W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Bay of Pigs’

No one-off story: Reporting the run-up to Bay of Pigs

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on April 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

The tenacious New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth centers around a single story that the Times supposedly bungled or censored in its issue 50 years ago today.

But reporting about the pending assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba went beyond a single story. The Times and other U.S. news outlets reported frequently —  if not always accurately — about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was launched April 17, 1961, and was rolled up within three days.

The suppression myth has it that at President John F. Kennedy’s behest, the Times spiked or emasculated a story telling of preparations by U.S.-trained Cuban exiles to attack Cuba.

The suppression tale is untrue, however. The Times of April 7, 1961, was no artifact of censorship: It reported what it knew about the unfolding invasion preparations.

Szulc, undated photo (Courtesy Anthony Szulc)

Best testimony to that comes from reading what was published: Doing so reveals that the news report at heart of the myth appeared beneath the byline of a veteran correspondent named Tad Szulc; the article was displayed above the newspaper’s front-page fold.

The Times, didn’t thereafter drop the invasion-preparations story, either. Szulc’s report of 50 years ago was no one-off effort.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year:

“The suppression myth fails to recognize or acknowledge that the Times coverage was not confined to Szulc’s article ten days before the invasion. It ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion.”

Reporting by Szulc and others for the Times after April 7, 1961, “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write.

For example, on April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the Cuban exiles and their eagerness to toppled Castro.

That report, which appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near,” quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, as saying that a revolt against the Castro regime was “imminent.”

The following day, the Times published two articles about Cuba on its front page. One of them was the lead story, which appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foes Call Cubans To Arms; Predict Uprising,” and discussed the vow of the exiled Cuban Revolutionary Council to topple Castro.

“Duty calls us to the war against the executioners of our Cuban brethren,” the Revolutionary Council declared. “Cubans! To victory! For democracy! For the Constitution! For social justice! For liberty!”

The Times front page of April 9, 1961, also carried a report by Szulc, who described how the exile leaders were attempting to cover over rivalries and divisions in advance of what Szulc termed the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.”

The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training in Central America and Louisiana, will succeed with the aid of internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

With those sentences, Szulc effectively summarized the strategic objectives of what became the Bay of Pigs invasion.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, none of the Times’ pre-invasion reports included a prospective date for the invasion. But they unmistakably signaled that something was afoot, that an attempt to oust Castro by arms was forthcoming.

Moreover, on April 11, 1961, James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, reported on the Times’ front page that Kennedy administration officials were divided “about how far to go in helping the Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro Government.”

Reston described in detail how the president had been receiving conflicting counsel from advisers at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the State and Defense departments. Reston also identified the time pressures confronting the president, writing:

“It is feared that unless something is done fairly soon nothing short of direct military intervention by United States forces will be enough to shake the Castro Government’s hold over the Cuban people.”

Reston, I note in Getting It Wrong, “followed that report the next day with a commentary that addressed the moral dimensions of an armed attempt to topple Castro. His column noted that ‘while the papers have been full of reports of U.S. aid to overthrow Castro, the moral and legal aspects of the question have scarcely been mentioned.'”

Nor was the Times alone in reporting about invasion preparations. Its competition on the pre-invasion story included the Miami Herald, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time magazine.

According to a critique published in May 1961 in The Reporter, a journalists’ trade publication, the pre-invasion story “was covered heavily if not always well.” The Reporter added:

“Remarkably detailed reports were published and broadcast describing the stepped-up preparations” for the assault on Cuba.

Indeed, reporting and commentary about invasion plans reached such  intensity that according to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, the president complained a week before the invasion, saying:

“I can’t believe what I’m reading! Castro doesn’t need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.”

The CIA’s planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion was cloaked in secrecy of the skimpiest kind. In the days and weeks before the assault, the Cuban exile community in Miami teemed with talk about an invasion.

