W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category

Media myth as cliché: ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio ‘panic’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2019 at 8:27 pm

The anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 inevitably brings news media references to the panic and hysteria the program supposedly set off across the United States.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner, Halloween, 1938

Such references have become like a cliché, unoriginal assertions blithely made, and yet immune to compelling contrary evidence.

Take, for one example, the claim casually offered the other day on a local television news program in Salt Lake City. The news reader introduced a segment recalling the 1938 show by declaring:

“In eight decades, nothing has really scared our country like the old War of the Worlds broadcast.”

No supporting evidence accompanied that claim, as if the presumed effects of the broadcast of October 30, 1938, are so accepted that documentation isn’t necessary.

The War of the Worlds dramatization aired over CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. It told of the invasion of the United States by waves of 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.

Welles

And that makes for quite an intriguing tale.

But like most media myths, it’s a tale with scant evidentiary support.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, if panic and hysteria had swept America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma, turmoil, and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

Whatever radio-induced fright there was that night 81 years ago hardly reached nationwide proportions.

Indeed, a far more compelling case can be made that most listeners to the program recognized it for what it was — an imaginative, fast-paced, and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with the long-ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely exaggerated and misstated?

It is, for starters, famous for what it suggests about the presumptive and lurking dark power of mass media.

It also is a clever example of dramatic storytelling that’s well-suited for Halloween. The show is often rebroadcast, or reenacted, at this time of year — which serves not only to celebrate the performance but to keep it alive in the popular consciousness.

The War of the Worlds program also is inextricably linked to the career and theatrical genius of Orson Welles who, within three years of the radio dramatization, released Citizen Kane, which he directed and in which he starred. Kane arguably is the finest motion picture ever made.

Welles, who lived until 1985, did his most memorable work before turning 30. He was 26 when he made Kane.

WJC

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‘Television made all the difference’ in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, offered the facile observation in an essay yesterday that last week brought “a tectonic shift of media attention, [with] every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story” about President Donald Trump, a story he “can’t control.”

Sullivan

As if Trump could “control” the frenzy over disclosures he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate shady dealings in that country by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As if anyone could “control” such a bizarre frenzy.

We’ll see how long this latest frenzy lasts. For now, allegations of Trump’s misconduct seem too nebulous to support impeachment, let alone conviction after trial before the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of keener interest to Media Myth Alert were passages in Sullivan’s column that touted the presumptive power of television in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

“Television,” she wrote, “made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Television made all the difference?

That interpretation may of comfort or reassurance to journalists; media-driven myths tend to be that way. But it’s mediacentric claim that grants television far too much credit as a decisive force in national politics.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in challenging McCarthy and his communists-in-government witchhunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that was decisive to the outcome of the Watergate scandal.

Let’s take first Sullivan’s claims about television and Joe McCarthy.

She wrote: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. It hardly “shut down the senator.”

The hearing transcript, excerpts of which the New York Times published the following day, show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch.

“I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’ll say it hurts,” Welch said.

McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch once belonged.

What were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. But only then-fledgling ABC and the dying Dumont network carried the hearings in sustained fashion. Neither network reached a nationwide audience.

Besides, McCarthy was then falling from his peak influence. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polls by the Gallup organization showed McCarthy’s approval ratings were ebbing by late 1953 and early 1954.

The other television moment often said to have been pivotal in the senator’s downfall came on March 9, 1954, when Edward R. Murrow devoted his half-hour See It Now program to a critical report about McCarthy. See It Now made devastating use of unflattering footage of the senator and closed with Murrow’s declaring:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

It wasn’t a decisive moment, though. More important were the Army’s allegations, raised the same week the Murrow program aired, that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, tried to obtain special treatment for David Schine. He was a member of McCarthy’s investigative staff who had been drafted into the Army. The allegations led to the hearings that Sullivan mentioned in her column.

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate.

Television came belatedly to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

In fact, Pearson’s challenges were so searching and aggressive that they prompted McCarthy to physically assault the columnist in the coat-check room after a dinner in December 1950 at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon, then a newly appointed U.S. Senator, broke up the one-sided encounter between the beefy senator and the smaller columnist.

