W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Media myths’ Category

Watergate footnote: WaPo’s Pulitzer-winning entry included a false story

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2022 at 6:55 pm

The latest burst of self-congratulatory hoopla about Watergate and the Washington Post  subsided weeks ago, with the 50th anniversary of the foiled break-in that set off the country’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

Interest, of course, still percolates in the details and finer points of the scandal that toppled Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

So allow Media Myth Alert to add a Watergate footnote with this post about a seldom-discussed oddity in the Post’s entry that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for its Watergate reporting.

The Post’s entry included an article by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that proved false.

Until recently, MediaMythAlert was unaware the false story had been part of the Pulitzer-winning package.

That it was surely is intriguing.

What makes this something less than a big deal, however, is uncertainty as to when the Post realized its error. It’s difficult to know for sure nearly 50 years later, but that realization may have come after the Pulitzers were announced in early May 1973.

The false report was published October 6, 1972, on the Post’s front page beneath the headline, “Bug memos sent to Nixon aides.”

In the article, Bernstein and Woodward identified by name three men associated with Nixon’s White House or his reelection campaign. The trio supposedly had been sent “memos describing wiretapped conversations of Democratic Party officials” at offices of Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington. The illegal wiretaps had been planted in late May 1972.

The three men denied the claims in the “Bug memos” story.

As it turned out, none of them had been sent the wiretap memos. They had been falsely accused by Bernstein and Woodward — as the journalists acknowledged in All the President’s Men, their 1974 memoir about reporting the Watergate scandal.

So how did the “Bug memos” article come to be part of the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry?

That’s a mild mystery, and even Media Myth Alert — no friend of the mythical claim that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting brought down Nixon — finds it hard to believe the Post intentionally entered a false report.

More likely, the “Bug memos” article was thought credible at the Post until sometime after the submission deadline for Pulitzer entries in 1973. The deadline that year was February 1.

That hypothesis seems plausible, given that the Post had referred in follow-on articles in late October 1972 and in January 1973 to the central claims of the “Bug memos” story.

Doubt about the accuracy of the “Bug memos’ story can be traced to testimony at trial in January 1973 of suspects accused in the thwarted Watergate burglary of mid-June 1972, the scandal’s seminal crime.

The testimony was given January 19, 1973, by Alfred Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who who had been the lookout for the Watergate burglars arrested inside DNC headquarters.

Baldwin said in his testimony that he wasn’t sure to whom wiretap memos had been given.

The Post‘s news report about the testimony suggested Baldwin was dissembling. The article, published January 20, 1973, said: “Baldwin is reported to have told others, The Washington Post has learned, that he could remember the names of three White House or Nixon aides who received memos describing the telephone conversations.” The article then mentioned the three men, again by name.

So as late as January 20, 1973, or about two weeks before the Pulitzer-entry deadline, the Post was adhering to a belief the “Bug memos” story was accurate. That seems clear from the tone and content of the article about Baldwin’s testimony.

In a curious and rather sloppy way, Baldwin had been cited as the principal source in the “Bug memos” story. Bernstein and Woodward reported in the article that Baldwin was “known to have told the FBI” names of three men to whom the wiretap logs had been given. Bernstein and Woodward had not spoken directly to Baldwin; the allegations about the three men came from a source described vaguely in All the President’s Men as “a Democratic Party investigator.” They also wrote that the details were confirmed by “a Justice Department source” who was not identified by name.

The day before the “Bug memos” article was published, Baldwin had been the subject of a breakthrough Watergate report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times’ account was based on a lengthy, in-person interview with Baldwin, which Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged in All the President’s Men “was a major break, not just because it contained a great deal of new information, but because it made the Watergate operation, and the siege mentality behind it, real.” It was an unprecedented, on-the-record, first-hand account by a participant in the unfolding scandal.

Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged their “Bug memos” story had been rushed into print in response to the Times’ report about Baldwin. While it wasn’t a major Watergate story, “Bug memos” turned out to be a story in major error. And a search of Washington Post contents at the ProQuest historical newspapers database does not indicate that it was specifically corrected by the newspaper.

The correction, as it were, appeared in All the President’s Men, which was published in June 1974, about 20 months after the “Bug Memos” article appeared.

“Three men had been wronged,” Bernstein and Woodward wrote in the book. “They had been unfairly accused on the front page of the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of their families, neighbors, and friends.” They said in the book they “[e]ventually became convinced” that memos the three men received “had nothing to do with wiretapping.”