“It was,” Szulc recalled about two months later, in testimony before a closed session of a Senate Foreign Relation subcommittee,  “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

WJC

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Busting the NYTimes suppression myth, 50 years on

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 6, 2011 at 7:30 am

Few tales in American journalism offer such rich, potent, and timeless lessons as that of the New York Times’ censoring itself in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion 50 years ago this month.

Had the Times reported all it knew about the planned assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, had the Times not held back, the ill-fated invasion may well have been called off and the United States would have been spared an acute foreign policy reversal.

Or so the media myth has it.

The New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth — one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — endures as a telling reminder about the hazards that can befall journalists when they yield to the government’s agenda on national security.

Indeed, the Times’ purported spiking has been called the “symbolic journalistic event of the 1960s.”

Only the Times didn’t censor itself.

It didn’t kill, spike, or otherwise emasculate the news report published 50 years ago tomorrow that lies at the heart of this media myth.

That article was written by a veteran Times correspondent named Tad Szulc, who reported that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had received military training for a mission to topple Fidel Castro’s regime; the actual number of invaders was about 1,400.

But overstatement was hardly the article’s most controversial or memorable element.

Supposedly, editors at the Times caved in to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and eviscerated Szulc’s article, removing key elements about the invasion plans.

That Kennedy intervened in the Times’ editorial decisionmaking in April 1961 is widely believed, and lives on as a cautionary tale. As the trade publication Editor & Publisher put it a few years ago:

“The Times, of course, famously held off on the story at the request of President John F. Kennedy, who later regretted the decision.”

Even the Times has bought into this erroneous meme.

The newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, wrote in a column a few weeks ago:

“We may err on the side of keeping secrets (President Kennedy reportedly wished, after the fact, that The Times had published what it knew about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, which possibly would have helped avert a bloody debacle) or on the side of exposing them. We make the best judgments we can.”

Had Keller taken time to consult a database of issues of his newspaper, he would have found that the Times reported in detail about preparations to infiltrate the CIA-trained exiles into Cuba, in hopes of sparking an uprising that would overthrow Castro.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance” about Szulc’s dispatch, which was filed from Miami on April 6, 1961.

The article was published the following day – above the fold on the Times front page.

Nor, I write, is there any evidence “that Kennedy or anyone in his administration lobbied or persuaded the Times to hold back or spike that story, as so many accounts have said.”

After the cruise

Indeed, while Szulc’s dispatch was edited in New York on the afternoon of April 6, 1961, Kennedy was playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.

Kennedy returned to the White House around 6:30 that evening, leaving almost no time for the president to have intervened and negotiated with Times editors before the newspaper’s first edition hit the streets around 7 p.m.

According to the Kennedy presidential library, White House telephone logs reveal that no calls were placed on April 6, 1961, to top Times executives such as President Orvil E. Dryfoos, Managing Editor Turner Catledge, or Washington bureau chief James “Scotty” Reston. (In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam depicted Kennedy as having called Reston to argue “strongly and passionately” against the Times’ publishing Szulc’s story.)

In his book, Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, Harrison Salisbury offered a detailed account about the handling of Szulc’s dispatch.

“The government in April 1961,” Salisbury wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.

The editing was conservative but not unreasonable.

A reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, serving to improve its accuracy. The force of Cuban exiles did not launch the assault until April 17, 1961, 10 days after Szulc’s report appeared. Such an interval hardly suggests “imminence.”

Besides, as Reston pointed out in his memoir, “imminence” is a prediction, not a fact.

References to the CIA’s role in training the Cuban exiles were omitted in favor of the more nebulous terms “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts.” Catledge, the managing editor, said he reasoned that the U.S. government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “more than most people realize, and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

An entirely defensible if cautious editorial decision.

The prominence given the Szulc report also was modified, from a planned four-column display to a single column. If the invasion was not imminent, then a four-column headline was difficult to justify, Catledge reasoned.

