W. Joseph Campbell

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‘Yes, Virginia,’ on CBS: No classic

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

I wrote a year ago about the charmless CBS animated Christmas special, Yes, Virginia, a show based on Virginia O’Hanlon’s famous letter to the New York Sun in 1897 that prompted American journalism’s best-known editorial.

The show aired again last night; watching it was headache-inducing.

It utterly lacks the serendipity, anticipation, disappointment, and surprise that characterized the real back story to Virginia’s 1897 letter.

Her appeal to the Sun — “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”–gave rise to an editorial published beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

The editorial’s most memorable and most-quoted passage declared:

“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.”

As I noted last year at Media Myth Alert, CBS took great liberties with the back story in offering up a tedious half-hour show that was neither accurate nor entertaining. It’s a distortion of a charming story.

Francis P. Church

The animated Virginia is waddling, round-headed, and unaccountably obsessed with the existence of Santa Claus. Francis P. Church, the retiring journalist who wrote the famous editorial, is depicted–no, misrepresented–as scowling, dismissive, and hard-hearted.

Neither character is convincing. Neither is realistic.

The animated Church is identified as the editor of the Sun, which is shown as a tabloid newspaper. Church was not the editor; he was an editorial writer. And the Sun was no tabloid.

The CBS show also had Virginia writing her letter, and the Sun publishing its reply, in December, as Christmas approached.

In fact, the letter was written in the summer of 1897, and the Sun published the editorial on September 21, 1897 — obscurely, in the third of three columns on editorials on an inside page (and not in big, sensation-stirring headlines across the front page, as the CBS show had it).

As I discuss in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–Virginia O’Hanlon said that she addressed her letter to the Sun’s question-and-answer column, and waited impatiently for the newspaper to publish a response.

She recalled that the Sun did not promptly take up her inquiry. Far from being obsessed, little Virginia stopped thinking about it after a while.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut many years later, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

At the Sun, Virginia’s letter probably was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period.

That there was such a gap seems certain, given O’Hanlon’s recollections about waiting and waiting for a reply, and the accounts that say Church wrote the editorial in “a short time” or “hastily, in the course of the day’s work.”

Virginia O'Hanlon

What reconciles the two accounts—O’Hanlon’s prolonged wait and Church’s quickly written response—is that the Sun for a time had misplaced the letter that inspired a classic editorial, one that would recall the newspaper long after it folded in 1950.

The real back story to Virginia’s letter is far richer than the cheerless, vapid fare that CBS offered up.

Unlike the 1897 editorial, the wretched animated show is destined to be no classic.

WJC

Recent and related:

As inevitable as ‘Yes, Virginia,’ at the holidays

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Sun, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

The approach of the year-end holidays brings inevitable reference to American  journalism’s most famous editorial, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

The lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit was first published in 1897 in the old New York Sun, in response to the inquiry of an 8-year-old girl, Virginia O’Hanlon.

“Please tell me the truth,” she implored, “is there a Santa Claus?”

The Sun in reply was reassuring:

“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.”

Almost as inevitable as the editorial’s reappearance this time of year are sightings of myths and misconceptions associated with “Is There A Santa Claus?”

Today, for example, an online reference site for journalists, Followthemedia.com, says in an essay that “Is There a Santa Claus?” was published on the front page of the Sun, on September 21, 1897.

The date is correct. But the famous editorial was given obscure placement in its debut. As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms:

“‘Is There a Santa Claus?’ appeared inconspicuously in the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on 21 September 1987. It was subordinate to seven other commentaries that day, on such matters as ‘British Ships in American Waters,’ the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law, and the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.”

“Is There A Santa Claus” appeared on page six, the editorial page of the Sun.

Interestingly, the oddly timed editorial about Santa Claus–appearing as it did more than three months before Christmas–prompted no comment from the many newspaper rivals to the Sun.

That’s somewhat curious because the New York City press of the late 19th century was prone–indeed, eager–to comment on, and disparage, the content of their rivals.  That’s how the enduring sneer “yellow journalism” was coined, in early 1897.

In its headline today, Followthemedia suggests the editorial’s most-quoted passage — “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” — are the words most famous in American journalism.

Maybe.

But a stronger case can be made for  the New York Times logo, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which in 1897 took a permanent place in the upper left corner of the newspaper’s front page, a spot known in journalism as the “left ear.”

