.

“The Post, in other words, was very much not alone.”

So why does the renewed claim of “almost alone” on Watergate much matter much now?

An important reason is that the claim feeds the notion that Woodward and Bernstein were singularly enterprising reporters who defied conventional wisdom and relentlessly pursued Nixon and his cronies when rival reporters were skeptical about Watergate’s significance.

Graham at Newseum, 1997

From there, it is but a short step to accepting the dominant popular narrative of Watergate — the myth that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down Nixon.

In the run-up to next month’s 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, it is useful to recall the observation by Katharine Graham at the 25th anniversary. In an interview at the former Newseum in northern Virginia, Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period, declared:

“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” — meaning the result of work by the FBI, special prosecutors, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

More direct, and certainly more earthy, was Woodward’s memorably pithy analysis about the news media and Watergate, which he offered in an interview in 2004:

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

WJC

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News media foment wars? Debunking a superficial history lesson

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on March 20, 2022 at 10:32 am

In the weeks since Russia launched its brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a critique has tentatively emerged that hawkish media commentary is intended to push the United States to intervene in the conflict.

U.S. military intervention is a very remote prospect and the critique was only murmured before gaining full-throated expression the other day in an essay posted at the Federalist website beneath this feverish headline:

The press has lied to drag the United States into war before. Don’t think they won’t again.”

Declared the essay: “When you see talking heads uncritically parroting propagandist stories about Ukraine that turn out to be false … you should be asking why the corporate media is so willing to spread such fake news …. It wouldn’t be the first time the press lied to pull Americans into war.”

What followed was a superficial history lesson that rested on the media myth that overheated newspaper coverage — particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in February 1898 — pushed the country into war with Spain that year.

Almost predictably, the essay turned for support to a related media myth, that of William Randolph Hearst’s purported pledge to “furnish” a war with Spain.

“As the story goes,” the Federalist stated, “in the year before the Maine exploded, Hearst had commissioned reporter Frederic Remington to go to Cuba, where Cuban revolutionaries were skirmishing with their Spanish colonizers. When Remington sent Hearst a wire to explain he was leaving Cuba because there was no war to cover, Hearst reportedly replied, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

The “furnish the war” anecdote has been thoroughly debunked, as readers of Media Myth Alert are aware. Qualifying the anecdote’s use with “reportedly” in no way lets the essayist off the hook for repeating an utterly dubious tale.

So let’s unpack the Federalist’s exaggeration-studded claims about Remington, Hearst, Cuba, and war.

Cuban insurgents were engaged in much more than “skirmishing with their Spanish colonizers” when Remington, an artist, traveled to the island in January 1897. He was on assignment from Hearst’s New York Journal to sketch scenes of an armed struggle that had begun in 1895. The Cuban guerilla war against Spanish rule was no trivial matter, no mere “skirmishing.” 

Such a notion is belied by the sketches Remington drew during his brief stay in Cuba. The artist’s sketches, which were given prominent display in the Journal, depicted such scenes as a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel taking aim 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.

While they weren’t Remington’s best work, the sketches made clear that he had seen war-related turmoil and violence in Cuba. There was indeed a “war to cover” when he was there.

And “war” was commonly invoked then to described the conflict. Remington’s travel companion to Cuba, Richard Harding Davis, turned readily to that word.

Remington, Davis in Cuba for Hearst

Davis, a self-absorbed novelist, playwright, and aspiring war correspondent, declared in a letter from Cuba in mid-January 1897, for example: “There is war here and no mistake.” (Later in 1897, Davis repurposed the dispatches to Hearst’s Journal as a book titled Cuba in War Time.)

War in Cuba had reached island-wide dimension by early 1897; he U.S. consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, reported in February 1897 that Spanish forces had pacified not one Cuban province.

The conflict prompted Spain to impose harsh counter measures. These included “reconcentration” centers where Cuban non-combatants were kept effectively as prisoners amid deplorable and unsanitary conditions.

Content in newspapers other than Hearst’s further undercut the notion “there was no war to cover” in Cuba in early 1897. The New York Sun described the Cuban rebellion as a Spanish-led “war of extermination” and assailed the Spanish leader on the island, Captain-General Valeriano Weyler, as a “savage” who had turned Cuba into “a place of extermination.”

The notion that Hearst vowed in a telegram to Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain is little short of risible. The tale, after all, founders on an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: Why would Hearst pledge to “furnish the war” when war — the island-wide Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule — was the reason he sent Remington and Davis to Cuba in the first place?

The internal inconsistency reduces the “furnish the war” anecdote to an absurdity.

Nonetheless, the anecdote lives on as presumptive evidence that Hearst and his newspapers did bring about the U.S. war with Spain.

But as I wrote in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — [they] could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even … Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Assertions that the so-called “yellow press” of Hearst and Pulitzer brought about the war in 1898 are, I wrote, “exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

Foremost among those factors was Spain’s “reconcentration” policy, which caused the deaths from disease and starvation of tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants.

That humanitarian disaster “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions in Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press.

Effects of ‘reconcentration’

The newspapers of Hearst and his rivals reported on, but assuredly did not create, the terrible effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898.

It was assuredly not a war brought about by newspapers.

Conspicuously absent in argument that Hearst fomented war are explanations about just how the contents of his newspapers were transformed into policy and military action. What was that mechanism?

In truth, there was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the destruction of the Maine while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote, “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers [of Hearst and Pulitzer] exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

No, the news media do not foment war. That’s the reserve of government leaders and policymakers, inept and otherwise.

WJC

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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 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 indirect expressions 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 much 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, 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

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