Those decisions were judicious, not unreasonable, and had the effect of improving the accuracy of Szulc’s dispatch.

“Most important,” as Salisbury wrote, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

The Times-suppression myth, I point out in Getting It Wrong, likely stems from confusion with a separate episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to postpone publication of a report about the Soviets having deployed nuclear-tipped weapons in Cuba.

On that occasion, when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed in the balance, the Times complied, holding off publication 24 hours.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth: Check out new trailer

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 4, 2011 at 8:20 am

Fifty years ago this week, the New York Times bowed to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and suppressed or emasculated a story offering details about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion.

Had the Times not censored itself, had it published it knew about the planned assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the invasion likely would have been scuttled, and the United States would have been spared a humiliating foreign policy setback.

Or so the media myth has it.

What I call the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth is a hardy, tenacious tale that is addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth is the subject of a new video trailer, posted online last night by my graduate assistant, Jeremiah N. Patterson.

At the heart of the suppression myth is a report filed from Miami by veteran correspondent Tad Szulc and published on the Times front page April 7, 1961, 10 days before the ill-fated invasion.

Supposedly, editors at the Times so thoroughly watered down Szulc’s dispatch that when published, it was a mere wisp of what the correspondent had filed. Supposedly, the report was emasculated in New York.

But that’s just not so.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Szulc’s dispatch received editing at the Times that was judicious, restrained, and well-considered — editing that had the effect of improving the story’s accuracy.

But it wasn’t spiked. It wasn’t suppressed.

It ran to 1,000 words and was published above the fold on the Times front page — prime real estate in American journalism.

Nor is there any evidence that Kennedy or officials in his administration knew about the Szulc report and asked, lobbied, or otherwise cajoled the Times to suppress the dispatch or water it down.

That notion, I write in Getting It Wrong, “is utter fancy.”

Indeed, I add, “the recollections of none of the principal figures in the Times-suppression episode say that Kennedy pressured the newspaper’s editors.

“These include the memoirs of Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of the Times; of James (Scotty) Reston, then the chief of the Times’ Washington bureau; of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, and of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an award-winning Harvard historian who was a White House adviser to Kennedy.”

Harrison Salisbury in his Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, offers a detailed account of the handling of the Szulc dispatch.

And Salisbury’s version is unequivocal. “The government in April 1961,” he wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to public the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone [Times president Orvil] Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story.”

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

The trailer discussing the New York Times-Bay of Pigs media myth is the latest video Patterson has prepared on topics related to Getting It Wrong.

Early this year, he produced a trailer about the book and in Fall 2010 prepared a trailer about the media myths surrounding The War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938.

WJC

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WaPo ‘played pivotal role’ in Watergate? Think again

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 24, 2011 at 7:52 am

The Wall Street Journal blog “India Real Time” indulged yesterday in the conventional but mistaken narrative of the Watergate scandal, declaring that the Washington Post “played a pivotal role in effectively bringing down then U.S. President Richard Nixon.”

Effectively brought down Nixon, eh?

Not even the Post buys into that misreading of Watergate history.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, dismissed that interpretation, declaring in 1997:

“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.”

Similarly, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, has asserted:

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

Such comments aren’t the manifestation of false modesty. Far from it. Rather, they represent candid observations about the peripheral role the Post played in uncovering the scandal that brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity 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.

“Even then,” I add, “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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Still, the notion that the Post was vital to the outcome of Watergate, that the newspaper “effectively” brought down a president, is the stuff of legend. It’s a powerful media-driven myth that offers a simplistic and misleading interpretation of the country’s greatest political scandal.

Watergate was among the media myths I discussed last night in a book talk at Kensington Row Bookshop in Kensington, MD.

I noted in my talk: “Obstruction of justice — not the Washington Post — is what cost Nixon his presidency.”

I also spoke about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the NewYork Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth of 1961.