As I noted in a blog post nearly a year ago: “The ‘Yes, Virginia,’ passage is invoked so often, and in so many contexts, that no longer is it readily associated with American journalism. ‘Yes, Virginia,’ long ago became unmoored from its original context, the third of three columns of editorials in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897.”

I also suggested then that the famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war“–may be more famous in journalism than “Yes, Virginia.”

The Hearstian vow, as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is almost certainly apocryphal. But like many media-driven myths, it lives on as an anecdote too delicious not to be true.

What is striking and perhaps exceptional about “Is There A Santa Claus?” is its timeless appeal–how generations of readers have found solace, joy, and inspiration in its passages.

A letter-writer to the Sun in 1914 said, for example: “Though I am getting old,” the editorial’s “thoughts and expressions fill my heart with overflowing joy.”

In 1926, a letter-writer told the Sun that “Is There A Santa Claus?” offered “fine relief from the commercialism and unsentimental greed” of the Christmas season.

In 1940, a writer to the Sun likened the editorial to “a ray of hope on the path to human understanding in our troubled times.”

WJC

Recent and related:

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling timing “lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“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.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”

WJC

Recent and related:

‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on November 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

So unoriginal.

Hardly exceptional.

Those are ways to characterize Walter Cronkite’s famous assessment–offered in a special televised report in February 1968–that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

Cronkite’s characterization supposedly represented a moment of such stunning clarity and insight that it forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize his war policy was a shambles.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson supposedly said to an aide or aides after seeing the special report, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he was not running for election–a decision often linked, if erroneously, to Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis about Vietnam.

I dispute the power and impact of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. I point out that Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite program when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “stalemate” had been invoked  months before the “Cronkite Moment” to describe the war in Vietnam. Notably, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

And that wasn’t only occasion in 1967 and early 1968 when the Times turned to “stalemate” to characterize the war.

A review of database articles reveals that “stalemate” was raised not infrequently, and that the Johnson administration disputed the characterization.

And all this was months before the supposed insight offered by Cronkite.

For example, 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.”

The Times report of August 7, 1967, which was filed from Saigon, elaborated on that view and included this observation:

“‘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. They use the word for many reasons ….”

Johnson was confronted with that “fighting word” during a news conference August 18, 1967. He was asked whether “we have reached a stalemate in the Vietnam war.”

The president gave a rambling answer, but ended up rejecting the characterization of stalemate as “nothing more than propaganda.”

Johnson also said, apparently in reference to the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies: “I think that our–there are those who are taking a pretty tough drubbing out there that would like for our folks to believe there’s a stalemate.”

Moreover, four months before Cronkite’s report, the Times said in an editorial that the Johnson administration should embrace stalemate in Vietnam as a way of enabling peace talks and a negotiated settlement of the war.

The logic was intriguing if not entirely persuasive. Here’s what the Times said in that editorial, published October 29, 1967:

“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite–on both sides–to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”

Three months later, the Times anticipated Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, stating in an editorial published February 8, 1968:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

Cronkite said in wrapping up his special report on February 27, 1968:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

So why does all this matter? Why is it important to trace the use of “stalemate” to describe a long-ago war?

Doing so demonstrates how unexceptional Cronkite’s commentary was. And how middling it was, too. It’s scarcely the stuff of dramatic insight, scarcely the sort of comments that would have decisive effect.

Tracing the use of “stalemate” also serves to underscore the inconsequential nature of the purported “Cronkite Moment, which nonetheless remains among the hardiest myths of American journalism.

WJC

Recent and related:

The murky derivation of ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies on February 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

Prominent and famous though it is, the derivation of “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” the New York Times’ famous motto, is shrouded in a bit of media myth.

The version the Times advanced at its centenary in 1951, in a house newsletter called Times Talk, described the motto as “a hybrid.” Times Talk said Adolph Ochs, who acquired the then-beleaguered Times in 1896, borrowed a key portion of the slogan from the Philadelphia Times.

The Times Talk account was cited by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones in their prodigious study, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.

Supposedly, Ochs borrowed “All the News,” the motto of the Philadelphia Times, appended “That’s Fit to Print,” and thus concocted the most famous seven-word phrase in American journalism.