In his memoir RN, Nixon recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Televised coverage of the extended Watergate hearings, convened in Spring 1973 by a Senate select committee, certainly was extensive andriveting. But the greatest contribution came from what the committee staff uncovered — the existence of audio tapes that Nixon secretly had made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes proved conclusively that Nixon knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s not likely 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,” he said in a presentation in 2011, almost four years before his death.

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

The tapes, not TV, “made all the difference” in Watergate.

WJC

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More Watergate mythologizing: Woodward, Bernstein ‘let facts speak’ and Nixon fell

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm

It’s almost predictable: When controversy flares about contemporary practices of American journalists, commentators not infrequently reach back to Watergate for reassurance about how effective and admirable high-minded reporting can be.

Nixon, 1974: Quits, leaves D.C.

The Watergate parable is ever-available if not especially precise. It’s more mythical than accurate, as a commentary the other day in the Boston Herald suggested.

The commentary’s author addressed the recent, overwrought controversy about a front-page headline in the New York Times that many of its readers, and staffers, thought was too generous to President Donald Trump.

“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” declared the headline, which survived only the Times’ first print edition of August 6. The newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, later termed it “a f*cking mess” that editors quickly reworked.

What interests Media Myth Alert is not so much the agitation about the Times’ headline as the Herald’s hero-treatment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate in 1972-74.

The Herald’s commentary declared: “News reporters working for newspapers and television networks and online media should have only one job to do – to report the news.” OK, no argument there.

Then it added:

“Back in the days of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or ‘Woodstein’ as they were called, dug deep and reported straight about the allegations that President Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Their stories carried weight because they weren’t trying to convince us at least overtly that Nixon was a crook. These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

Let’s unpack those claims.

Woodward and Bernstein’s digging did not lead them to allege, or disclose, that “Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters,” the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal. Woodward acknowledged as much in an interview in 1973 with Columbia Journalism Review.

Deep in an otherwise congratulatory article, the journalism review noted:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.” (Emphasis added.)

The article quoted Woodward as saying about those crucial elements of Watergate:

“’It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” And I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s personal role in coverup was not revealed until August 1974, with the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” White House audiotape. Its release was ordered in July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and its content sealed Nixon’s fate.

He resigned 45 years ago this month.

And what else about the Herald’s commentary?

Exaggeration lurks in this passage: “These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

That suggests the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was central to Nixon’s downfall when in fact their work represented a marginal contribution to Watergate’s outcome.

Not only did could they not get to the coverup. They did not disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret White House taping system — a revelation by a former White House staffer in July 1973 changed the course and intensity of Watergate investigations.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “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.”

Against the tableau of courts, prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, often insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. ‘Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,’ Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. ‘The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,’ she insisted.”

And Woodward concurred, if in cruder terms.

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he told an interviewer for the former American Journalism Review in 2004.

Why does all this matter now? Watergate, after all, was long ago.

Well, that’s just it: The intervening years have deeply eroded popular understanding about the forces and figures vital to bringing down Nixon — the investigators, the special prosecutors, the judges, the members of Congress. Instead, the heroic-journalist interpretation has become fixed as the dominant narrative of Watergate, that the dogged reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of a president and forced his resignation.

It’s far easier to turn to that mythical interpretation than it is to keep straight the many lines of investigation that did unravel the Watergate scandal.

But as I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

WJC

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Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

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

PBS the other night aired 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.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It 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 also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth. In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890 Pulitzer pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, 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.

The documentary-makers might have plumbed that correspondence for its insights. They might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant 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.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

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‘Fake news about fake news’: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 17, 2019 at 12:15 pm

They’re pretty sure it’s apocryphal.

But they use it anyway.

Media myths can be appealing like that: Too good to resist. Too good for media outlets not to revive when they think the occasion is fitting.

So it was the other day when the Salt Lake Tribune editorially condemned President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the country’s southern border.

In its editorial, the Tribune resurrected William Randolph Hearst’s debunked vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

“You want fake news?” the Tribune‘s editorial began. “Here’s some fake news about fake news.”