The “Cronkite Moment” is shorthand for the dubious notion that the on-air assessment of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite forced President Lyndon Johnson to alter policy on Vietnam.

In a special report that aired February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations would prove to be the way out of the morass.

Johnson supposedly was at the White House that night, watching Cronkite’s show. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president supposedly snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

As I said in my talk at the Kensington bookshop, “Acute version variability— the shifting accounts of just what was said — can be a marker of a media-driven myth.”

And so it is with the so-called “Cronkite Moment.”

Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted comments at a birthday party for Gov. John Connally, who that day turned 51.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, saying:

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

That line drew laughter from the audience of 25 people at the Kensington bookshop.

The Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, I said in my talk, dates almost 50 years — to April 1961, when “a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles threw themselves on the beaches of southwest Cuba in a futile attempt to turn Fidel Castro from power.”

Supposedly, the Times censored itself about invasion plans several days before the assault took place — at the request of the President John F. Kennedy.

The Times, I said, “did not censor itself. It did not suppress its reporting” about invasion preparations.

“In fact,” I added, “the Times’ accounts of preparations for the invasion were fairly detailed — and prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the Bay of Pigs assault was launched.”

The suppression myth seems to have has its origins in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 — when the Times, at Kennedy’s request, did hold off publishing a story about the deployment of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.

On that occasion, I said in my talk, “when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed to be in the balance, the Times complied” with the president’s request.

“But no such request,” I added, “was made of the Times in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of 50 years ago.”

WJC

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Of media myths and false lessons abroad: Biden’s Moscow gaffe

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

Biden shows the way (White House photo)

Vice President Joe Biden embraced in Moscow last week one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — the notion that reporting by the Washington Post brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Unwittingly or otherwise, Biden offered up the Watergate myth as a telling example of the values and virtues of a free press. The vice president said in remarks at Moscow State University:

“Journalists must be able to publish without fear of retribution. In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

As I’ve noted, not even the Post endorses that superficial and misleading reading of Watergate history. (Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, has said for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

The significance of Biden’s mischaracterization of Watergate goes beyond being merely curious; it’s more than just another example of the gaffe-prone vice president slipping up again.

His remarks demonstrated anew that media myths are not just intriguing curiosities of history. They showed how false lessons can worm their way into diplomacy and policymaking.

Biden’s speech represented pointed criticism of — and recommendations for — Russia and its legal and political systems.  Biden offered a laundry list of democratic reforms that autocratic Russia ought to undertake, stating that courts “must be empowered to uphold the rule of law and protect those playing by the rules.

“Non-governmental watchdogs should be applauded as patriots, not traitors. …

“Journalists,” he added, “must be able to publish without fear of retribution.” To buttress his point about a robust free press, he invoked the claim that “the Washington Post … brought down a President for illegal actions.”

Biden offered that anecdote as an example of the benefits of press freedom, which he called “the greatest guarantee of freedom there is….”

Invoking the myth that the Post “brought down” Nixon is to offer an international audience a false lesson about the power of the news media. Invoking the myth is to suggest, wrongly, that that news media can, when circumstances are right, force a sitting president from office.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the sweep and dimension 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.”

Even then, I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Considered against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigators and special prosecutors, the Watergate reporting of the Post recedes in significance.

As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s ombudsman wrote in 2005: “Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

I also note in Getting It Wrong that “media-driven myths are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can and do have adverse consequences.”

They tend to offer simplistic and misleading interpretations of important historical events, and they “can blur lines of responsibility and deflect blame away from makers and sponsors of flawed public policy,” I write, citing as a case in point the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth.

Had the New York Times had reported all it knew 50 years ago about the run-up to the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the administration of President John F. Kennedy likely would have scuttled the operation–thus sparing the country a stunning foreign policy reversal.

Or so the media myth has it.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, that interpretation is not only misleading but it diverts responsibility away from Kennedy and his flawed decision to go ahead with the invasion.

The Times, after all, published a number detailed, front-page reports about the anticipated invasion in the days before the ill-fated assault. And there is no evidence that the newspaper censored itself under White House pressure in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

And in the final analysis, I note, ” it was Kennedy, not American journalists, who gave the go-ahead in April 1961, sending a brigade of Cuban exiles to a disastrous rendezvous in the swamps of southwestern Cuba.”

The cause of independent-minded journalism in Russia would have been better served had Biden skipped the myth and urged the Kremlin to pursue serious investigations into unresolved cases of journalists who’ve been killed because of their work.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 19 journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000.

The country, CPJ says, has a “record of rampant impunity in resolving the killings of journalists.”

WJC

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JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

JHistory, the listserv devoted to issues in journalism history, posted yesterday a very insightful and favorable review of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, saying it “should be required reading for journalism students as well as journalists and editors.”

Getting It Wrong “reinforces the necessity of healthy skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and viewpoints for probing, quality journalism,” the review says.

Getting It Wrong, which was published in summer 2010 by University of California Press, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

The reviewer for JHistory, Jeanette McVicker of SUNY-Fredonia, says Getting It Wrong is a “compelling book” that “generated a minor sensation in journalism circles all summer, with good reason.”

McVicker, whom I do not know, notes:

“In each chapter, Campbell delivers pithy, well-researched correctives for each sensational claim.

“No,” she writes, “Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds‘ radio broadcast did not induce a national panic in October 1938. Yes, there was symbolic bra burning in the Freedom Trash Can at the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, but no mass stripping of undergarments by wild women’s liberationists. No, the Kennedy administration did not request the New York Times to spike or delay a report on the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion: ‘utter fancy,’ Campbell writes.”

McVicker adds:

“The deconstruction of these cherished media myths by Campbell’s archival, source-driven research is praiseworthy, and makes for fascinating reading.”

She further notes:

“In most of these examples, the devastating legacy of the mythmaking media machine continues far beyond attempts to backpedal and correct the erroneous reporting: sensational stories tend to remain in public consciousness for years and sometimes decades.”

Indeed.

Getting It Wrong, McVicker adds, “demonstrates with tremendous force how discrete instances of media reporting and mythmaking have built up a golden age fallacy of journalism’s self-importance, and his work goes a long way toward deflating such heroic myths and consensus-narratives at the heart of modern journalism history.”

Her principal challenge to Getting It Wrong lies in my view that stripping away and debunking prominent media myths “enhances a case for limited news media influence. Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.”

Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence. … The influence of the news media is typically trumped by other forces.”

It’s an accurate assessment, especially given that media myths — such as the notion that investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners.”

Puncturing media myths thus serves to deflate the notion of sweeping media power.

McVicker tends to disagree, writing that “it is surely not the case that the combined effects of such narratives are ‘modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.'”

She notes as an example “the ongoing legacy of mainstream media’s failure to hold members of the Bush administration accountable during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, a devastating correlate to Campbell’s spot-on analysis of the distorted, erroneous reporting of what was happening in the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”

There is, though, a fair amount of evidence that the news media were neither gullible nor comatose in the run-up to the war in Iraq, that tough questions were raised of the Bush administration’s pre-war plans.

While the notion of a docile news media has hardened into conventional wisdom about the pre-war coverage, that view has been challenged, notably by David Gregory of NBC News, who has asserted:

“I think the questions were asked [in the run-up to the war].  I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

“If there wasn’t a debate in this country” about going to war in Iraq, Gregory has said, “then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war?”

I find quite telling this observation, offered in 2007 by Reason magazine:

“The ‘we should have done more to head off this war’ arguments assumes too much, exaggerates the media’s power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers. … many in the media did ask tough questions of the administration, but the public wasn’t paying much attention.”

That the news media were comatose in the run-up to the Iraq War may be yet another media-driven myth.