Among the men falsely accused was William E. Timmons, who in 2009 sat for an interview for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project. Timmons noted he had contemplated suing the reporters, about whom he had little good to say.

“Woodward and Bernstein accused me on the front page of the Washington Post of being one of those that received the illegal fruits of the break-in,” Timmons said, referring to the erroneous “Bugs memo” article.

“I protested and had [White House press secretary Ron] Ziegler go out in the press office and deny it. Didn’t know anything about it. … Because Woodward and Bernstein must be right, they always have sixteen sources and they are wonderful and so forth. So I protested. And so I call the general counsel to the President and I said, ‘I want to sue these guys. This is not fair that I’ve been slammed here and surely by now they know that I wasn’t involved in this thing.'”

Timmons said he was dissuaded from taking legal action. “It will just fan the fires,” he said he was advised. “This will blow over. You can’t sue.”

That advice came from then-White House counsel John Dean, who in October 1973 pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and agreed to cooperate with Watergate investigators. Dean served four months of one-to-four-year prison sentence at a small prison at a former Army base in Baltimore.

Timmons, a Republican insider, was never accused of wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Years later, he led the would-be transition office for Bob Dole, the losing Republican candidate for president in 1996.

It remains unclear why the “Bug memos” article was included with the Post’s entry, which won the Pulitzer for public service journalism.

Discussing the matter recently by email, Woodward said: “As you may know, the entries for these prizes are made by management and I did not know what they were entering. It was their decision.”

He also said he did not know when he and Bernstein may have determined the “Bug memos” story was in error, adding that the discussion in All the President’s Men “is the only information I have about this now [as to] when we corrected the story and said, ‘Three Men had been wronged.’ It could have been done any time we were writing the book.” (Woodward said they began writing All the President’s Men in July 1973.)

Leonard Downie, who was a deputy metro editor at the Post during the Watergate period, said in by email recently that while he “was one of the editors on the Watergate investigation,” he was “too junior to be involved in the selection of stories for prize entries, and I don’t remember what was in the entry or why.”

An interesting coda to this Watergate footnote is that the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry in 1973 included 12 additional stories identified as “supplemental reportage.”

Among them was the Bernstein-Woodward article published October 25, 1972, that wrongly attributed to federal grand jury testimony the disclosure that H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s top aide, controlled disbursements from a campaign slush fund. In All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward described their blunder as “a grievous error” and said they thought it might force them to resign.

The misstep prompted them to confront the superior of an FBI field agent in Washington with whom Bernstein had spoken about the Haldeman story. They believed the agent had misled them.

They said they realized that confronting the agent’s superior “was unethical as soon as they had done it,” according to All the President’s Men. “They had endangered the agent’s career, betrayed his trust and risked their credibility with other sources.”

Years later, in an interview with the CBS News “Sunday Morning” program, Woodward referred to the encounter with the agent’s superior as “the worst of journalism.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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.

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

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

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

Read the rest of this entry »

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

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

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

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2021

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, PBS, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 28, 2021 at 9:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention periodically in 2021 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here’s a look at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert, a year that featured the media’s retelling a variety of dubious tales.

Watergate myth, extravagant version: Press ‘dethroned’ Nixon (posted April 24): The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — the signal crime of which took place nearly 50 years ago — has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post uncovered the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Nixon, before being ‘dethroned’

That I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate and it lives on as a mythical and irresistible fillip to journalists seeking inspiration amid the gloom pervasive in their field.

Rarely has the Watergate myth been presented as extravagantly as it was in an Esquire UK essay pegged to the 45th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men, the movie that did much to embed the heroic-journalist trope in popular consciousness.

“It’s easy to romantici[z]e a time when people bought newspapers and presidents could be shamed,” the essay stated. “We think of simpler as better. Which is perhaps why, on its 45th anniversary, All the President’s Men, is ostensibly heralded as something of a shiny art[i]fact from an even shinier era.

“Because back then, presidents couldn’t only be shamed by the free-ish and fair-ish press, but dethroned entirely – a rare event that serves as the true life narrative backbone of All the President’s Men as it retells the Watergate scandal and The Washington Post reporters behind its excavation.”

Dethroned entirely? Heh.

