W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Media myths’ Category

Watergate myth, extravagant version: Nixon was ‘dethroned entirely’ by press

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2021 at 7:15 am

Nixon ‘dethroned entirely’ by the press? Hardly

The mythical notion that dogged journalism brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal is unshakeable in its appeal and irresistible in its application.

Seldom has the myth been presented as colorfully or extravagantly as it was in a recent 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?

That may be a charmingly British turn of phrase.

But it’s not what happened in Watergate.

The movie All the President’s Men certainly leaves the impression Nixon was dethroned by journalism, given its focus on the characters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the lead reporters for the Washington Post on Watergate.

But in reality, forces and factors far more diverse and powerful than Woodward and Bernstein brought about the fall Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in my 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.”

And 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 Watergate’s seminal crime — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I further wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — a version even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

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

It cannot be said often enough that in their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein  missed some key developments as the Watergate scandal unfolded — notably the disclosure that Nixon had installed the secret taping system at the White House.

The existence of the tapes was revealed in July 1973, in testimony by a former Nixon aide before the U.S. Senate Committee on Watergate.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said in 2011, almost four years before his death.

Put another way, absent the tapes, no Nixon dethroning.

So what, then, accounts for the persistence of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth?

Its appeal no doubt reflects a fundamental characteristic of media myths: it’s simplistic. The heroic-journalists interpretation offers easy-to-grasp version of a sprawling scandal that sent some two dozen men to jail. Embracing the heroic-journalist  trope allows the side-stepping of Watergate’s intricacies.

It’s become what I’ve called “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

WJC

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Hal Holbrook, ‘follow the money,’ and Watergate’s distorted history

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 3, 2021 at 8:48 am

The death of actor Hal Holbrook was reported yesterday and, inevitably, his cinematic portrayal of a shadowy, garage-lurking source in the Watergate scandal received prominent mention in a flurry of obituaries.

Those articles recalled Holbrook’s advice in the film All the President’s Men to “follow the money” which, in the movie, was presented as guidance crucial to unraveling the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate.

Indeed, “follow the money” is a cinematic anagram that often has been taken as genuine. In fact it’s Watergate’s most famous made-up line. The urgent-sounding advice was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, which was adapted from a book by the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Their book, also titled All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in 1974, not long before Nixon’s resignation.

As popular as the book was, far more people have seen the movie, which has been lavishly praised over the years for its outstanding cast and for its supposed accuracy. The Post’s movie critic once declared, extravagantly:

“In the annals of Washington’s most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than ‘All the President’s Men,’ which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The movie as the “record itself of the Watergate scandal.”

Hardly.

Beyond injecting “follow the money” into the popular vernacular, All the President’s Men toyed with the historical record in several respects. Notably, the film:

  • embraced and elevated the mythical heroic-journalist trope, depicting the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as vital to unraveling the scandal. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein missed key developments in Watergate, such as the pivotal disclosure of the taping system Nixon had installed at the White House.
  • minimized, and even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s dimensions.
  • depicted Woodward and Bernstein as having faced threats far greater than they really encountered. They were shown, for example, as taking precautions to thwart electronic surveillance presumably aimed at them by the Nixon administration. Although “Deep Throat” — who in real life was Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official — had warned them about such eavesdropping techniques, Woodward and Bernstein followed precautions such as conferring on street corners only for a short period. It “all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic,” they wrote in their book, and soon went back to their routines.

The film also blurred somewhat the personas of Holbrook and Felt, who in 2005 revealed that he had been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source. An  essay in the Post today claimed that while Holbrook’s “follow the money” line had been made up for dramatic purposes, it “still reflected what Felt was saying without saying it.”

Interestingly, Holbrook, who was 95 when he died last month, said late in his life that he wasn’t interested in playing the “Deep Throat” source because the character was shown only in deep shadows of a parking garage. “I turned the script down because there’s nothing there,” Holbrook said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “You don’t see the guy and there’s nothing there. I’m not going to do it.”

Holbrook was persuaded to take the part by Robert Redford, who acquired rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book and played Woodward in the movie. “He said, ‘Listen, Hal. People will remember this role more than anything else in the film. … I’m telling you the truth, they will remember this role,'” Holbrook quoted Redford as saying.