WJC

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Campbell’s

book should be required reading for journalism students as well as

journalists and editors, for it reinforces the necessity of healthy

skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s

research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and

viewpoints for probing, quality journalism. There is an even greater lesson

here, however, pertinent for all readers: consistent with the rise of

“modern” journalism from the late 1800s to the present, the institution of

journalism has bolstered itself with narratives celebrating its own

strategic importance to society, even when the narratives turn out to be

fictions.

Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on January 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

'Publish it did'

In an article to be published Sunday, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, rubs shoulders with a tenacious media myth linked to the newspaper’s reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly 50 years ago.

I devote a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth in my latest, mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth has it that the Times, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, suppressed or emasculated its reporting about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, in the 10 days before the ill-fated assault, the Times published several detailed reports on its front page discussing an invasion and exiles’ calls to topple Fidel Castro. And, I note, there is no evidence that Kennedy either asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its pre-invasion reporting.

“The anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship is potent, compelling, instructive, and timeless,” I write in Getting It Wrong . “It also is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.”

Keller, though, repeats the myth in a lengthy article to run in the Times Sunday magazine about his newspaper’s dealings with Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, which not long ago disclosed the contents of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.

Keller invokes the Bay of Pigs as an example of the newspaper’s having erred “on the side of keeping secrets.”

He writes:

“I’m the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the prewar reporting about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) or overly cynical about official claims and motives. We may err on the side of keeping secrets (President Kennedy reportedly wished, after the fact, that The Times had published what it knew about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, which possibly would have helped avert a bloody debacle) or on the side of exposing them. We make the best judgments we can.”

Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.

The invasion failed, and the anti-Castro exiles were mostly killed or captured. The foreign policy debacle came less than three months into Kennedy’s presidency.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article that lies at the heart of this media myth” (see image, above).

The report was filed from Miami by veteran Timesman Tad Szulc who, I write, “pieced together the outline of CIA-backed plans to attempt to topple Castro with an invasion force of Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala.”

The invasion plans, Szulc found, were an open secret in Miami. “It was,” he was later to say, “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

On April 6, 1961, Szulc filed a dispatch to New York, reporting that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had been trained in a plan to overthrow Castro, that invasion plans were in their final stages, and that the operation had been organized and directed by the CIA.

Szulc’s dispatch report ran more than 1,000 words and, I write in Getting It Wrong, “set off a flurry of intense consultations among senior editors.” Their deliberations revolved around three elements: Szulc’s characterization that the invasion was imminent, the reference to the operation being CIA-directed, and the prominence the report should receive on the Times front page.

In the end, the references to the invasion’s imminence were dropped; it was more prediction than fact, as James Reston, the Times Washington bureau chief at time, pointed out. (The invasion was launched April 17, 1961, 11 days after Szulc filed his dispatch.)

The reference to CIA also was dropped, in favor of the more nebulous terms phrases, “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts. The then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that the decision was based on the reality the government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

As for the report’s prominence, the decision was to publish Szulc’s story on the front page, beneath a single-column headline, instead of a four-column headline. Given that the invasion wasn’t deemed imminent, a four-column headline was difficult to justify.

I write in Getting It Wrong that although “the headline size was modified, Szulc’s report hardly can be said to have been played down. It certainly had not been spiked, diluted, or emasculated. Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made ‘perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.'”

As Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

But most important, as Salisbury pointed out, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold.

“Publish it did.”

As for Kennedy’s remark, that he wished the Times “had run everything on Cuba”: The comment was vague and self-serving, an attempt to deflect blame from his administration’s first-rate foreign policy disaster.

Besides, what was it that the Times supposedly held back? The president didn’t specify.

Nor does Keller.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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.[i] Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made “perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.” 


[i] Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and Kennedy adviser, claimed that Szulc’s story had been “emasculated” by Times editors. See “Rebuttal Is Made by Schlesinger,” New York Times (14 June 1966): 15.