In other words, we’re turning to Hearst’s debunked “furnish the war” vow as seemingly a clever editorial device to impugn Trump’s claims about illegal cross-border immigration.

The Tribune went on, introducing Hearst and “yellow journalism“:

“William Randolph Hearst, impresario of yellow journalism around the end of the 19th century, was described as such a powerful press baron that, it was said, he basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s cruel tactics to put down a rebellion against its rule of Cuba. Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame that long ago war on young Heart’s flamboyant yellow journalism. Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

The Tribune then invoked Hearst’s purported but purported vow, declaring:

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.'”

The Remington-Hearst exchange supposedly was by cable, but the telegrams presumed to contain their words have never turned up. Had such messages been sent, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as a clear case of Yankee meddling.

On assignment for Hearst

What’s more, the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in early 1897. Given that context, it would have made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune acknowledges the Remington-Hearst tale is dubious but justifies its use as “too good” not to invoke when “appropriate”:

“That story is now thought to be apocryphal at best. But it was too good not to mimic in Orson Welles’ version of Hearst’s life, ‘Citizen Kane,’ and not to otherwise be brought out in appropriate moments.”

If it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization knowingly invoke the anecdote, especially as media myths undermine the normative, truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood hardly makes an editorial argument compelling. Or coherent.

Welles did paraphrase the Remington-Hearst exchange in an early scene in Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture that Hearst wanted to kill. As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the adaptation in Kane “firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow … into the public’s consciousness.”

And sometimes into the service of scoring points, editorially.

WJC

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Newspaper rant deplores ‘debasement of reality’ but invokes prominent media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2019 at 8:54 am

The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic the other day in deploring “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” declaring that “lies” have become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was a long-form screed alright, which appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It was not unlike many other rants written during the war between the press and President Donald Trump.

Journos didn’t do it

What most interested Media Myth Alert was not so much the hyperventilating as the credulous reference to the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — that reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past,” the Seattle Times article asserted, adding:

“But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

Uh-huh: “forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion, of course, is to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

But forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

No, the forces essential to rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House — 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 the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

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

And this by no means is a new 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 had cast a highly skeptical look at the notion the Washington Post was central to Watergate’s unraveling.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, the best-selling book 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 why does the hero-journalist myth persist? Why is it so often invoked, and credulously so, despite having been repeatedly debunked over the years?

It lives on for several reasons, including the need to support claims that the news media are decisive actors in American culture and political life.

But as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

What’s more, I noted, media myths tend to be “self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2018

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Reviews, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2018 to the not-infrequent 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 is a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October 2019, will mark its 10th anniversary:

WaPo’s hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’ (posted May 27): The year brought more than a few credulous references to the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” which is derived from Walter Cronkite’s peroration in a special report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. war effort was stalemated and suggested negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Cronkite in Vietnam

In a page-long look back at the “Cronkite Moment,” the Washington Post in late May praised the anchorman’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam” and asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson “was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That purported quotation, I noted in discussing the Post’s hagiographic retrospective, “is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.”

We know that Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, Johnson may have watched the program at some later date on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s remarks (if he even heard of them). In a series of public events in the first three weeks of March 1968, the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy and endeavored to rally popular support for the war.

So even if he did see Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson gave no indication of having been moved by the anchorman’s “stalemate” message — which was a rather tepid assessment for the time. Just days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The “bitter taste of defeat”: No dithering there about “stalemate.”

A media myth convergence and the ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph (posted May 20): Sometimes, media myths converge.

Sometimes a number of media outlets, separately and independently, invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at roughly the same time.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It’s an occurrence that confirms the wide reach of prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

The famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by a photographer for the Associated Press, was the  subject of a myth convergence in May: Within a few days, the National newspaper in Scotland, the online economic news site Quartz, the left-wing news site Truthdig, and the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa all invoked aspects of the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph; the image shows a cluster of children, screaming as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam.

As I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the myths surrounding the famous photograph are tenacious and include the erroneous notions that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, that it hastened an end to the conflict, and that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

The National claimed that the photograph “dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War.” Quartz made a somewhat similar claim, saying the image “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig was more vague, saying the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.” Sunday Times invoked the pernicious claim that the photograph depicted results of a “US napalm strike.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972. And the claim of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack has been invoked so often and blithely as to become insidious. But it was no “US napalm strike.” The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop, I wrote in another post in 2018, has “served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.”