The account, however, is incorrect.

The Philadelphia Times never used “All the News” as its motto during the summer and fall of 1896, when Ochs acquired control of the Times and began using “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a marketing and advertising slogan.

A thorough review of issues of the Philadelphia Times published in the summer and fall of 1896 showed that the newspaper carried a number of promotional statements, none of which was particularly pithy, or memorable.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the nearest approximation to “All the News” was this rambling assertion, which appeared a few times beneath the front page nameplate of the Philadelphia Times:

“If You Want All the News of Every Description Attractively Presented You Will Read the Times.”

That clunky phrase appeared in the Philadelphia Times on August 4, 11, and 17, 1896. Ochs, according to Tifft and Jones, was installed as the New York Times publisher on August 18, 1896.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” did not makes its début until early October 1896, spelled out in a row of red lights on an advertising sign above New York’s Madison Square.

Later that month, “All The News That’s Fit to Print” appeared in New York Times advertisements published in the trade journal Fourth Estate. By the end of October 1896, the phrase had taken a place in a corner of the Times’ editorial page.

And 113 years ago yesterday, on February 10, 1897, the Times moved the phrase without notice or fanfare to the upper left corner, the left “ear,” of its front page—a place of prominence that it has occupied ever since.

What prompted the motto’s move to the front page is not entirely clear. But the intent seems undeniable: To offer a rebuke to the bold, self-promoting yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

But it appears that “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was Ochs’ creation, as Harrison E. Salisbury maintained in Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times, an impressive insider’s study of the Times. (Salisbury cited as his source an Ochs manuscript in the Times archives.)

By the way, I quote Salisbury’s Without Fear or Favor in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

Without Fear or Favor was a useful source in the chapter in Getting It Wrong that addresses the myth surrounding the Times’ reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

WJC

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2021

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

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

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

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

Nixon, before being ‘dethroned’

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

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

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

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

Dethroned entirely? Heh.

All the President’s Men, the movie

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

As I wrote in the media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

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

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

PBS’ Hearst: uneddifying portrait

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

Fair-minded the documentaries tend not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misreporting Katrina, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jail-breaking journalism, 1897

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2021:

Insidious: Off-hand references signal deep embedding of prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 6, 2021 at 11:15 am

The insidious nature of prominent media myths is evident in how casually they are invoked, as if their veracity is beyond question.

These blithe, passing references in news articles and commentary seldom are accompanied by much context or explanation. And their appearance signals how deeply embedded some media myths have become.

Two recent cases serve to illustrate this tendency.

Musings in the New York Times

One example appeared last week in an entertaining if overlong New York Times article that mused about the identity of an elusive and anonymous Instagram user whose handle is rg_bunny1. Over the recent months, user rg_bunny1 has unleashed what the Times called “a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert was the article’s passing reference to Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. Bernstein, we are told, was “one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The “duo” was Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “the source” no doubt refers to “Deep Throat,” the anonymous informant with whom Woodward — but not Bernstein — consulted from time to time as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973.

But he was “the source that brought down the Nixon presidency”?

Nope. Not “Deep Throat.” Not Bernstein and Woodward. Not their reporting for the Washington Post.

Those all are components of a tenacious media myth — what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — a trope that’s erroneous but ever-appealing, easy to retell and easy to grasp.

What really brought down Nixon is far more complicated than a duo of journalists and a well-placed anonymous source.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions and intricacy of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But even then, I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” making inevitable the early end to his presidency in August 1974.

The disclosure about the existence of Nixon’s tapes was pivotal in the Watergate saga — and it was a disclosure not by Bernstein and Woodward or by “Deep Throat,” but by a former Nixon aide in testimony before  a U.S. Senate select committee. (In a book about their Watergate reporting, Bernstein and Woodward claimed to have had a lead about the existence of the tapes, but did not pursue it because the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t think it would lead to a high-quality story.)

The “Deep Throat” source was W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official who fed Watergate-related information, and sometimes misinformation, to Woodward (as well as a reporter for Time magazine named Sandy Smith). Felt was motivated not so much by altruism or distate for Nixon’s White House as by ambition to become director of the FBI, a position that opened up in May 1972 with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

By leaking to reporters, Felt believed he could undercut his rivals for the FBI directorship. Those motives were persuasively described in Max Holland’s 2016 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

It’s useful and revealing in this context to recall what Woodward once said about the notion that he and Bernstein toppled Nixon. Woodward told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Another example of a media myth breezily cited appeared the other day in essay posted at the online site of Newsmax, the cable news outlet that has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump.

The essay took up President Joe Biden’s recent gun-control proposal, asserting that it would “strangle the rights of law-abiding gun-owners.” In search of an analogy, the essay landed on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a pessimistic, on-air assessment about the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The Newsmax essay invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” or something to that effect — and declared:

“At that moment, and on that basis, [Johnson] decided that he wouldn’t seek another term as president.”

Again, nope.

Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968, and it is not clear whether the president ever saw the show program on videotape at some undefined later date.

But it is clear that in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite report, Johnson remained publicly and adamantly hawkish about the war. In orher words, when the effects of Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment should have been most potent, Johnson was as insistent as ever about prosecuting the conflict. After the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy.

Just three days after Cronkite’s report, for example, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” he said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, the president declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

The president spoke about Vietnam with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling 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.”

Johnson’s views on Vietnam did change, and he did decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

But not because of what Cronkite had said.

The reasons for the president’s change of heart were political, at least in part.

By mid-March 1968, Johnson was facing insurgent challenges for the Democratic nomination from two anti-war U.S. senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Johnson had nearly lost the New Hampshire primary election on March 12, 1968, to McCarthy and he seemed unlikely to prevail in the upcoming primary in Wisconsin.

Also was influential in swinging Johnson’s views about the war was a coterie of informal advisers who met at the White House in late March 1968.

The advisers, who came to be called the “Wise Men,” included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under-secretary of state.

“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights'” in Vietnam, Ball later recalled.

Johnson, he said, “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.”

The counsel of the Wise Men was a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced limits to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam, as an inducement to the communist regime in Hanoi to enter talks to end the war.

Johnson closed the speech by declaring he would not seek reelection — a bombshell announcement that contained no reference, passing or otherwise, to Cronkite’s on-air assessment of a month before.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Punctured tale of Trump’s photo op may live on as media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 15, 2021 at 12:24 pm

The insistent media narrative that demonstrators were violently expelled from Lafayette Square outside the White House a year ago to allow then-President Donald Trump to pose for photographs at a fire-damanged church nearby was convincingly and impressively deflated last week in a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Although punctured, the photo op narrative may well live on as a full-blown media-driven myth, as a tale widely believed despite the evidence disputing it.

From the IG’s report

Embedded in the narrative about Trump’s photo op of June 1, 2020, are earmarks of media myths — those well-known tales about and/or by the news media that are widely known and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The inspector general’s report made clear that corporate media exaggerated in declaring that Trump or his aides ordered demonstrators dispersed from Lafayette Park so he could pose at the historic St. John Episcopal Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire in rioting the night before.

Mark Lee Greenblatt, the Interior Department inspector general, said in a statement accompanying the report that “the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park” en route to the church. (USPP is an acronym for United States Park Police, a law enforcement unit of the National Park Service.)

The protests near the White House were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a few days earlier.

“No one we interviewed stated that the USPP cleared the park because of a potential visit by the President or that the USPP altered the timeline to accommodate the President’s movement,” the inspector general’s report stated.

Instead, the report said, Park Police “cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers” that occurred during civil unrest the two nights before. Indeed, fencing material had arrived at the site before Park Police learned of Trump’s plans, according to a timeline included in the report.

Such findings represent a serious blow to an aggressive media narrative that excoriated Trump for arrogance, hubris, and reckless use of power. “The IG’s conclusion could not be clearer: the media narrative was false from start to finish,” wrote prominent media critic Glenn Greenwald, referring to the inspector general’s report.

“In sum,” Greenwald added, “the media claims that were repeated over and over and over as proven fact — and even confirmed by ‘fact-checkers’ — were completely false.”

And yet, it is not at all far-fetched that the tale of Trump’s photo op will live on as a media myth — believed because it’s believable, even though disputed or severely challenged.

The photo op narrative shares central features of media myths in that it’s a prominent tale but yet simplistic, pithy, and easily retold.

Similarly, the photo-op tale is, at least perhaps for foes of Trump, too good not to be true, a truism also characteristic of many media myths.

