W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media-driven myths’

The ‘Cronkite Moment’ of 1968: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 27, 2020 at 7:03 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Fifty-two years ago tonight, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about the war in Vietnam and declared in closing that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid analysis, hardly novel. But over the years, Cronkite’s assessment has swelled in importance, taking on the aura of a vital, media-inspired turning point. It is so singularly important in American journalism that it has come to be called the “Cronkite Moment.

In reality it is a moment steeped in media myth.

Notable among the myths of the “Cronkite Moment” is that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Versions vary.)

Cronkite’s remarks supposedly were an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists, representing a memorable instance of media influence and power.

But Cronkite’s program on February 27, 1968, hardly had decisive effects. Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

Johnson: Didn’t see Cronkite show

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — and fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the war effort.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were decidedly more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Four days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.” Not long after Cronikte’s report, Frank McGee of NBC News declared the war was being lost if judged by the Johnson administration’s definition. Not stalemated. Lost.
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time (see photo nearby) and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, unexpected, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if, in effect, he had brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment while seeking to rally popular support for the war effort. At one point in March 1968, Johnson called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite dismissed the notion that his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He considered its impact as akin to that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun to shift against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said a month before but on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

It is far easier to embrace the notion that Cronkite’s report 52 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than it is to dig into its back story and understand it for what it was: A mythical moment of marginal influence in a war that lasted until 1975.

WJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

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

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drew Pearson

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

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

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

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

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

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

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2019

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

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2019 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

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

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

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

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

Brought to pass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice try.

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

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

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

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

If anything, television was a lagging factor in raising challenges to McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch hunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that proved decisive.

Sullivan wrote in her column: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. But it hardly “shut down the senator.”

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

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

Television came late to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years, before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist, and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

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

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

Ultimately, when they were pried from Nixon’s possession, the tapes revealed that the president knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said several years ago. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

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

It was an over-the-top screed that appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It also extolled journalism, saying “more often than not” over the years, “reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

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

In reality, forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

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

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

And even then, I wrote, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the recordings he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

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

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

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

“The story goes that when he was told by Frederick [sic] Remington, the already-famous illustrator he had sent to Cuba to document supposed battles there, that there were no battles to record, Hearst famously replied, ‘You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.’”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting argument.

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

Not Hearst’s war

The Tribune’s editorial didn’t stop there. It also claimed that Hearst and the activistyellow journalism“ he practiced “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales.”

Hearst “basically started the Spanish-American War as a stunt to boost newspaper sales”?

Hardly.

The war’s causes went far beyond newspaper content, however exaggerated, and centered on the humanitarian crisis resulting from Spain’s cruel tactics to put down the Cuban rebellion.

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

Media myths are nothing if not simplistic.

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

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

The documentary tells us that Pulitzer was an avid reader, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an accomplished chess player, an unstoppable workaholic. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, that Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri derailed his career or darkened his reputation.

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

It was misleading.

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

Pulitzer the irritable (Library of Congress)

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

The meaner, darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

In the end Pulitzer’s profound failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

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

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890, Pulitzer rarely visited the World building.

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2019:

Media myth as cliché: ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio ‘panic’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2019 at 8:27 pm

The anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 inevitably brings news media references to the panic and hysteria the program supposedly set off across the United States.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner, Halloween, 1938

Such references have become like a cliché, unoriginal assertions blithely made, and yet immune to compelling contrary evidence.

Take, for one example, the claim casually offered the other day on a local television news program in Salt Lake City. The news reader introduced a segment recalling the 1938 show by declaring:

“In eight decades, nothing has really scared our country like the old War of the Worlds broadcast.”

No supporting evidence accompanied that claim, as if the presumed effects of the broadcast of October 30, 1938, are so accepted that documentation isn’t necessary.

The War of the Worlds dramatization aired over CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. It told of the invasion of the United States by waves of 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.

Welles

And that makes for quite an intriguing tale.

But like most media myths, it’s a tale with scant evidentiary support.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, if panic and hysteria had swept America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma, turmoil, and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

Whatever radio-induced fright there was that night 81 years ago hardly reached nationwide proportions.

Indeed, a far more compelling case can be made that most listeners to the program recognized it for what it was — an imaginative, fast-paced, and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with the long-ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely exaggerated and misstated?

It is, for starters, famous for what it suggests about the presumptive and lurking dark power of mass media.

It also is a clever example of dramatic storytelling that’s well-suited for Halloween. The show is often rebroadcast, or reenacted, at this time of year — which serves not only to celebrate the performance but to keep it alive in the popular consciousness.

The War of the Worlds program also is inextricably linked to the career and theatrical genius of Orson Welles who, within three years of the radio dramatization, released Citizen Kane, which he directed and in which he starred. Kane arguably is the finest motion picture ever made.

Welles, who lived until 1985, did his most memorable work before turning 30. He was 26 when he made Kane.

WJC

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‘Television made all the difference’ in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, offered the facile observation in an essay yesterday that last week brought “a tectonic shift of media attention, [with] every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story” about President Donald Trump, a story he “can’t control.”

Sullivan

As if Trump could “control” the frenzy over disclosures he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate shady dealings in that country by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As if anyone could “control” such a bizarre frenzy.

We’ll see how long this latest frenzy lasts. For now, allegations of Trump’s misconduct seem too nebulous to support impeachment, let alone conviction after trial before the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of keener interest to Media Myth Alert were passages in Sullivan’s column that touted the presumptive power of television in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

“Television,” she wrote, “made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Television made all the difference?