All the President’s Men, the movie

Of course that’s not what happened in Watergate. Forces far more powerful than Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post brought about the fall of Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in the media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and 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 foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

It is, moreover, instructive to remember what Woodward has said about Watergate. He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

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

PBS’ Hearst: uneddifying portrait

■  PBS’ ‘easy caricature’ of media mogul Hearst (posted September 28):  PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven. The public broadcaster seldom hesitates to make clear which subjects it favors and which it deplores.

Fair-minded the documentaries tend not to be.

For example, the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer received fawning PBS treatment a couple of years ago, while his younger, late 19th century rival, William Randolph Hearst, was the subject of an unedifying, two-part documentary that was long on stereotype and short on fresh insight.

PBS presented Hearst essentially as a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, and possessed scant commitment to truth-telling in journalism.

Such assessments, I noted, “have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000.”

So it was rather odd that the PBS documentary pressed the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claimed to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw was shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He was the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads, nearly all of whom seemed eager to describe Hearst in unflattering terms.)

It was as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex and innovative character whose journalism — especially his “yellow journalism” or “journalism of action” of the late 19th century — defied easy caricature.

The PBS portrait was at times tedious, and often gossipy. It emphasized Hearst’s flamboyance but regarded it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

■  Botched Afghanistan withdrawal was ‘Biden’s Katrina’? (posted August 27): The death and chaos that accompanied Joe Biden’s botched and precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan was likened to a kind of Hurricane Katrina for the president.

Misreporting Katrina, 2005

The allusion was to the damage done to President George W. Bush’s administration by its fitful federal response to the hurricane that tore into the U.S. Gulf Coast in late summer 2005, leaving much of New Orleans under water.

While faintly interesting, the analogy was cliched and badly misplaced: the hasty and unprovoked flight that Biden ordered from Afghanistan after a 20-year military commitment there, and the country’s swift takeover by Taliban extremists, was a foreign policy debacle of towering dimension.

The Afghanistan withdrawal was hardly “Biden’s Katrina.” It was scandalously worse.

Katrina was a powerful, destructive natural disaster, the aftermath of which was badly misreported. The dominant media narrative in late summer 2005 told of mayhem and unimaginable horror supposedly unleashed across New Orleans.

But as I discussed in Getting It Wrong, much of the reporting about Katrina’s aftermath — the horror, the anarchy, the city’s social disintegration — was highly exaggerated and erroneous. Few if any of the nightmarish accounts that coursed through the media proved true.

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan, on the other hand, was a bloody, self-inflicted disaster, borne of Biden’s blundering and impatience.

Hundreds of Americans and their Afghan allies were stranded as Biden’s ill-planned withdrawal effectively turned Afghanistan over to the Taliban and undid years of effort to stabilize the country where the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were plotted.

The president’s ineptitude brought reminders of the devastating observation by former defense secretary Robert Gates who, in a memoir published in 2014, wrote that Biden had “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

■  Challenging the mantra that 9/11 ‘changed everything’ (posted September 10): From the first hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, news outlets have promoted a mantra that the assault on commercial and military landmarks in New York and suburban Washington “changed everything” in America.

To posit that 9/11 “changed everything” has been a way to make fathomable the shock, horror, and grim theatricality of that infamous day, a way to invest September 11, 2001, with exceptional and enduring significance.

But exactly what “changed everything” meant has remained definitionally elusive — and subject to dispute. “Nothing changes everything,” columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11. (The activist Jesse Jackson said at the first anniversary that “9/11 did not change everything. It did change the subject.”)

In September, at the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the Washington Post determinedly took up the “changed everything” mantra. It devoted much of its Sunday magazine (see cover image nearby) to a collection of brief, solicited opinions purporting to describe how 9/11 wrought change in journalism, television, movies, art, fashion, theater, policing, architecture, editorial cartooning, and other fields and pursuits.

The collection was introduced with a sweeping claim that “9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways.” But it ultimately was a superficial and unpersuasive attempt to support and bring dimension to the “changed everything” catchcry.

Indeed, it was striking how the Post’s collection presented at best mixed evidence of significant change incontrovertibly linked to the attacks. Many of its entries were impressionistic. Or vague. Or both.

Here, for example, is one puzzling contribution: “The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.”

The attacks of 9/11 certainly led to change — and fresh intrusions — in airport security and personal privacy. The reach of the federal government was expanded. The country went to war in Afghanistan.

But when considered closely, it is quite clear that the 9/11 attacks did not “change everything.”

They were not fatal to American political or economic power. Public opinion polls taken after 9/11 found that many Americans sensed a surge of patriotic fervor, a deeper commitment to the religious and spiritual side of life, and a newfound sense of political unity.

