W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Washington Post’ Category

‘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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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:

 

Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“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.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects 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 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.” 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 guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming inaccurately that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

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Hagiographic WaPo and the ‘Cronkite Moment’ myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post on May 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

At one point in a long and credulous look back at Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War, the Washington Post this weekend likens the former CBS News anchorman to “an intercontinental ballistic missile of objectivity.”

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

That’s a sample of the hagiographic tone of the Post’s retrospective, which centers around the media myth of Cronkite’s report in late February 1968 about the Vietnam War, in which he described the U.S. military as “mired in stalemate” there.

The Post presents a number of dubious claims about the effects of what it says were Cronkite’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam.”

Cronkite’s words were hardly that.

His description about the war as a “stalemate” was neither daring nor novel. As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, American journalists for months before Cronkite’s program had invoked “stalemate” to characterize the war. In early August 1967, or more than six months before Cronkite’s report, the New York Times published a front-page analysis from Vietnam about the war, beneath the headline, “Signs of Stalemate.”

“The analysis said:

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

A month before that, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

So “stalemate” then was a very undramatic, and even conventional, way of characterizing the war.

In invoking “stalemate,” Cronkite certainly was not as “daring” or pointed as the Wall Street Journal had been on its editorial page a few days before. The newspaper declared 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.”

As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book-length year-study of 1968, Cronkite’s “stalemate” critique was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

The Post’s takeout further claims that “President Johnson was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That claim 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.

So why is the notion that Johnson was deflated, or worse, an erroneous interpretation?

For starters, 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, the president may  have seen the show at some later date on videotape.

Rather than treating Cronkite’s remarks as some sort of epiphany, Johnson in effect shrugged them off and, in a succession of public events in the days and weeks afterward, endeavored to rally popular support for the war in Vietnam.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the president in the aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” gave several speeches in which he stoutly defended his war policy.

In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting 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 after that, Johnson traveled to Minneapolis to deliver a rousing speech to the National Farmers Union convention, during which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Punctuating his remarks in Minneapolis by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air, Johnson declared, “We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” He disparaged critics of the war as inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

And a day after that, Johnson declared in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

So even if he had seen Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment” gave no indication of having embraced the anchorman’s message. The president certainly wasn’t taking a policy lead from Cronkite’s unoriginal characterization of the war.

The Post’s writeup quotes Douglas Brinkley, author of a glowing, hagiographic treatment of the Cronkite, as saying the broadcast journalist on his trip to Vietnam in early 1968 “was just doing the gumshoe reporting all over Vietnam and the print reporters all swooned over Cronkite for doing it.”

All swooned?

No way.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:

“Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam was not remembered fondly by all war correspondents then in Vietnam. George McArthur, a veteran journalist for the Associated Press, years later recalled Cronkite’s visit to the imperial city, Hue, the scene fierce fighting during the Tet offensive” in early 1968.

“’Cronkite is not one of my heroes,” McArthur said. “When Cronkite broadcast in Hue during the Tet offensive, he arranged to have a shelling of the ridgeline behind him. This was his famous trip when he supposedly changed his mind [about the war]. Baloney. He’d made up his mind before he ever came out there. But the Marines staged a shelling at four in the afternoon, and he was up on top of our [diplomatic] mission building in Hue doing his stand-upper, wearing a … bulletproof vest and a tin pot [helmet]. And I was up there doing my laundry.”

McArthur’s incisive recollections were included in George W. Smith’s 1999 book, The Siege at Hue, and posted online in 2012.

The Post‘s essay also claims “something did pivot when Cronkite crossed the line into opinion. Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment.” But what pivoted? And how do we know that “Cronkite mainstreamed antiwar sentiment”? The Post really doesn’t say. It’s assertion, without evidence.

The mainstreaming of antiwar sentiment took more, of course, than the on-air declarations of a 50-something anchorman. Indeed, the antiwar movement was “a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed,” as an essay posted last year at the New York Times’ online opinion site argued. The movement, the essay added, was defined by four overlapping stages — none of which featured or centered around  the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

WJC

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Hearst, Ted Cruz, and the myth of war-mongering ‘yellow journalism’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on April 27, 2018 at 7:19 am

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz  assailed U.S. technology companies this week and, in doing so, brought up one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — that William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers brought about the Spanish-American War 120 years ago.