Likewise, the tale of the photo op is focused on a clear central actor — a clear villain, in this case. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of the central actor in the mythical but enduring tale of William Randolph Hearst, a media bogeyman for all time, and his vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

Moreover, the photo op episode lends itself to readily identifiable shorthand, not unlike the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” in which an editorial comment by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite in 1968 supposedly swung public opinion against the war in Vietnam. The epithet “Trump’s photo op” already is routinely associated with the events near the White House on June 1, 2020.

Another feature of media myths is that high-profile challenges to arise well after the erroneous narrative is in place. Such was the case of the media myth that Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. What I call the heroic journalists interpretation of the Watergate scandal took hold before it was ever prominently challenged. The inspector general’s report was released slightly more than a year after the photo-op episode.

And even then, the inspector general’s report set off little soul-searching by the corporate media, especially by news outlets such as CNN, which ran hard with the photo-op story as it unfolded last year.

 

But rarely do the corporate media take to soul-searching or apologies when they fumble an important story, a point made in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Or as media critic Jack Shafer noted years ago:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Shafer further wrote: “Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”

So it’s been with the Trump-photo op. Corporate media have been disinclined to offer explanations or to revisit their misguided assumptions in any sustained way.

In a few instances, journalists have openly disparaged the inspector general’s report. CNN’s chief domestic correspondent, Jim Acosta, referred to Trump’s private estate in Florida and sneered that the report suggested “this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June 1st.”

Almost a “whitewash”? And what was that about reluctance to concede error “no matter what the facts are”?

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Of Trump’s chances and Mark Twain’s ‘exaggerated’ quip

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes on July 20, 2020 at 6:59 am

CNN (really) offered not long ago one of the more coherent recent assessments about the unfolding election campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

A commentary by two Democratic analysts argued against prematurely dismissing Trump’s chances of winning reelection, despite the polls of July that overwhelmingly are in Biden’s favor.

Twain in 1907

“It seems,” wrote Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan, “that Democrats are all too keen on taking a victory lap before they pass the checkered flag.

“Those declaring Trump politically finished,” they added, “should recall the words attributed to the famous American novelist Mark Twain. As the story goes, Twain’s death was rumored when his cousin fell ill and reporters couldn’t locate him while touring in Europe. Upon learning of his supposed demise, Twain, according to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, told a reporter that ‘the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.‘”

The analysis  is persuasive; but what most interests Media Myth Alert is the remark attributed to Twain, the American humorist and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries whose given name was Samuel L. Clemens.

The quotation itself is exaggerated — as it has been over the years — and is more emphatic than it really was.

What Twain said in an interview in early June 1897 with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was subdued. Flat, even.

“The report of my death,” he simply said, “was an exaggeration.”

The more evocative version that appeared in the CNN commentary is not unusual. Twain’s line often has been presented as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Or “grossly exaggerated.” And sometimes the Journal is said to have been the source of the erroneous report, not its prompt and thorough debunking.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s comment was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

The Herald reported Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain at the time was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for Hearst’s Journal. That association allowed the Journal to quickly knock down the Herald‘s story.

In a front-page article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald‘s account as false and presented Twain’s straightforward “exaggeration” comment.

The Journal’s article, which carried the byline of Frank Marshall White, began this way:

“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him … of he report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

“He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children, and has only this week finished the narrative of his recent travels ….”

After invoking the remark about the “report of my death was an exaggeration,” White further quoted Twain as saying: “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Interesting, all that, but why bother with an exaggerated, long-ago quotation?

One reason is that quote-distortion happens often, to Twain and other prominent figures.

As I discussed in a chapter in the second edition of Getting It Wrong, exaggerated or bogus quotes are known to have become full-blown media myths. Consider the Hearstian vow, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” For many reasons, the well-known, often-invoked comment is surely apocryphal. Yet it lives on as an presumptive evidence of Hearst’s war-mongering ways in the late 19th century.

Consider, too, the unlikely remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson after Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared in February 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was stalemated. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president supposedly uttered in response to Cronkite’s televised comment, “I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect.

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong:

“Bogus quotations share many of the defining features of media-driven myths: They tend to be concise and simplistic, easy to remember, fun to retell, tenacious, and often thinly sourced.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

Other memorable posts of 2019:

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