Such responses, however, proved fleeting. Given time, they faded.

■  The impressive and enduring appeal of journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative (posted May 29): The remarkable and enduring appeal of American journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative — the escape of Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison in October 1897 — was demonstrated anew in 2021.

The jailbreak, which was organized by a Havana-based reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s brash New York Journal, was the centerpiece of the third treatment by a novelist since the early 1990s.

Jail-breaking journalism, 1897

The escape of Cisneros, then a teenage political prisoner, represented the zenith of Hearst’s “journalism of action,” a paradigm that envisioned newspapers taking high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

The jailbreak was central to Chanel Cleeton’s The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, which was published in May. It also was a narrative centerpiece of Daniel Lynch’s amusing if improbable Yellow, which came out in 1992, and of Amy Ephron’s White Rose, which was published in 1999 and billed as part romance, part thriller.

I read portions of Cleeton’s novel and was struck to find that it included details  first described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. (I also reported findings about the jailbreak in an article, “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” that was published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal American Journalism.)

Cleeton, however, acknowledged no debt to The Year That Defined American Journalism, which rejected the persistent but evidence-thin notion that the jailbreak was a hoax, that Cisneros was freed because Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba had been bribed to look the other way.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the Cisneros jailbreak was “the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles” — roles that had remained obscure for more than 100 years.

To her credit, Cleeton did not embrace the jailbreak-as-hoax notion.

But her discussion of the main actors who conspired to break Cisneros from jail would be familiar to readers of The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Given her novel’s reliance on details first published in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Cleeton’s acknowledging the book by title would have been appropriate. And appreciated.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2021:

Media Myth Alert at 12: Recalling memorable myth-busting posts

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, PBS, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on October 31, 2021 at 8:59 am

Media Myth Alert today marks its 12th anniversary of calling attention to the publication or posting of prominent but exaggerated tales about media prowess and the presumed power and influence of journalists.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmTwelve years offers a fitting occasion to recall some memorable posts — posts that tweaked often-arrogant media outlets such as the Washington Post and PBS, called out media lapses and hypocrisy, and supported the two editions of my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong.

The lineup that unfolds below is admittedly subjective and represents but a slice of the hundreds of essays posted since the launch of Media Myth Alert on the afternoon of Halloween, 2009. It’s nonetheless a slice that makes for pleasant reminiscence. What follows are headlines and descriptions of five of the posts that for varying reasons have stood out over the years:

■ Why Trump-Russia is hardly Watergate-Nixon (posted March 5, 2017): Long before the special counsel’s report punctured the notion that then-President Donald Trump conspired with the Russians to steal the 2016 presidential election, Media Myth Alert scoffed at the notion afoot among American journalists that the suspected Trump-Russia scandal was akin to Watergate redux.

“’Overstated’ hardly suffices in describing the media’s eagerness to find in President Donald Trump’s odd affinity for Russia parallels or echoes that bring to mind Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal,” I wrote. “Such stuff is overstated. Premature. Facile. And ahistoric.”

I added: “Casually invoking such parallels is to ignore and diminish Watergate’s exceptionality. Watergate was a constitutional crisis of unique dimension in which some 20 men, associated either with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972, went to prison.

“Watergate’s dénouement — Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 — was driven not by dogged reporting of the Washington Post but by Nixon’s self-destructive decision to tape-record conversations at the White House. Thousands of hours of audiotape recordings were secretly made, from February 1971 to July 1973.” (Disclosing the Watergate tapes was a story the Post missed, by the way.)

I followed up in another post a little more than two months later, writing:

“The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his associates to jail.”

The Trump-Russia special counsel, Robert Mueller, released his report in May 2019, rejecting suspicions that the Trump campaign or its associates conspired or coordinated with Russia — thus short-circuited eager speculation about a Watergate-type scandal that would bring down a president.

■ WaPo’s ‘five myths’ feature about Vietnam ignores ‘Cronkite Moment,’ Nixon ‘secret plan,’ ‘Napalm Girl’ (posted October 2, 2017): The Washington Post has figured often in posts at Media Myth Alert over the years. A favorite topic has been the newspaper’s unwillingness to explain or take much responsibility for its deeply erroneous reporting about Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

I’ve referred to that reporting as “the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.”

In its Sunday editions, the Post runs a fussy feature  called “five myths,” a rundown of uneven quality on a fresh topic each week.