In an interview with “Breitbart News Tonight,” Cruz declared that the “scope of the power” of Facebook and other tech companies “is truly unprecedented. You think back to the heights of yellow journalism, when publisher William Randolph Hearst controlled much of media and in fact got America into the Spanish-American War. Well, these tech companies have power William Randolph Hearst could never have imagined.”

Cruz: Blames Hearst for war

Maybe.

But it hardly can be said that Hearst “controlled much of [the] media” in 1898. He ran three newspapers then — his flagship New York Journal, its down-market companion the Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner. At the time, the United States had more than 2,000 daily newspapers (and 12,000 weeklies), the ownership of which was quite diffuse.

More intriguing to Media Myth Alert was the senator’s unsourced claim that Hearst “got America into the Spanish-American War.” No serious historian of the period embraces that notion. It is indeed a hoary media myth, which I addressed and debunked in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism.

Claims about Hearst’s war-mongering power almost always are unsourced. They almost always lack an explanation about just how Hearst and his “yellow journalism” brought on the war: What was the linkage? By what mechanism were the contents of Hearst’s three newspapers transformed into government policy and military action against Spain?

The short answer: There was no such mechanism.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, there is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press — especially during the decisive weeks following the deadly destruction of the USS Maine in mid-February 1898, while on a friendly visit to Havana — shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key officials in the administration of President William McKinley.

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

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

The administration assuredly did not take a policy lead from the Hearst press. His newspapers were, I noted, “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” that preceded the declaration of war on April 25, 1898. The conflict lasted 114 days as the U.S. Army and Navy routed Spanish forces in theaters in the Caribbean and Asia — in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

To indict the yellow press for bringing on the conflict is to misread the evidence and ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in an impasse that led to war. Failed diplomacy — essentially, the United States and Spain could not resolve differences over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — gave rise to war.

The start date of the conflict was a source of recent confusion for the Washington Post which, in a glib essay about the cruelties of April, erroneously stated the war was declared on April 20, 1898.

Hearst’s Journal: Offered reward to solve Maine destruction, 1898

The Post’s essay also said “the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (‘Remember the Maine’). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.”

Not so.

In March 1898 (very much “at the time”), a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine’s destruction was likely triggered by the detonation of an underwater mine in Havana harbor, which was under Spanish control. The Court’s key finding was that a portion of the battleship’s bottom plating had been bent inward, in the shape of an inverted “V.” That evidence signaled an external source of the explosion.

Although the Court of Inquiry identified no suspects in the presumed mining, the American press and public held Spanish authorities responsible, given their control of the harbor. (For example, one of Hearst’s rivals, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, declared at the end of March 1898: “The Government of Spain is inescapably responsible for the destruction of the Maine by a MINE in Havana harbor. What are we going to do about it?”)

The Naval Court’s central finding was endorsed in 1911, when the wreck of the Maine was raised from Havana harbor and taken to sea for burial in 400 fathoms of water. The 1911 inquiry placed the likely location of the underwater mine farther aft than did the 1898 inquiry.

The mine-sunk-the-Maine interpretation was not seriously challenged until the mid-1970s, when Admiral Hyman G. Rickover commissioned a private study that proposed spontaneous combustion — a fire smoldering undetected in a coal bunkers near the ship’s forward magazines — was the explosion’s probable source.

Rickover’s interpretation has proved not to be the final word, however.

In 1998, a study commissioned by National Geographic and conducted with computer simulations by Advanced Marine Enterprises found fresh support for the mine theory.

The study said “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine” was the source of the explosion. It also said “that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating … would have blown outward, not inward.”

WJC

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15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” he said.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

He also said:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.

WJC

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‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: The Post is a hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, 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. The underlying history is dubious, which means The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a clumsy distraction, and it inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper for nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says, yes, go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary these days, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.

WJC

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