Anniversary journalism and media-driven myths in 2011

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on January 1, 2011 at 7:21 am

NY Times front page, April 7, 1961

“Anniversary journalism” has the appeal of being irresistible and easily done.

Typically, a reporter targets an upcoming anniversary (preferably, the occasion is divisible by 5 or 10), sells the idea to an editor, and cobbles together a story recalling the event. Easily done, but as the Independent newspaper in London has observed, not always very compelling.

We’ll surely see a lot of “anniversary journalism” in 2011.

The year, after all, brings the 10th anniversary of terrorist attacks of September 11, the 100th anniversary of the death of Joseph Pulitzer, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.

Media Myth Alert will be especially interested in 2011 in the 50th anniversary of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which gave rise to the durable New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth.

In the run-up to the anniversary in April of the Bay of Pigs invasion, we’ll no doubt see frequent references to this media-driven myth.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out in 2010, the suppression myth has it that the New York Times bowed to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and “spiked,” or self-censored, its detailed report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

The purported self-censorship took place about 10 days before the invasion– which failed utterly in its objective of toppling the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Times did not suppress its reports about the pending invasion of Cuba.

It did not censor itself.

The Times’ reports about preparations for the invasion were in fact fairly detailed–and prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the invasion.

The run-up to the Bay of Pigs was no one-day story. A succession of articles before the invasion “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write.

To be sure, not all pre-invasion news reports were accurate or on-target. Much of the reporting was piecemeal.

But overall, the reports in the Times and other U.S. newspapers let readers know that something was afoot in the Caribbean, that an assault on Castro was in the works.

“Indeed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the coverage helped strip away the fiction circulated by the Kennedy administration that the invasion was strictly a Cuban affair.”

The suppression myth largely centers around a dispatch that a veteran Times correspondent, Tad Szulc, filed on April 6, 1961.

Supposedly, the Kennedy administration learned of the contents of Szulc’s dispatch about the pending invasion and urged that it be suppressed.

In his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam offered a graphic, though exaggerated, account of Kennedy’s calling James Reston of the Times, saying the newspaper risked having blood on its hands were the article published.

Such a conversation never happened, according to Reston and others quoted in Harrison Salisbury’s Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s account of the Times and its history.

Moreover, as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives on April 6, 1961.

Szulc’s story was published on the front page on April 7, 1961 (see image, above).

I argue in Getting It Wrong that that the suppression myth likely stems from confusion over an episode in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to delay publication of a sensitive report.

That came during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Reston was prepared to report that nuclear-tipped Soviet weapons had been deployed in Cuba. With the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemingly in the balance, the Times complied with the president’s request.

Kennedy took office in 1961–a year with more than a few significant anniversaries. In 1961, Berlin Wall went up, the Soviets put the first man into space, Hemingway killed himself, and Adolf Eichmann‘s war-crimes trial was convened in Israel.

And the Times suppression myth took hold.

WJC

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‘Persuasive and entertaining’: WSJ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 12, 2010 at 6:05 am

Today’s Wall Street Journal reviews Getting It Wrong, characterizing as “persuasive and entertaining” my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths.

The review–which appears beneath the headline “Too good to check”–is clever and engaging, and opens this way:

“Hello, city desk, get me rewrite. Here’s the lead: Many of the landmark moments in American journalism are carefully nurtured myths—or, worse, outright fabrications.

“William Randolph Hearst never said, ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’ Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast didn’t panic America. Ed Murrow’s ‘See It Now’ TV show didn’t destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn’t talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing ‘Oh, God help us’ and never fired a shot.

“These fables and more are lovingly undressed in W. Joseph Campbell’s persuasive and entertaining ‘Getting It Wrong.’ With old-school academic detachment, Mr. Campbell, a communications professor at American University, shows how the fog of war, the warp of ideology and muffled skepticism can transmute base journalism into golden legend.”