In 2017, the newspaper addressed “five Myths” of the Vietnam War — and mentioned none of the prominent media myths of that conflicts. Not the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, in an hour-long special report, supposedly swung public opinion against the war. Not the notion Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the conflict. Not the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph which was taken in June 1972 and supposedly hastened an end to the conflict.

No prominent media myth figured in the Post’s rundown about what it called five “deeply entrenched myths” about Vietnam. Instead, the compilation included such “myths” as: “The refugees who came to the U.S. [after the war] were Vietnam’s elite” and “American soldiers [in Vietnam] were mostly draftees.”

Those were not unimportant aspects of the war. But “deeply entrenched myths”? Certainly not as entrenched as the “Cronkite Moment.” As “Nixon’s secret plan.” As the myths of “Napalm Girl.”

■ It’s like 1948 all over again for American media (posted November 9, 2016): This essay makes the subjective short list because it was a starting point for a project that culminated in publication last year of my seventh book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.

The “like 1948” essay was posted the morning after Trump’s shocking electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — an election that Clinton, the news media, and maybe even Trump figured she would win, perhaps decisively.

Truman triumphant, 1948

The depth of surprise on the day after the election brought reminders of the 1948 election, when incumbent Harry S. Truman defeated the odds-on frontrunner, Thomas E. Dewey (see photo nearby of Truman with a Chicago Tribune front page that got it wrong).

In the day-after post, I noted that notable among the misplaced predictions of Clinton’s sure win was that of Stuart Rothenberg, who had written in August 2016 at the Washington Post’s PowerPost blog:

“Three months from now, with the 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, we will look back and agree that the presidential election was over on Aug. 9th.

Rothenberg added that “a dispassionate examination of the data, combined with a coldblooded look at the candidates, the campaigns and presidential elections, produces only one possible conclusion: Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, and the margin isn’t likely to be as close as Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney” in 2012.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-2-32-48-amObama defeated Romney by an electoral count of 332-206.

Trump defeated Clinton by 304 electoral votes to 227.

Clinton won the national popular vote on the strength of lopsided support among California voters. She lost the presidency by failing to carry three key Great Lakes states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — where polls and poll-based forecasts suggested she would win clearly, if not overwhelmingly.

Had Clinton won those states, she would have won the White House.

The shock outcome of 2016 is one of eight high-profile polling failures taken up in chapters of Lost in a Gallup.

The book noted that in 2016, “polls and poll-based statistical forecasts had set an election narrative that the news media embraced and locked into place. The final polling estimates showed little to challenge the dominant narrative. The election might be close, but an upset? That seemed implausible.”

Lost in a Gallup quoted Natalie Jackson, the Huffington Post analyst who forecast that Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 98.2 percent, as saying after the election that “when there are hundreds of polls all saying the same thing — as most polls did when they indicated Clinton would win—it’s easy to develop a false sense of certainty and safety in concluding that that’s what will happen.”

■ ‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in Economist’s holiday double issue (posted December 22, 2012): I’ve noted from time to time at Media Myth Alert how international news outlets are known to invoke prominent myths about American news media.

A notable example was found in the year-end double issue of Britain’s Economist magazine in 2012, in an off-beat essay about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning. Embedded in that account was reference to the hoary media myth of yellow journalism. It said:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’”

The yellow kid character was a contributing factor in the naming of “yellow journalism.” But not the sole factor.

What attracted the attention of Media Myth Alert was this passage:

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

That’s a reference to the myth that in their overheated reporting of Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer whipped up war fever to the extent that American military intervention against Spain became inevitable..

Economist double issue_2012The yellow press certainly reported closely about the runup to the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes the newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

Simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences that led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it 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 [geopolitical and humanitarian] forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

■ Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (April 14, 2019): I noted not long ago that “PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven. … They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy,” who was the subject of an “American Experience” program in 2020.

PBS documentaries also can give fawning treatment to subjects it regards highly, such as Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes. Pulitzer was, as I wrote in 2019 in reviewing the PBS documentary, “the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

“Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.”

The PBS documentary was an 83-minute, “mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.”

The effect of all the docu-gushing, I wrote, “was misleading.

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

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

“Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program …. It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

“In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.”

For years, Pulitzer ran the World by remote control, as an absentee owner. “From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe,” I wrote, “Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer,” noting that “the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored” by PBS.

The topic is not insignificant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

WJC

More memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: