W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Biden’

The shame of the press

In Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on October 31, 2020 at 11:26 pm

Eighty-two years ago, the front pages of American newspapers told of panic and hysteria which, they said, had swept the country the night before, during, and immediately after a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds.

The program starred and was directed by 23-year-old Orson Welles who made clever use of simulated news bulletins to tell of waves of attacking Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Or so the newspapers said on October 31, 1938.

“For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself,” declared the Washington Post, while offering few specifics to support the dramatic claim.

“Thousands of persons in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, as well as all over the nation, were pitched into mass hysteria … by the broadcast,” the New York Herald Tribune asserted. It, too, offered little supporting evidence.

“Hysteria among radio listeners through the nation … resulted from a too realistic radio program … describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

And so it went.

As I described in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, reports of widespread panic and hysteria were wildly exaggerated “and did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide scale.”

Had Americans been convulsed in panic and hysteria that night, the resulting turmoil and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was conclusively linked to the show.

The overheated press accounts were almost entirely anecdotal — and driven by an eagerness to question the reliability and legitimacy of radio, then an upstart rival medium.

There was no nationwide panic that long ago night before Halloween and the day-after coverage was an episode of collective misreporting that contributed to the rise of a tenacious media myth.

Eighty-two years later, much of mainstream corporate news media is indulging in another, even more consequential episode of misconduct that’s defined not by overheated misreporting but by willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.

Corporate media, with few exceptions on the political right, have ignored and declined to pursue allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, so as to shield the flawed and feeble candidate from scrutiny and help him defeat the incumbent they so profoundly loathe.

Their contempt for President Donald Trump runs deep. Corporate media obviously recognize they cannot investigate and publish critical reporting — they cannot do searching journalism — about Biden so close to the November election without jeopardizing his candidacy and boosting Trump’s chances of reelection.

This neglect by corporate media represents an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of “fie on both houses” attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

Not so much anymore. Not in American corporate media, where an overt partisanship has become not only acceptable but unmistakable.

The suspicions about Biden stem from his son’s efforts to line up lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the knowledge of Joe Biden. Reporting in the New York Post in mid-October was based on emails that undercut Biden’s claim of ignorance about the son’s dealings. Notably, the Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reports have suggested Biden’s secret financial involvement in his son’s attempts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist government.

The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent.

But the response largely has been to shun and ignore. Or to block or impede distribution, as Twitter and Facebook did with the New York Post’s mid-October report. Or to dismiss it as so much Russian disinformation. Or scoff that it’s just a distraction. That’s what National Public Radio claimed, in a remarkably obtuse statement by its public editor (or internal critic), Kelly McBride. “We don’t want to waste our time,” she wrote, ” … on stories that are just pure distractions.”

Matt Taibbi, who is perhaps the most searching critic these days of contemporary American media and their failings, noted recently that the “least curious people in the country right now appear to be the credentialed news media, a situation normally unique to tinpot authoritarian societies.”

The inclination to shield Biden may partly stem from the shifting business model for corporate news organizations. The model used to be largely advertising-based, which encouraged news organizations to seek wide audiences by offering what was passably impartial reporting.

With the decline of advertising revenues, the business model has moved toward a digital-subscriber base. As readers pay, they are prone to make clear their preferences, and the news report tilts to reflect their partisan expectations.

Evidence of the tilt was striking enough four years ago, when Liz Spayd, an advocate of even-handedness in reporting, was public editor at the New York Times. She lasted less than a year before the position was dissolved and she was let go.

Spayd, whom I favorably mention in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, hadn’t been on the job a month when she wrote this about the Times in July 2016:

“Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes. Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

“Or has that already happened?”

It no doubt had. And overt partisanship has become all the more evident in the past four years as the Times and other corporate media pursued such stories as Trump’s conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. It was a bizarre, exaggerated tale that obsessed corporate media for three years before finally coming a cropper.

Corporate media may well protect Biden long enough for the gaffe-prone 77-year-old to gain the presidency. But the shameful exhibition of willful blindness may not end well for corporate media. Their abdication may leave them besmirched. And diminished.

WJC

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Memorable late October: A new edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ and more

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Photographs, Quotes, Television on October 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmLate October makes for memorable times in media-mythbusting.

The anniversary of the mythical panic broadcast — Orson Welles’ clever radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria in 1938 — falls this evening.

Today also marks the seventh anniversary of the launch of Media Myth Alert.

And late October this year brought the publication of an expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, my award-winning mythbusting book, published by University of California Press.