Holbrook said he relented and reluctantly agreed to play “Deep Throat.” He acknowledged in the interview that Redford turned out to be right about the memorable quality of the stealthy character. “He was right as rain,” Holbrook conceded. “He understood it, and I didn’t.”

WJC

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‘Napalm Girl’ photographer defies backlash risk and accepts award at White House; is assaulted following night

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Media myths, Photographs on January 16, 2021 at 8:35 pm

Nick Ut, the award-winning photojournalist who took the  much-mythologizedNapalm Girl” image late in the Vietnam War, came to Washington, D.C., this week to accept an award from President Donald Trump. Ut risked intense backlash for sharing a stage with the soon-departed, and once-again-impeached, U.S. president.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

But Ut made clear he wasn’t deterred by the risks or the optics, writing in a first-person essay for Newsweek that “it was the happiest moment of my life” when Trump placed the National Medal of Arts around his neck. “I couldn’t believe the president of the United States was giving me a medal,” Ut added. “Everyone was applauding and congratulating me.”

The following night in Washington, while walking with a friend to dinner, Ut was physically assaulted and injured, saying in an Instagram post that his assailant was a “drug addict young guy” who “knocked me down and hurt my ribs, back and left leg.”

The attack took place a few blocks from the White House but seemed unrelated to his receiving the medal from Trump.

Ut, who is almost 70 and stands barely 5 feet tall, retired in 2017 after 51 years of taking photos for the Associated Press news service. He said in his Newsweek essay that he anticipated receiving “a lot of messages about accepting the award.

“But I don’t mind if anyone is angry because the award is for me personally, and it is from the President of the United States. He’s still the president. And this is America. We have freedom here. I never forget that.”

It was a notable statement in a troubled and censoring time, when such sentiments are not widely embraced or even welcome. Not after last week’s shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, following a rally where the president reiterated his complaints about irregularities in the November presidential election. The Capitol assault gave rise to a snap impeachment vote in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday, the day Ut received the award.

Ut and Trump had met before, in Los Angeles, before Trump was elected president. Ut recalled in his essay that Trump “loved my picture of Vietnam. He said to me: ‘Nick, your picture changed the world.'”

Nick Ut, 2017

Ut was quoted in 2016 as saying Trump had made a similar statement, that the “Napalm Girl” photograph had been “responsible for ending the Vietnam War.”

Ut was reported then to have said in jest, “I couldn’t ask for a better agent” than Trump.

The presumed power of the “Napalm Girl” has been at the heart of tenacious media myths about the photograph, which showed a cluster of Vietnamese children fleeing a misdirected air strike on their village.

At the center of the photo was Kim Phuc, a 9-year-old girl whose clothes were burned away by the napalm. Thanks to Ut’s taking her to hospital soon after the attack, the girl survived her severe burns. She lives in suburban Toronto, having defected from Vietnam in 1992. She and Ut are frequently in touch.

The myths of the “Napalm Girl” include the notion — sometimes invoked by Ut, himself — that the photograph, taken in June 1972 during a napalm attack in what then was South Vietnam, was so compelling that it accelerated the end to the war.

But as I wrote in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “claims that the photograph hastened the war’s end are accompanied by little or no supporting evidence, and by little or no explanation about just how a still photograph could have exerted such an influence.”

I also noted that “Napalm Girl” exerted “no discernible effect or influence on the U.S. policy of ‘Vietnamization,’ of shifting the burden of the ground war to the South Vietnamese while dramatically reducing the U.S. combat presence in the country.” By early June 1972, about 60,000 U.S. troops remained in Vietnam, down from a peak of 543,000 troops in April 1969. 

The trajectory of the U.S. troop drawdown was “neither accelerated nor otherwise influenced by the publication of ‘Napalm Girl,'” I noted.

Moreover, the war did not end until April 1975, nearly three years after the photograph was made, when North Vietnamese forces conquered the South and installed communist rule there.

Despite the myths that surround it, “Napalm Girl” lives on as what I’ve called “an insistent statement about the horrors of war and its terrorizing effects on civilians.”

Even so, to argue that “a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict,” I wrote in Getitng It Wrong not only “is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”

WJC

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An international dimension to prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television, Watergate myth on January 6, 2021 at 10:06 pm

It’s at least mildly intriguing to consider how international news outlets can be so eager to recite prominent myths about the American media.

Johnson: Not watching Cronkite

A few months back, for example, the Guardian of London invoked the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, declaring that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernsteinbrought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency “with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper has been known to invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment” to underscore how, in a splintered media environment, no single television anchor can project ousize influence. Not that Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, actually did so in editorializing about the Vietnam War — the occasion in late February 1968 that gave rise to what has become a hoary media myth.

Just the other day, La Razón, a newspaper in Madrid, conjured the “Cronkite Moment” in declaring, credulously, that Cronkite’s on-air assessment that night in 1968 — when he claimed the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — effectively dismantled years of “presidential propaganda” about the American war effort in Southeast Asia.

La Razón further declared that President Lyndon B. Johnson, “watching the broadcast in his office, said that ‘if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost America.'”

Which is highly improbable.

We know that Johnson was not at his “office” the night of Cronkite’s program. He was not at the White House, either, and not in front of a television set. Johnson at the time was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for his long-time political ally, Governor John Connally (see photo nearby).

About the time Cronkite was stating his “mired in stalemate” claim, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of America or anything like it. He was engaging in light-hearted banter about Connally’s age.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Far from having powerful effects on the U.S. president or on U.S. policy, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither remarkable nor profound at the time.

For months before Cronkite’s program, U.S. news organizations had referred to “stalemate” to describe the war effort.

The New York Times, in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from Saigon, also stated:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Interestingly, Cronkite rejected the supposedly powerful effects of his commentary about Vietnam. In his memoir titled A Reporters’ Life and published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that for the president, the “mired in stalemate” assessment was “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

Cronkite repeated the analogy in promoting the book, telling CNBC that he doubted the program “had a huge significance. I think it was a very small straw on a very heavy load [Johnson] was already carrying.”

“A very small straw,” indeed.

If that.

Also, there is no certain evidence that Johnson later saw Cronkite’s on videotape. If he had, the impact of Cronkite’s remarks likely would have been diluted as aides could have been expected to have told the president what he was about to see on tape.

In any case, the “Cronkite Moment” clearly exerts powerful appeal for news outlets outside the United States. And why is that? More broadly, what makes American media myths so broadly attractive, internationally?

For one reason, these tales obviously are not understood to be the stuff of myth; they are regarded as factual. Plus, they can seem too tempting and too pertinent to pass up: too good not to be true.

Also, they provide useful if simplistic and unambiguous frames of reference for international news organizations in reporting about, and analyzing, political developments in contemporary America.

La Razón’s credulous commentary invoked the “Cronkite Moment” in discussing what it called “la destrumpizacion” (or “the detrumpization”) of America  as Donald Trump enters the closing days of his presidency.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2020

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 30, 2020 at 9:29 pm

Media Myth Alert directed attention periodically in 2020 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 writeups at Media Myth Alert, a year in which corporate media’s woeful coverage of the presidential election figured prominently.

■ The shame of the press (posted October 31): As the 2020 presidential election neared, much of U.S. corporate media indulged in what I called “willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.”

They ignored, suppressed, or risibly dismissed as Russian disinformation credible allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. The effect was to shield Biden, an undeniably flawed and feeble candidate, from scrutiny and thus help him defeat President Donald Trump, whom they so deeply detest.

This conduct by corporate media, I wrote, represented “an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

“Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of ‘fie on both houses’ attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

“Not so much anymore.”

Biden’s son is suspected of arranging lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the candidate’s knowledge. But reporting in the New York Post — based on emails retrieved from a laptop computer the son abandoned at a repair shop — undercut Joe Biden’s claims of ignorance. The Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they seriously or substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reporting suggested that Joe Biden had a secret financial involvement in his son’s efforts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist regime.

“The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent,” I wrote.

Didn’t happen.

After the election, corporate media briefly lifted their blackout to report that the FBI for two years had been looking into the son’s accepting payments from international sources. The federal inquiry centers around suspected violations of tax laws.

But corporate media of course offered no apologies for their shameful rejection of journalistic curiosity in the run-up to the election.

New York Times commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth (posted August 5): Some media-centric tall tales, I noted, “are just too good to die away.”

A telling example is the exaggerated claim of viewer-listener disagreement during and immediately after the first presidential debate in 1960 between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The myth has it that Nixon “won” the debate among radio listeners but because he perspired noticeably and looked bad on television, “lost” the debate among TV viewers.

Nixon on debate stage, 1960

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was impressively demolished 33 years ago, by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. Their article, I wrote, “remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.”

And yet the myth of viewer-listener disagreement lives on, as an the New York Times made clear in an essay published in early August.

The essay’s author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew, unreservedly invoked the hoary myth, writing that “Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed so strikingly and sharply about the debate’s winner, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to identify and report on such disparate reactions — especially soon after the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints about viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Woodward’s latest book prompts myth-telling about Watergate (posted September 22): “It was predictable,” I wrote. “Inevitable, even.”

It was all but certain that news reports and reviews of Rage, Bob Woodward‘s latest book about Trump and his presidency, would credulously recite the media myth that Woodward’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

He didn’t bring down Nixon

And sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has on occasion attempted to dismiss.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press, for example, described Woodward as “famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon.”

The New York Post stated that Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, had together “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

The Toronto Sun likewise asserted that the Woodward and Bernstein‘s “1970s Watergate reporting … brought down Richard Nixon.”

The Guardian of London declared in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

What explains this inclination to embrace so blithely what long ago was debunked as a media myth?

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of the Watergate scandal — “that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — is deeply appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, just might have powerful effects.

The trope also represents “ready shorthand,” I noted, “for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” Watergate after all was a tangle of lies, deceit, and criminality, and popular understanding of the details has faded considerably since Nixon resigned in August 1974.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — one that even Woodward has disputed.

He memorably told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out (posted January 26): Early in the year, PBS aired an “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War.

The timing of the program was puzzling: Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such retrospective programs. But nothing in January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

The producers most likely wanted to suggest that President Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy.

If that were the intent, I wrote, “the allusion was muddled. And under-developed.” And unpersuasive. Trump is a far more complicated character than McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence in the early 1950s.

The documentary also presented a conventional — and misleading interpretation — that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

As I’ve often noted at Media Myth Alert, not all prominent journalists of the early 1950s were inclined to excuse or ignore McCarthy’s excesses or soft-pedal his allegations.

Foremost among McCarthy’s foes in American journalism was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based muckraking columnist who took on the senator just days after he began his communists-in-government campaign in 1950.

Pearson was persistent in challenging McCarthy, disputing not only the senator’s red-baiting claims but calling attention to other misdeeds, such as McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson deserved more recognition than PBS granted.

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

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

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

But the documentary made no mention of Rovere at all.

Our incurious press (posted November 30): The 2020 presidential election gave rise to many curious turns in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the election turned. These included atypical voting patterns, statistical anomalies, and extreme spikes in vote counts in Biden’s favor that took place in pre-dawn hours in key states.

These and other oddities of the election deserved corporate media’s scrutiny.

Instead, they were indifferent and dismissive, eager to wave off what may be called “the strange details” of the election — and do so without much independent inquiry. “Baseless” quickly became a favored characterization.

They seemed not to realize that the suspicions about the conduct of the election are certain to persist, clouding the putative victory of the 78-year-old Biden, who seldom strayed from his basement during the Fall campaign and whose gaffes and incoherence suggest he’s not up to the job of president.

The election’s oddities and anomalies warranted dispassionate investigation, especially as a large numbers of Americans — and more than a few Democrats among them — suspect the election was marred by tampering and suspicious conduct like the delaying and interrupting of vote-counts.

It was not as if corporate media lacked the will or interest to investigate suspicions of election anomalies and fraud. After all, the New York Times and Washington Post did share a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on vague suspicions that Trump somehow conspired with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election — suspicions that proved exaggerated, over-wrought and, in a word, baseless.

And it was not as if corporate media were chastened that their investigations of the 2016 election came a cropper. Rather, they have become so predictably partisan as to be disinclined to do anything that could bolster Trump, or damage Biden.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2020:

Getting it right about a legendary newspaper editorial

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes on December 21, 2020 at 6:54 pm

The timeless paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit, published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, long ago became the single best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism.

It also is a myth-distorted artifact, as suggested by errant media descriptions and characterizations over the years.

Such descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title and erred about its derivation. (Surely it cannot be churlish to expect news outlets to get it right about a legendary commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.)

Is There_NYSunThe editorial (see image nearby) was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” (as a commentary several years ago in the Tampa Bay Times maintained; that commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out”).

The phrase, “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the 1897 editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years afterward, recalled the excited speculation that led her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897 — as is often assumed — but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is likely that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, at the Sun for an extended period. In any case, the Sun did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as is sometimes claimed.

We know this because Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

It is sometimes said the editorial was an instant sensation and as such was reprinted yearly by the Sun. Neither claim is quite accurate.

Despite its odd timing, the editorial prompted no comment or response from rival newspapers in New York — at a time when newspapers were eager to point to the flaws, deficiencies, and misjudgments of peer publications.

And the Sun’s embrace of “Is There A Santa Claus?” was diffident, reluctant, and unenthusiastic. Not until the 1920s did the Sun routinely republish the editorial at Christmastime — a move that represented a triumph for the newspaper’s readers who, as I wrote in The Year that Defined American Journalism, frequently over the years had called for the editorial to be reprinted.

In the ten years that followed its initial publication, the Sun republished “Is There A Santa Claus?” at Christmastime only twice.

The first time was in 1902. On that occasion, the Sun reprinted the editorial with more than a hint of annoyance, stating:

“Since its original publication, the Sun has refrained from reprinting the article on Santa Claus which appeared several years ago, but this year requests for its reproduction have been so numerous that we yield.” The newspaper added this gratuitous swipe:

“Scrap books seem to be wearing out.”

The Sun next reprinted the editorial in December 1906, as a tribute to Church, who had died eight months before.

The Sun said then it was reprinting the editorial “at the request of many friends of the Sun, of Santa Claus, of the little Virginias of yesterday and to-day, and of the author of the essay, the late F.P. Church.”

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”

But it probably was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun soon after his death, in an editorial tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

Virginia O’Hanlon grew up to a teacher and a principal. She married unhappily but kept her husband’s surname, had one daughter, and lived till 1971. Her death in upstate New York at age 81 was reported on the front page of the New York Times.

So why, after more than 120 years, does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon lives on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis?

Here are some reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming; it also is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past, a time before the internet, social media, television, and even radio or manned flight; it is reassuring, somehow, to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers an evocative reminder to adults about Christmases past, about the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven to be a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

This post is an expanded version of an essay published at Media Myth Alert in December 2013.

WJC

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The shame of the press

In Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on October 31, 2020 at 11:26 pm

Eighty-two years ago, the front pages of American newspapers told of panic and hysteria which, they said, had swept the country the night before, during, and immediately after a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds.

The program starred and was directed by 23-year-old Orson Welles who made clever use of simulated news bulletins to tell of waves of attacking Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Or so the newspapers said on October 31, 1938.

“For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself,” declared the Washington Post, while offering few specifics to support the dramatic claim.

“Thousands of persons in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, as well as all over the nation, were pitched into mass hysteria … by the broadcast,” the New York Herald Tribune asserted. It, too, offered little supporting evidence.

“Hysteria among radio listeners through the nation … resulted from a too realistic radio program … describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

And so it went.

As I described in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, reports of widespread panic and hysteria were wildly exaggerated “and did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide scale.”

Had Americans been convulsed in panic and hysteria that night, the resulting turmoil and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was conclusively linked to the show.

The overheated press accounts were almost entirely anecdotal — and driven by an eagerness to question the reliability and legitimacy of radio, then an upstart rival medium.

There was no nationwide panic that long ago night before Halloween and the day-after coverage was an episode of collective misreporting that contributed to the rise of a tenacious media myth.

Eighty-two years later, much of mainstream corporate news media is indulging in another, even more consequential episode of misconduct that’s defined not by overheated misreporting but by willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.

Corporate media, with few exceptions on the political right, have ignored and declined to pursue allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, so as to shield the flawed and feeble candidate from scrutiny and help him defeat the incumbent they so profoundly loathe.

Their contempt for President Donald Trump runs deep. Corporate media obviously recognize they cannot investigate and publish critical reporting — they cannot do searching journalism — about Biden so close to the November election without jeopardizing his candidacy and boosting Trump’s chances of reelection.

This neglect by corporate media represents an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of “fie on both houses” attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

Not so much anymore. Not in American corporate media, where an overt partisanship has become not only acceptable but unmistakable.

The suspicions about Biden stem from his son’s efforts to line up lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the knowledge of Joe Biden. Reporting in the New York Post in mid-October was based on emails that undercut Biden’s claim of ignorance about the son’s dealings. Notably, the Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reports have suggested Biden’s secret financial involvement in his son’s attempts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist government.

The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent.

But the response largely has been to shun and ignore. Or to block or impede distribution, as Twitter and Facebook did with the New York Post’s mid-October report. Or to dismiss it as so much Russian disinformation. Or scoff that it’s just a distraction. That’s what National Public Radio claimed, in a remarkably obtuse statement by its public editor (or internal critic), Kelly McBride. “We don’t want to waste our time,” she wrote, ” … on stories that are just pure distractions.”

Matt Taibbi, who is perhaps the most searching critic these days of contemporary American media and their failings, noted recently that the “least curious people in the country right now appear to be the credentialed news media, a situation normally unique to tinpot authoritarian societies.”

The inclination to shield Biden may partly stem from the shifting business model for corporate news organizations. The model used to be largely advertising-based, which encouraged news organizations to seek wide audiences by offering what was passably impartial reporting.

With the decline of advertising revenues, the business model has moved toward a digital-subscriber base. As readers pay, they are prone to make clear their preferences, and the news report tilts to reflect their partisan expectations.

Evidence of the tilt was striking enough four years ago, when Liz Spayd, an advocate of even-handedness in reporting, was public editor at the New York Times. She lasted less than a year before the position was dissolved and she was let go.

Spayd, whom I favorably mention in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, hadn’t been on the job a month when she wrote this about the Times in July 2016:

“Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes. Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

“Or has that already happened?”

It no doubt had. And overt partisanship has become all the more evident in the past four years as the Times and other corporate media pursued such stories as Trump’s conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. It was a bizarre, exaggerated tale that obsessed corporate media for three years before finally coming a cropper.

Corporate media may well protect Biden long enough for the gaffe-prone 77-year-old to gain the presidency. But the shameful exhibition of willful blindness may not end well for corporate media. Their abdication may leave them besmirched. And diminished.

WJC

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Woodward’s latest Trump book prompts myth-telling about Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 22, 2020 at 7:24 pm

It was predictable. Inevitable, even.

It was all but certain that news accounts and reviews of Rage, Bob Woodward‘s latest book about Donald Trump and his presidency, would credulously recite the hardy media myth that Woodward’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Not he: didn’t bring down Nixon

Sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has tried, occasionally, to dampen as absurd.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press, for example, described Woodward as “famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon.”

The New York Post, in reporting last week that Trump found Rage “very boring,” referred to Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, and declared they had “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

The Toronto Sun likewise asserted that the Woodward and Bernstein‘s “1970s Watergate reporting … brought down Richard Nixon.”

The Guardian of London asserted in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

Among the more reverential if complex characterizations of Woodward and his Watergate work came the other day from Henry Zeffman, a reviewer for the Times of London, who wrote:

“Woodward is the doyen of Washington’s sober and self-regarding journalistic elite, and I am wary of criticizing someone who has won two Pulitzer prizes and brought down a president.”

The bit about Washington’s “self-regarding journalistic elite” is true enough. And the claim about Woodward having brought down a president seems irresistible, for Zeffman returns to and reiterates that point deeper in his review, calling Woodward “a reporter who felled a president.”

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is not Woodward’s take on Trump but the inclination of journalists to dust off and invoke the mythical effects of Woodward’s Watergate reporting nearly 50 years ago.

And why are they so inclined to embrace so blithely what long ago has been debunked as a media myth?