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie (posted January 2): Steven Spielberg’s The Post featured the talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, was cheered by many critics, but won no major cinematic awards.

That may have been due to its incongruous story line: The movie centered around the disclosures in 1971 about the U.S. government’s classified history of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers. But the focus was not on the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for first reporting about the secret archive. The movie instead was about the newspaper that didn’t break the story, the newspaper that followed the disclosures of the New York Times.

The Post was a fawning look at the Washington Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor. The movie suggested they risked jail time for publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers after the Times had been temporarily blocked from continuing its disclosures.

The movie makes “a heroic statement,” I noted in writing about The Post, “but the emphasis is misplaced.

“To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect.”

It was the Times, after all, that took greatest risks in reporting on the Pentagon Papers; the prospect of Graham and Bradlee’s going to jail for following up on the Timesdisclosures was remote at best.

Not only was The Post’s story line a hard sell, the acting wasn’t stellar. Hanks was mediocre in playing a rumpled Bradlee; the character spoke in a strange and distracting accent that seemed vaguely Southern.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham was cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham was depicted as weak, confused, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being publisher. But then abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham found backbone and gave the order to publish.

It was all quite melodramatic, and not very convincing.

Journalism review in need of journalism history lesson (posted November 16): Columbia Journalism Review seeks to present itself as “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

It didn’t demonstrate much intellectual leadership in publishing an essay that invoked the hoary myth of Edward R. Murrow’s having “exposed” the lies and exaggerations of the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, in a half-hour television program in March 1954.

Red-baiting senator

As I pointed out in addressing the CJR essay, Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist, “took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.”

Those other journalists included the muckraking syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, who challenged McCarthy beginning in February 1950, or more than four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy became so perturbed by Pearson’s persistent questioning and probing that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. (Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.)

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate soon after the confrontation to condemn Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

So by the time Murrow devoted his “See It Now” program to McCarthy, the senator’s claims about communists having infiltrated the federal government were well-known, as were his bullying tactics. His popularity was on the skids by then, too.

Airing a critical report about McCarthy in March 1954 was more belated than courageous.

Columbia Journalism Review touted Murrow’s mythical role on other occasions — notably in an essay in July 2016 that invoked the broadcaster’s program on McCarthy as a precedent for journalists seeking to suspend professional detachment in reporting on Donald Trump and his campaign for president.

The fading of a media myth? Not so fast (posted October 30): The run-up to Halloween this year was marked by noticeably few media references to mass panic and hysteria that supposedly swept the United States during and right after the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel that told of a deadly invasion of Earth by Mars.

It’s become pretty clear that Americans weren’t pitched into panic by the hour-long program that aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, some listeners may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program as clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the myth of radio-induced panic usually emerges predictably in the run-up to Halloween.

Except for this year, when credulous media references to the “panic broadcast” seemed fewer, and seemed overwhelmed by searching commentary that rejected the notion the show created panic and hysteria. All of which prompted a Media Myth Alert post that asked, optimistically:

“Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?”

Such optimism was dashed not long after the anniversary when the New York Times published a commentary asserting that the “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

Clearly, the media myth of the “panic broadcast” hadn’t been interred.

Interestingly, the Times’ reference to “widespread panic” hinted at confusion within the newspaper’s op-ed section: At the anniversary of the broadcast, the Times had posted an online commentary that declared the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

In any event, the dashed optimism about the “panic broadcast” offered fresh confirmation that no media myth ever completely dies away.

Myths after all tend to be too delicious to be completely discredited.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2018:

 

After the editorial-solidarity stunt: Why nothing changed in Trump-press war

In Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 23, 2018 at 6:57 am

It’s been a week since the editorial voices of more than 300 U.S. newspapers collectively condemned President Donald Trump’s frequent rhetorical attacks on the press.

The one-off campaign was a preening and self-important stunt, coordinated by the Boston Globe and joined by the likes of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as many smaller titles. (Titles that boycotted the campaign included the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.)