The reviewer, Edward Kosner, author of the memoir It’s News to Me, also discusses the myth of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing, “Television icons are central to two of Mr. Campbell’s dubious cases: Murrow and his successor as the patron saint of TV news, Walter Cronkite.”

Kosner notes–as I do in Getting It Wrong–that at least some of the myths confronted in the book will likely survive their debunking.

“For all Mr. Campbell’s earnest scholarship,” Kosner writes, “these media myths are certain to survive his efforts to slay them. Journalism can’t help itself—it loves and perpetuates its sacred legends of evil power-mongers, courageous underdogs, dread plagues and human folly.”

Well said.

And, alas, he may be right. Some of the myths almost certainly will live on. As I write in the introduction to Getting It Wrong, they “may prove resistant to debunking. They may still be widely believed despite the contrary evidence marshaled against them.

“The most resilient myths,” I further write, “may be those that can be distilled to a catchy, pithy phrase like: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Such quotations are neat, tidy, and easily remembered. Cinematic treatments influence how historical events are collectively remembered and can harden media-driven myths against debunking. The motion picture All the President’s Men, which cast Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles of Washington Post reporters [B0b] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, has helped ensure that the journalists and their newspaper would be regarded as central to cracking the Watergate scandal.”

Kosner closes the review with a humorous observation, writing:

“At the end of the book, Mr. Campbell offers some remedies for media mythologizing, urging journalists, among other things, ‘to deepen their appreciation of complexity and ambiguity.’ Good luck with that, professor.'”

Heh, heh. Nice touch.

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 1, 2010 at 11:34 am

I did an engaging and entertaining in-studio interview yesterday on the Lanigan & Malone show, one of the most popular radio programs in Cleveland, the gritty city where I cut my teeth, journalistically, years ago.

On the air with Lanigan (center) and Malone

The show airs on WMJI, Majic 105.7 FM, and I spoke with hosts John Lanigan and Jimmy Malone about several media-driven myths addressed and debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

They included the case of Jessica Lynch, the waiflike Army private whom the Washington Post elevated to hero status in a sensational but utterly erroneous report early in the Iraq War in 2003.

The Post depicted Lynch as having “fought fiercely” in the Iraqi ambush at Nasiriyah of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company. The newspaper said Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers” and kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

Walters

The Lynch case, I said during the Lanigan & Malone interview, appears to have centered around a case of mistaken identity. It wasn’t Lynch who had fought heroically at Nasiriyah. It was most likely Donald Walters, a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit who, after running out of ammunition, was captured by Iraqi irregulars and executed.

I pointed out during the interview how war and conflict can readily give rise to myth and misunderstanding. Indeed, half the chapters in Getting It Wrong are related to warfare, including the book’s first chapter, the myth of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

We moved on to discuss the myth that widespread panic and mass hysteria characterized the reactions to the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, then jumped to a discussion of the myth of superlative reporting of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in September 2005, and considered at some length about what I call the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning.

“Bra-smoldering,” I said, would be a more accurate characterization of what happened during the women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City in September 1968. My research shows that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, during the demonstration against that year’s Miss America pageant.

“All these are ruined,” Lanigan said at one point about the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong.

We also discussed the Bay of Pigs-New York Times suppression myth. That myth centers around a telephone call President John F. Kennedy supposedly placed to the Times publisher or top editors in April 1961, asking that the newspaper hold off on reporting about the pending CIA-supported invasion of Cuba.

There is no evidence, I said, that Kennedy ever placed such a call. (Or even had time to place such a call.)

What appears to have happened is that the Bay of Pigs-suppression myth has become confounded with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, during which Kennedy did call the Times to request a delay on a report about nuclear-tipped missiles the Soviets had deployed on the island.

As the interview wrapped up, Lanigan said he’s “sure there will be another” volume, a sequel, to Getting It Wrong.

“It’s a good book,” he said afterward. “I’m glad he did it.”

WJC

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