W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category

The assault on the Capitol, and a president’s precipitous fall

In Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post on January 7, 2021 at 7:15 pm

By the time the contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public and revealed beyond doubt his guilty role in covering up the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was probably doomed, politically.

The scandal — which broke in June 1972 when burglars linked to his reelection campaign were arrested inside Democratic National headquarters — was after two years of periodic disclosures pointing to Nixon’s impeachment and almost-certain conviction and removal.

The release of the so-called “smoking gun” tape in early August 1974 removed all questions about Nixon’s continuing in office. What remained of his political support evaporated. Most memorably, Congressman Charles E. Wiggins, who was among Nixon’s most ardent backers, said the tape’s content led him to the ”painful conclusion” that Nixon should leave the presidency.

He did so August 9, 1974 (and not because of the reporting by the Washington Post; the newspaper’s crucial role in Watergate is a media-driven myth).

But not even Nixon among U.S. presidents experienced such an abrupt loss of authority and political power as has Donald Trump in the past 30 hours or so, since hundreds of his supporters marched from a rally to the Capitol and forced their way in — ostensibly to protest irregularities and anomalies in the November presidential election.

The assault came as Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

The intruders were apparently emboldened by Trump’s defiant remarks to the rally a short time before. “We will never concede” the loss of the election, the president declared. “It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”

As dimensions emerged today of the deadly and almost-surreal assault on the Capitol, it became equally clear how unlikely the president is to be rehabilitated, politically. His presumed goal of reclaiming the White House in the 2024 election is now, almost certainly, foreclosed. That election is distant and much, of course, will change before then.

But the stunning assault — and accompanying images of flag-waving Trump supporters overwhelming Capitol police, smashing windows, and swarming the halls and offices of Congress — will surely persist as formidable barriers to his returning to high office.

It also has become clear that the country probably could not tolerate another frenzied four years of Trump, his narcissism, self-absorption, and frequent recitation of grievances, real and perceived. With 13 days remaining in his term, the country has reached what has been called the end of Trump.

Meanwhile, a few prominent members of his administration have resigned. Among them was Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Former cabinet officers like William Barr, who served 22 months as Trump’s attorney general, condemned the assault. Barr said it was “outrageous and despicable.”

And a Republican back-bencher in Congress, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, declared: “All indications are that the president has become unmoored, not just from his duty, nor even his oath, but from reality itself.” Kinzinger said Trump should be removed by invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for a president’s replacement in the event of incapacitation.

Whether that happens, the hemorrhaging of Trump’s political capital was certainly remarkable in swiftness and magnitude. In that sense, Trump was even more Nixonian than Nixon.

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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Our incurious press

In Error, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post on November 29, 2020 at 8:45 pm

“The press has had little to say about most of the strange details of the election — except, that is, to ridicule all efforts to discuss them. This animus appeared soon after [Election Day], in a spate of caustic articles dismissing any critical discussion of the outcome as crazed speculation: ‘Election paranoia surfaces: Conspiracy theorists call results rigged,’ chuckled the Baltimore Sun on November 5. ‘Internet Buzz on Vote Fraud Is Dismissed,’ proclaimed the Boston Globe on November 10. … The New York Times weighed in with ‘Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried.'”

That passage was not addressing the oddities and suspicions of fraud in this month’s election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

No, the passage is from a cover story in Harper’s magazine published 15 years ago, about suspicions of fraud in the 2004 presidential election, in which George W. Bush won a second term by narrowly defeating John Kerry.

Harper’s cover, August 2005

The Harper’s article assailed mainstream corporate media for their decidedly incurious response to “the strange details of the election” in 2004. Then, as now, the news media were eager to ridicule, reject, and ignore rather than to demonstrate curiosity and investigate.

Read these day, the Harper’s article is striking in its relevance:

“It was as if they were reporting from inside a forest fire without acknowledging the fire, except to keep insisting that there was no fire.”

Suspicions in 2004 centered around voting glitches and irregularities in Ohio, where the election turned. Impetus for believing the outcome was tainted came from exit poll results which were circulated widely on Election Day and indicated that Kerry was bound for victory. The exit polls were in error, but gave rise nonetheless to speculation that were accurate but the election had been corrupted by widespread vote-tampering.

As I write in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, “exit polls became the scaffolding for claims and suspicions — never proven — that the election had been stolen from Kerry, that the exit polls were accurate but fraud had altered the results in key states such as Ohio. … Suspicions about vote fraud and corruption … persisted for months.”

Kerry conceded defeat the day after the election, which drained away enthusiasm for investigating fishiness and suspected vote fraud in the election.

If anything, “the strange details of the election” are more widespread, and puzzling, in 2020. Reports of atypical voting patterns, statistical anomalies, and suspicious spikes in vote counts for Biden have emerged in key states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

They merit scrutiny.

But the response of corporate media has been as indifferent and dismissive as it was in 2004. They have been eager to dismiss “the strange details” of the 2020 election as unfounded — without doing much in the way of independent or searching inquiry. “Baseless” has become a favored characterization.

They seem not to realize that the suspicions are sure to persist, clouding the presumed election of Biden, an aged candidate who seldom left his basement during the Fall campaign and whose gaffes and incoherence suggest he may not be up to the job of president.

This is not to say, however, that the allegations and suspicions about the 2020 election are necessarily accurate, or are sufficient to deny Biden the presidency. It is to say they ought to be treated seriously and investigated dispassionately, especially as a large portion of the American public suspects the election was marred by tampering or vote theft.

After all, it’s not as if irregularities and fraud are unheard of in U.S elections.

To be sure, Trump’s legal team has done itself and the American public no favors by presenting exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims about election fraud. Its conduct at a news conference 10 days ago bordered on clownish. Trump’s lawyers have secured few legal victories.

The news media’s scorn and indifference underscore their transformation in recent years, and the change has not been salutary. Leading news outlets have largely given up their decades-old commitment to nominal impartiality and even-handed treatment of the news. In their place is overt partisanship, driven in part by an altered business model that prioritizes digital subscribers. News outlets play to the demands and expectations of their subscribers, not to their advertisers, which once posed a restraint on excessive partisanship in news columns.

It’s not as if corporate media lack the will or interest to investigate suspicions of election fraud. After all, the New York Times and Washington Post shared 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.

It’s not as if corporate media were chastened by their investigations of the 2016 election that came a cropper. Rather, they are disinclined to do anything that can be seen as bolstering Trump and damaging Biden.

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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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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Piling on the myths: Claiming ‘energizing’ power for ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 17, 2020 at 7:25 am

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is so raw and exceptional that it must have exerted deep and powerful influences. Or so goes the assumption.

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The image taken in June 1972 shows a cluster of terrorized children fleeing an errant napalm bombing of their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the photograph’s center is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming as she ran, her clothes burned away by the fiery tactical weapon.

It’s been said the image was so moving that it helped end the war.

It’s been said to have turned American public opinion against the war.

It’s even been said to have “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war (even though flame-throwers did not figure in the aerial attack).

Such claims are the stuff of media myths — far-fetched and implausible, supported by no compelling, contemporaneous evidence.

Now comes the Guardian newspaper of London with the undocumented claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the U.S. antiwar movement.

The Guardian‘s assertion was presented in an online essay posted yesterday that ruminated about the dearth of visceral images from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which spread from Wuhan, China, late last year or early this, killing nearly 90,000 people in America and more than 300,000 worldwide.

“The 2020 pandemic is memorable not for [images of] coffins piled high but for data modeling and statistics,” the Guardian essay states, adding:

“In any national or global emergency, the media play an outsized role in conveying extreme experiences to those who have no direct contact. The image of Kim Phuc, the ‘napalm girl’ in the Vietnam war, became the recognized representation of the conflict, energizing the peace movement. Covid-19 has yet to be framed by such an image.”

The claim that “Napalm Girl” was the “recognized representation of the conflict” is certainly open to challenge.

The long war in Vietnam War was illuminated by many evocative images, and it is impossible to say which of them can be called the “recognized representation of the conflict.” Other notable images included the Saigon Execution photo of 1968, and the “Burning Monkimage of 1963. And there were many others.

Less ambiguous is the exaggerated nature of the Guardian essay’s claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the peace movement.

That movement was hardly moribund in the United States in 1972.

In a 2005 journal article about the antiwar movement of the early 1970s (see abstract nearby), Joel Lefkowitz included an extensive list of protests that flared in April and May 1972 — before the “Napalm Girl” image was taken on June 8, 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press.

What catalyzed antiwar protests then was not “Napalm Girl” but President Richard Nixon’s order in May 1972 to mine North Vietnamese ports. That decision energized protests across the United States.

On May 10, 1972, for example, the New York Times described a “coast‐to‐coast outburst of demonstrations,” describing them as “the most turbulent since May, 1970, when protests over the United States invasion of Cambodia closed universities across the country.

The following day, the Times discussed how “antiwar protests [had] convulsed cities and college campuses across the country … as demonstrators blocked highways, occupied buildings, and — at night — fought against club‐wielding policemen under clouds of tear gas. The fighting was particularly violent in Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif., and Minneapolis.”

Memorable though the photograph was, no contemporaneous evidence suggests that “Napalm Girl” had discernible effects of stoking or “energizing” antiwar protests.

And it’s not as if the photograph was displayed on front pages of newspapers across America. Many did give “Napalm Girl” prominent display, including the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia (see nearby).

But many other U.S. newspapers that subscribed to Associated Press services — including titles in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Omaha, and Pittsburgh — did not publish the photograph. A few others placed the image on an inside page.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: “Reservations about the frontal nudity shown in Napalm Girl no doubt led some U.S. newspapers to decline to publish the photograph prominently, if at all.”

More useful than speculating about why the pandemic has produced no image as evocative as “Napalm Girl” is to consider why mainstream media have been reluctant or disinclined to revisit and evaluate predictions they’ve made about the pandemic and its morbidity.

This disinclination was addressed the other day by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, in an essay posted at that popular news-and-polling aggregation site.

“Some [media] ‘feeding frenzies’ have panned out, but many have failed to do so; rather than acknowledging this failure, the press typically moves on,” Trende wrote, noting that “there are dangers to forecasting with incredible certitude, especially with a virus that was detected less than six months ago.”

Revisiting lapses and erroneous projections is an undertaking the news media quite dislike.

Consider how little time they devoted to examining why they got it wrong in anticipating Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016. Or why they got it wrong in anticipating Special Counsel Robert Mueller would find President Donald Trump had colluded with the Kremlin to win the presidency. In that presumptive scandal, staffs of the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize  in 2018 — for what Pulitzer jurors called their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.”

WJC

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Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if 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.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided 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 either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here 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.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2019

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2019 at 7:44 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2019 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 back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October, marked its 10th anniversary. The Washington Post figured in three of the year’s top posts.

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate (posted November 27): It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. It’s a trope that’s readily invoked but often too good to check out.

An almost-predictable by-product of the impeachment hearings conducted late in the year by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were media references to the myth that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Among the references was that of the Post’s own managing editor, Cameron Barr, who declared in a speech in November at the University of Oxford that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

The phrase means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting did not cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, senior staff at the Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the newspaper’s reporting brought down Nixon. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972:

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

When asked about his “brought to pass” remarks at Oxford, Barr replied by parsing his words:

“You’ll note that I didn’t say that The Post brought down Nixon or took Nixon down or got Nixon – those mischaracterizations [sic] my colleagues have rejected and rightly so. As do you.

“I said The Post’s reporting brought it to pass, and my evidence for that is the historical record. We did our jobs as journalists, setting in motion other factors and forces that compelled him to step down.”

Nice try.