Not surprising, the solidarity demonstration passed without evident effect. Seven days after, it’s clear the campaign made little difference, as is usually the case with editorials. Trump is still a badgering narcissist, slamming the press for biases, real and perceived.

Not that anyone thought the solidarity stunt — or “spun-up nonsense,” as one boycotting newspaper called it — would make much difference. But it did make the press seem defensive, easily wounded, prone to group think, and eager to take refuge in eye-rolling platitudes. The editorials condemning Trump certainly oozed sanctimony; here’s a sample:

“A war on the press is a war on democracy,” declared the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“A free society can only function correctly if its citizens have timely access to information concerning its government’s dealings, and if representatives are held to acceptable standards,” intoned the Courier of Waterloo, Iowa.

“An independent and free media — and local news in particular — is our protection from tyranny and our guard against the oppression of those who would take advantage of us,” said the Duluth News Tribune.

“… a free press is fundamental to the continuation of our American experiment in democracy,” asserted the Dallas Morning News.

“A free press builds the foundation for democracy,” said the Tampa Bay Times. (More likely the reverse is true: Press freedom and media pluralism are effects, not conditions, of democratic governance.)

In any case, none of that chest-thumping had much chance of swaying popular opinions about the news media. Suspicions about the news media run deep, as a recent Gallup poll suggests: 62 percent of respondents said they believe bias lurks in news in print and on radio, and television.

The news media would do better to be more candid about their imperfections, limitations, and biases; to undertake more vigorously to get it right; to correct errors promptly and without chafing, to be less lop-sided, and less condescending, in their coverage.

Errors in reporting about Trump and his administration have been many, and have nearly all flown in the same direction, to the discredit of the president.

For nine years, Media Myth Alert has called attention to the publication and appearance of media myths — those well-known tales of great deeds that journalists love to tell about themselves. Media myths, when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. But as the content of Media Myth Alert make clears, these myths are still entrenched and still circulate in the news media.

Journalists ought to take themselves a bit less seriously: the performance journalism of CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has come off as the bully in questioning Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, has been an embarrassment.

American journalists also would do well to understand more fully the history of media and of the abuses reporters and editors have confronted from time to time. Trump may be a bully, prone to raging hyperbole. But his administration is not jailing journalists. Or even following through on a campaign vow to loosen libel laws and facilitate litigation against the media.

Trump is no “unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists,” as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared in 2016.

His outbursts condemning the “fake news” media are hardly akin to the enforcement of the Sedition Act, which was passed 220 years ago and forbade “publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.”

Several American journalists were accused and jailed during the administration of John Adams for violating the Sedition Act. Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, Benjamin Franklin Bache, whose Philadelphia Aurora was a vigorous critic of the administrations of Adams and his predecessor, George Washington, ran afoul of the law.

Bache was arrested in June 1798 and died of yellow fever two months later, before he could be tried.

Trump’s bluster is less consequential and less punitive to the news media than the surveillance tactics of Barack Obama’s administration, which turned to the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I era, to pursue leakers and threaten journalists.

As Julie Mason, a former White House correspondent, noted in an essay in Variety in April:

“Obama, who campaigned on a promise to protect government whistle-blowers, made greater use of the Espionage Act … than all other presidents combined.

“Obama’s Justice Department accessed the personal email of a Fox News reporter and surveilled the reporter’s parents and colleagues. They seized the home, work and mobile phone records of journalists at the Associated Press.”

The Obama administration also pressed James Risen of the New York Times to reveal confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation.

Risen wrote in the Times as Obama’s presidency neared its end:

“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”

Not surprisingly, the anti-Trump editorial-solidarity campaign made scant mention of Obama’s heavy-handed anti-press measures.

Critics of the solidarity stunt were right: The editorial outbursts last week lent Trump fresh ammunition to assail the news media as overtly aligned against him.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Roster expands of journos who’ve invoked ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War on July 1, 2018 at 8:46 am

Although it has been recognized as a media myth for years, the list keeps expanding of journalists who’ve invoked William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to bring on war with Spain 120 years ago.