It’s a question not infrequently considered at Media Myth Alert — a question also taken up in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of the Watergate scandal — “that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — is endlessly appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, might one day result in powerful effects.

The trope also represents “ready shorthand,” I noted, for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” Watergate after all was a tangle of lies, deceit, and criminality, and popular understanding of the details has faded considerably since Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Even so, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — one that even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004:

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

On another occasion, Woodward complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program 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.

“The Washington Post stories had some part in a chain of events … that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

Woodward was right: simply put, he and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

And we would do well to take Woodward at his word.

Or the word of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of Watergate’s seminal crime — the botched breakin at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

“The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” Graham added.

Indeed.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s sprawling dimensions, I noted in Getting It Wrong, “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, 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 breakin] and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money” to the burglars and others convicted in the crime.

WJC

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Cronkite did all that? The anchorman, the president, and the Vietnam War

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on August 23, 2020 at 6:07 am

The endless appeal of media-driven myths rests largely in affirming that journalists are powerful actors whose work and words can exert great and decisive effects on war, politics, and public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam

This thread runs through all prominent media myths, from William Randolph Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century to the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, that exposés by two Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The thread also defines the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the Vietnam War.

Cronkite’s assessment, which came after he visited what then was South Vietnam in the wake of the communist-led Tet offensive, was unremarkable for the times. Even so, it has taken on legendary status as a moment of telling unvarnished truth to power, as an occasion when an anchorman’s words brought clarity to a President who, as if in an epiphany, realized his war policy was a shambles.

Journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote of Cronkite’s assessment, “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Cronkite of course had declared no such thing and the war in Vietnam ground on until 1975. But Halberstam’s hyperbole is emblematic of the mythical proportions the “Cronkite Moment” has reached.

Late August brings the anniversary and inevitable reminders of the bloody 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. The approach of the anniversary this year was the occasion for the Guardian of London to post an essay of reminiscences by a photographer who was there.

What particularly interested Media Myth Alert was this passage, crediting Cronkite with decisive influence and power:

“President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the years-long Vietnam war, chose not to run for re-election after a critical editorial by the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, the man then dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Losing Cronkite’s confidence, Johnson believed he had lost Middle America as well.”

There’s much to unpack and dismantle in those two sentences, which imply that Cronkite’s assessment about the war, offered in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, led Johnson not to seek reelection.

But we know that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired. The President that night was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for a long-time political ally, John Connally. And it is not clear whether, when, or under what circumstances Johnson may have seen the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, the power of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” resides in the immediate, unexpected, and visceral effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect likely would have been muted or absent had Johnson seen the program, or excerpts, on videotape.

Even if he did screen the program on videotape soon after February 27, it is clear Johnson did not take Cronkite’s assessment to heart. In the days and weeks afterward, the president mounted a vigorous public defense of his war policy. In mid-March 1968, for example, he told a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

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

Two days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Not only that, but the anchorman’s characterization of “stalemate” was hardly novel in late February 1968.

The term had been invoked frequently by critics — and for months before Cronkite’s program — to describe the war. In early August 1967, the New York Times published a lengthy, front page news analysis about the war beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The analysis, filed from Vietnam by R.W. Apple Jr., said in part:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the fighting in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The essay won Apple an Overseas Press Club award.

What tipped Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 were his declining political fortunes and the views of an informal group of advisers — and not, as the Guardian essay suggests, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

By the end of March 1968, when he announced he would not run for another term, Johnson had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary election to an antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. And an even more formidable rival for the Democratic party nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had entered the race. Johnson was becoming a spent force, politically.

His informal advisers, collectively known as the “Wise Men,” had gathered in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s war policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” one adviser, George Ball, later recalled.

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

A few days afterward, Johnson announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection.

The Guardian essay also claims that Cronkite was known at the time as “the most trusted man in America.”

In fact, that characterization was applied to him years after 1968 — when CBS publicists touted him as such in advertising the network’s Election Night news coverage in 1972.

Their basis? A survey conducted that year of 8,780 respondents in 18 states by the pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company. The poll sought to assess and compare levels of public trust among U.S. politicians. Oddly, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaningn that he was being compared to the likes of Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent, which as media critic Jack Shafer once noted, “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.” The generic “average senator” came in second at 67 percent.

CBS publicists nonetheless embraced the survey’s results. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads encouraged readers to tune into the CBS election coverage — and proclaimed Cronkite the “most trusted American in public life.”

WJC

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NYTimes commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, Television, Watergate myth on August 5, 2020 at 11:25 am

To say that prominent media myths, those dubious tall tales about the media and the exploits of journalists, are immune from debunking is to confirm a truism.

Shield him from debates?

Some media-centric tall tales are just too good to die away.

These include the heroic trope that two young, dogged reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal. They include the notion that a pessimistic, on-air assessment by anchorman Walter Cronkite about the Vietnam War in 1968 turned American public opinion against the conflict.

And they include the exaggerated narrative of the first presidential debate in 1960 between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, that the former “won” the debate among radio listeners but, because he perspired noticeably and looked wan, “lost” among television viewers.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement was thoroughly and impressively demolished 33 years ago and yet it lives on; it lives on at the New York Times, which unreservedly offered up the myth in an essay published yesterday.

The essay proposed an end to the presidential debates — a fixture in the U.S. political landscape since 1976 — because “have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership.” The author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew who was on a debate panel 44 years ago, has made such an argument before.

But the essay’s publication yesterday also looked like prospective justification for shielding gaffe-prone Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, from confronting President Donald Trump in three 90-minute debates during the unfolding campaign. Biden’s fumbling, sometimes-bizarre statements may not serve him well in such encounters. (Of course, as Drew has written on other occasions, Trump’s isn’t necessarily an effective or well-prepared debater.)

What most interested Media Myth Alert, though, was Drew’s invoking the myth of viewer-listener disagreement.

“Perhaps the most substantive televised debate of all,” she wrote, “was the first one, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

Nixon “won on substance on the radio” while “Kennedy won on television.”

Uh-huh.

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed sharply about the debate’s outcome, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report on such disparate perceptions — especially in the immediate aftermath of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter, when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Moreover, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “there was no unanimity among newspaper columnists and editorial writers about Nixon’s appearance” on television during the first debate, noting:

Not everyone thought Nixon looked awful (AP photo)

“Not all analysts in late September 1960 thought Nixon’s performance was dreadful — or that Kennedy was necessarily all that appealing and rested.”

An after-debate editorial in the Washington Post declared, for example:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Saul Pett, then a prominent writer for the Associated Press, assigned Nixon high marks for cordiality. “On general folksiness both before and during the debate,” Pett wrote, “my scorecard showed Nixon ahead at least 8 to 1. … He smiled more often and more broadly, especially at the start and close of a remark. Kennedy only allowed himself the luxury of a quarter-smile now and then.”

Nixon’s tactics during the debate, rather than how he looked on television, probably were more damaging.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Nixon “committed then the elementary mistake of arguing on his opponent’s terms — of seeming to concur rather than seeking the initiative. Nixon projected a ‘me-too’ sentiment from the start, in answering Kennedy who had spoken first.”

Surprisingly, Nixon in his opening statement declared that he agreed with much of what Kennedy had just said.

The dearth of evidence that Nixon’s appearance was decisive to the debate’s outcome was underscored in a  journal article in 1987 by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. It remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that no public opinion surveys conducted in the debate’s immediate aftermath were aimed specifically at measuring views or reactions of radio audiences.

Vancil and Pendell also noted: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.” To infer “that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss, or Kennedy’s victory,” they added, “is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Quite so.

Flaws in Drew’s commentary about the presidential debates went beyond mentioning the hoary media myth (which she also invoked in her 2007 book about Nixon). An editorial in the Wall Street Journal referred specifically to Drew’s commentary, asserting:

“What a terrible year to make this argument. The pandemic has put the usual political rallies on hold, so fewer voters will see the candidates in the flesh. The conventions will be largely online. Press aides will shape the news coverage by picking friendly interviewers. … Also, Mr. Biden would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest President in history on Day 1. Mr. Trump is all but calling him senile, and Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries.”

Modifying the format of one-on-one presidential debates would be far preferable to scrapping them, which would look awfully suspicious.

And cowardly.

WJC

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