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s quite a stretch to say that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding federal authorities who did uncover the evidence that brought to pass Nixon’s resignation.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the news media and Watergate, “even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

TV made all the difference in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly (posted September 29): The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, made sweeping claims in late September that television had “made all the difference in 1954″ in exposing and bringing down the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. She further wrote that during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, television had had a “disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Such interpretations may reassure journalists, reminding them of their presumed power and influence. Media-driven myths tend to have such an effect. But it’s exceedingly mediacentric to claim television was decisive in McCarthy’s fall or in Watergate’s outcome.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in raising challenges to McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch hunt. 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 proved decisive.

Sullivan wrote in her column: “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. But it hardly “shut down the senator.”

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

The hearing transcript show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch. McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch had belonged.

Television came late 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.

And Pearson, for his work, was physically assaulted by McCarthy in December 1950.

Televised coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 was riveting. But the greatest contribution came from what Senate staffers learned: They found that Nixon had secretly made audio tapes of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Ultimately, when they were pried from Nixon’s possession, the tapes revealed that the president 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 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 several years ago. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Newspaper rant deplores “debasement of reality” but invokes prominent media myth (posted January 8): The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic early in the year in deploring what it termed “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” asseting that “lies” had become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was an over-the-top screed that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It also extolled journalism, saying “more often than not” over the years, “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.”

The allusion to “forcing a president’s resignation” was, of course, to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

In reality, 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.”

And as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, I wrote, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the recordings he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office — 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.

Fake news about fake news”: Enlisting media myth to condemn Trump’s national emergency (posted February 17): Early in the year, the Salt Lake Tribune turned editorially to the hoary media myth about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century. The Tribube invoked the myth as a way to condemn President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to add miles of barriers along the southern U.S.border, to stem illegal immigration.

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

In discussing Hearst’s debunked vow (which supposedly was contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Spanish-ruled Cuba in early 1897), the newspaper said:

“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 done by cable. But the telegrams have never turned up. Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it.

Had such messages been sent, moreover, Spanish authorities surely would have intercepted and denounced them as Yankee meddling.

Remington sketch of ‘Cuban war’ (New York Journal)

Not only that, but the “furnish the war” anecdote is illogical because war — the rebellion in Cuba against Spanish rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to the island. Remington was to draw sketches of the uprising. And he did.

Given the context — given the war in Cuba — it would have made no sense at all for Hearst to send a telegram, vowing to “furnish the war.”

The Tribune editorial acknowledged the Remington-Hearst tale is “thought to be apocryphal at best.” Even so, the newspaper said, the anecdote was “too good” not to turn to at “appropriate moments.”

Interesting argument.

But if it’s “apocryphal at best,” why would any news organization invoke the anecdote, given that media myths inevitably impugn and undermine the truth-telling objective of American journalism? Enlisting myth and falsehood scarcely makes an editorial argument more compelling. Or more coherent.

Not Hearst’s war

The Tribune’s editorial didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Hearst and the activistyellow journalism“ he practiced “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 resulting from Spain’s cruel tactics to put down the Cuban rebellion.

Of course, it’s far less complicated to blame the long ago war on Hearst and his flamboyant yellow journalism.

Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (posted April 14): PBS aired in April an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism.

In the PBS treatment, Pulitzer’s talents and commitments seemed endlessly laudatory.

The documentary tells us that Pulitzer was an avid reader, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an accomplished chess player, an unstoppable workaholic. 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, that Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri derailed his career or darkened his reputation.

But the effect of the documentary’s gushing wasn’t uplifting or inspiring.

It was misleading.

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

Pulitzer the irritable (Library of Congress)

Pulitzer was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him.

The meaner, 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 profound failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate.

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 rarely visited the World building.

For years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control, from retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe. To his editors and managers, he regularly fired off telegrams and letters that were full of instructions, guidance, and reproach. This correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial component to Pulitzer’s personality.

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

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and remote-control management were not much explored.

The memory of Joseph Pulitzer has been boosted over the decades by a succession of exceptionally generous biographers.

To that lineup of adulation, the flattery of documentary-filmmakers can now be added.

WJC

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