To the roster that includes writers for the Washington Post, Politico, and Forbes, as well as James Fallows, Garrison Keillor and Evan Thomas, we add the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman.

In an essay the other day that praised the resilience of journalists in the face of threats and attacks, Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1995, offered up this paragraph:

“In American folklore, newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst ‘started’ the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the famous illustrator Frederic Remington cabled him that there was no sign of conflict in Spanish-controlled Cuba, Hearst cabled back: ‘You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war.'”

Well, no, he didn’t.

Hearst didn’t start, foment, or otherwise bring about the Spanish-American War. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the diplomatic impasse over Cuba that gave rise to the war was far beyond the control or influence of Hearst’s three daily newspapers.

Often cited as evidence that he did bring about the conflict is the vow attributed to Hearst, which usually is recounted as his having pledged to “furnish the war.”

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on even though the telegram that supposedly carried Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied having sent such a message. It lives on despite a a nearly complete absence of documentation.

And it lives on despite what I call an irreconcilable internal inconsistency. That is, it would have been made no sense for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington: Six days in Cuba

Remington was in Cuba six days in January 1897, a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been quite aware that Cuba was a theater of a brutal war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, the antecedent to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the evidence against it is such that the Hearstian vow deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

But why does this media myth keep popping up? Why does it seem so inviting to senior journalists?

The reasons are several, and include the deliciousness of the quotation: It tells a story that seems too good not to be true.

Also, it’s an anecdote that caricatures Hearst’s arrogance and hubris exquisitely well.

And it illustrates the presumptive perverse power of the news media — that under the right circumstances, the media can act so disreputably as to plunge the country into war, much as Hearst did in the late Nineteenth Century. Which is nonsense, but that surely is a factor in accounting for the myth’s tenacity.

Yet another factor has to be the sloppiness of journalists, or their reluctance to check out the anecdote — even though ample documentation about its mythical status is but keystrokes away, online.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

 

Diminished by a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 20, 2018 at 6:24 pm

It may seem  incongruous, but media myths typically are invoked in all seriousness, as if the tall tales they tell about journalists and their deeds are genuine and true. Sometimes media myths are cited credulously to demonstrate presumed authority and command of history.

So it was the other day in a sneering editorial in the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s leading newspapers.

The editorial assailed U.S. policies that have separated immigrant families at the Mexico border. For authority, emphasis, and dimension, the Star editorial turned to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, an occasion when the words of a TV anchorman supposedly swayed a president and altered his war policies. Not only is this a tale cherished by journalists, it has broad applicability, as the editorial reconfirmed.

“Sometimes,” the Star intoned in all high-mindedness, “there are telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.

“Former president Lyndon Johnson once moaned, during a critical setback in the Vietnam War, that if he had lost iconic newsman Walter Cronkite, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The newspaper suggested that Laura Bush’s recent commentary deploring  family separations at the border evoked similarities to the “Cronkite Moment.”

But it’s hardly news that the Cronkite-Johnson tale is a media myth.

I examined and debunked the “Cronkite Moment” in the first edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out eight years ago this summer, pointing out that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report on Vietnam — the broadcast at the heart of the myth — when it aired February 27, 1968. And there’s no persuasive evidence about when or whether the president saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson, moreover, effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s pessimistic if unoriginal assessment about Vietnam (the anchorman said the war was stalemated). In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson vigorously defended and doubled down on his Vietnam policy, a point I emphasized in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, which came out in late 2016.

“For many American journalists,” I wrote in the second edition, “the ‘Cronkite moment’ has become an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and influence in war-time reporting.”

It is indeed is a convenient parable, ready to be summoned to illustrate many virtues — the salutary effects of telling truth to power, the searing influence of timely analysis, the presumptive capacity of the media to do good, to name a few. To that list we can add the media’s serving as “telling barometers in the realm of human affairs.”

But what does it say about the notion of a telling barometer if the underlying narrative is unsound and dubious? If it’s a myth?

Rather than underscoring its point, rather than burnishing its authority, the Star by turning to the “Cronkite Moment” and to the dubious quote attributed to Johnson diminished its argument and invited questions about the editorial board’s depth of research and command of facts.

WJC

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