The second edition includes a new preface, and three new chapters that discuss:

  • The myth of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — notably that television viewers and radio listeners reached dramatically different conclusions about who won the encounter. In Getting It Wrong, I characterize the notion of viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.” I also present reasons why the debate of September 26, 1960, was at best a small factor in the outcome of the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-01-49-pm
  • The myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam in June 1972, which shows a cluster of children burned or terrorized by an errant napalm attack. I note the photograph has given rise to a variety of media myths — notably that American warplanes dropped the napalm. The attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force. Related myths are that the photograph was so powerful that it turned U.S. public opinion against the war, that it hastened an end to the war, and that it was published on newspaper front pages across the country. (Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph; many abstained.)
  • The spread of bogus quotations via social media and the Internet.  Among the examples discussed in the new edition is this phony quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” The utterance, I point out, is found in none of Jefferson’s writings. And there is no evidence the third U.S. president smoked hemp or other substances, including tobacco. Even so, the obviously preposterous quote — like many others attributed to important men and women of the past — “is too alluring and oddly amusing to drift away as so much historical rubbish,” I write.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong also explores the tenacity of prominent media myths, calling attention to the roles of celebrities and luminaries — authors, entertainers, and social critics, as well as politicians and talk show hosts — in amplifying dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power.

The upshot of the celebrity effect, I write, is scarcely trivial: The prominence of luminaries helps ensure that the myths will reach wide audiences, making the myths all the more difficult to uproot. The importance of the celebrity effect in the diffusion of media myths has become better recognized, and better documented, in the years since publication in 2010 of the first edition of Getting It Wrong, I point out.

Myth-telling luminaries include Vice President Joe Biden, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, former President Jimmy Carter, humorist Garrison Keillor, and author and TV commentator Juan Williams.

I further note that for journalists, media myths “are very seductive: They place the news media at the epicenter of vital and decisive moments of the past, they tell of journalistic bravado and triumph, and they offer memorable if simplistic narratives that are central to journalism’s amour propre.

“They also encourage an assumption that, the disruption and retrenchment in their field notwithstanding, journalists can be moved to such heights again.”

WJC

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List of flubs by pols incomplete without Biden’s Watergate gaffe

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

The gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden, claimed in a speech aboard a few months ago that the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Gaffe-prone

That’s a media myth — a misreading of history that not even the Post embraces.

While Biden’s blunder didn’t receive much media attention at the time, the flub merited inclusion in Time magazine’s lineup of memorable mischaracterizations of American history offered by leading U.S. politicians.

In a posting yesterday, the magazine’s “Swampland” politics blog offered what it termed were nine “epically wrong politician accounts of yesteryear.”

The “Swampland” lineup included two flubs by Michele Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman running for president — that the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in New Hampshire and that John Quincy Adams was among America’s founding fathers.

Biden made the “Swampland” lineup for his laughable statement that President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on television and spoke to Americans after the stock market crash of 1929. Roosevelt didn’t become president until 1933 and television wasn’t pervasive in American households until the 1950s.

While perhaps not as delicious as the FDR-market crash gaffe, Biden’s ahistoric flub about the Post and Watergate would have rounded out the “Swampland” list at 10.

Its inclusion would’ve underscored how unraveling a scandal as complex as Watergate required far more investigative clout than any news organization could muster.

Although it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, the Post’s Watergate-related reporting was scarcely enough to turn a sitting president from office. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Biden’s mischaracterization of Watergate was astonishing and the “Swampland” list is incomplete without mentioning the blunder. The vice president told an audience in Moscow in March:

“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.”

It didn’t.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong,to argue that the Post and the dogged reporting of its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Nixon “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

I note that 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.”

And 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.

So against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of the Post in Watergate fade in significance.

Those contributions were not decisive, as top officials at the Post have noted over the years.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate years, said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“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.”

Ben Bradlee,who was the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997:

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

And Woodward himself has disputed the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, declaring in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

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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Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 12, 2011 at 7:23 am

Gaffe-prone Joe Biden offered Russians this week a mythical and distorted version of American history,  declaring at Moscow State University that the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

It’s an interpretation of Watergate that few serious historians embrace.

Gaffe-prone

And yet, according to the transcript of the vice president’s remarks posted online by the White House, Biden told his audience:

“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.”

Not even the Washington Post buys into that myth-encrusted version of history. Principals at the Post have from time to time over the years sought to distance the newspaper from such a misleading assessment.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, said in 1997, at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the scandal:

“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.”

Ben Bradlee,who was executive editor at the Post during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997:

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

More recently, Michael Getler, then 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.”

Their comments are not the representations of false modesty: They speak to a more accurate reading of the history of Watergate than Biden offered his audience in Moscow.

Watergate-related reporting in the Post — even though it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 — was scarcely enough to turn from office a sitting president.

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

And 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.

Biden’s remarks reflect an endorsement of I call the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate — the simplified and misleading interpretation that the reporting of  Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even Woodward endorses that interpretation. He said in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist meme has nonetheless “become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories,” I write.

But being deeply ingrained and popular doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Far from it.

I note in Getting It Wrong that “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.” And they included the very forces Biden dismissed in his remarks in Moscow –the FBI and the Justice Department.

The transcript of Biden’s speech, delivered Thursday, also shows that he flubbed the characterization of the news media, which sometimes are collectively referred to as the “Fourth Estate.”

According to Biden, they’re the “Third Estate.”

WJC

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