That interpretation may of comfort or reassurance to journalists; media-driven myths tend to be that way. But it’s mediacentric claim that grants television far too much credit as a decisive force in national politics.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in challenging McCarthy and his communists-in-government witchhunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that was decisive to the outcome of the Watergate scandal.

Let’s take first Sullivan’s claims about television and Joe McCarthy.

She wrote: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. It hardly “shut down the senator.”

The hearing transcript, excerpts of which the New York Times published the following day, show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch.

“I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’ll say it hurts,” Welch said.

McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch once belonged.

What were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. But only then-fledgling ABC and the dying Dumont network carried the hearings in sustained fashion. Neither network reached a nationwide audience.

Besides, McCarthy was then falling from his peak influence. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polls by the Gallup organization showed McCarthy’s approval ratings were ebbing by late 1953 and early 1954.

The other television moment often said to have been pivotal in the senator’s downfall came on March 9, 1954, when Edward R. Murrow devoted his half-hour See It Now program to a critical report about McCarthy. See It Now made devastating use of unflattering footage of the senator and closed with Murrow’s declaring:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

It wasn’t a decisive moment, though. More important were the Army’s allegations, raised the same week the Murrow program aired, that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, tried to obtain special treatment for David Schine. He was a member of McCarthy’s investigative staff who had been drafted into the Army. The allegations led to the hearings that Sullivan mentioned in her column.

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate.

Television came belatedly to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

In fact, Pearson’s challenges were so searching and aggressive that they prompted McCarthy to physically assault the columnist in the coat-check room after a dinner in December 1950 at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon, then a newly appointed U.S. Senator, broke up the one-sided encounter between the beefy senator and the smaller columnist.

In his memoir RN, Nixon recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Televised coverage of the extended Watergate hearings, convened in Spring 1973 by a Senate select committee, certainly was extensive andriveting. But the greatest contribution came from what the committee staff uncovered — the existence of audio tapes that Nixon secretly had made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes proved conclusively that Nixon knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s not likely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” he said in a presentation in 2011, almost four years before his death.

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The tapes, not TV, “made all the difference” in Watergate.

WJC

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More Watergate mythologizing: Woodward, Bernstein ‘let facts speak’ and Nixon fell

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm

It’s almost predictable: When controversy flares about contemporary practices of American journalists, commentators not infrequently reach back to Watergate for reassurance about how effective and admirable high-minded reporting can be.

Nixon, 1974: Quits, leaves D.C.

The Watergate parable is ever-available if not especially precise. It’s more mythical than accurate, as a commentary the other day in the Boston Herald suggested.

The commentary’s author addressed the recent, overwrought controversy about a front-page headline in the New York Times that many of its readers, and staffers, thought was too generous to President Donald Trump.

“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” declared the headline, which survived only the Times’ first print edition of August 6. The newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, later termed it “a f*cking mess” that editors quickly reworked.

What interests Media Myth Alert is not so much the agitation about the Times’ headline as the Herald’s hero-treatment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate in 1972-74.

The Herald’s commentary declared: “News reporters working for newspapers and television networks and online media should have only one job to do – to report the news.” OK, no argument there.

Then it added:

“Back in the days of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or ‘Woodstein’ as they were called, dug deep and reported straight about the allegations that President Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Their stories carried weight because they weren’t trying to convince us at least overtly that Nixon was a crook. These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

Let’s unpack those claims.

Woodward and Bernstein’s digging did not lead them to allege, or disclose, that “Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters,” the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal. Woodward acknowledged as much in an interview in 1973 with Columbia Journalism Review.

Deep in an otherwise congratulatory article, the journalism review noted:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.” (Emphasis added.)

The article quoted Woodward as saying about those crucial elements of Watergate:

“’It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” And I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s personal role in coverup was not revealed until August 1974, with the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” White House audiotape. Its release was ordered in July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and its content sealed Nixon’s fate.

He resigned 45 years ago this month.

And what else about the Herald’s commentary?

Exaggeration lurks in this passage: “These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

That suggests the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was central to Nixon’s downfall when in fact their work represented a marginal contribution to Watergate’s outcome.

Not only did could they not get to the coverup. They did not disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret White House taping system — a revelation by a former White House staffer in July 1973 changed the course and intensity of Watergate investigations.

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

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

Against the tableau of courts, prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, often insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. ‘Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,’ Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. ‘The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,’ she insisted.”

And Woodward concurred, if in cruder terms.

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he told an interviewer for the former American Journalism Review in 2004.

Why does all this matter now? Watergate, after all, was long ago.

Well, that’s just it: The intervening years have deeply eroded popular understanding about the forces and figures vital to bringing down Nixon — the investigators, the special prosecutors, the judges, the members of Congress. Instead, the heroic-journalist interpretation has become fixed as the dominant narrative of Watergate, that the dogged reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of a president and forced his resignation.

It’s far easier to turn to that mythical interpretation than it is to keep straight the many lines of investigation that did unravel the Watergate scandal.

But as I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

WJC

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‘Johnson is said to have said’: Squishy attribution, thin documentation, and the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on July 23, 2019 at 10:14 am

Media-driven myths spring from diverse sources, including what charitably can be called thin documentation.

So it is with the purported “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted on the air what others in the news media had been saying for months — that the war in Vietnam was stalemated.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Given that it was the high-profile Cronkite who made the statement, his words carried exceptional impact. They were so powerful that President Lyndon Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles and declared something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or so the media myth has it.

But there’s scant documentation that Johnson was much moved by Cronkite’s interpretation, and we do know that the president did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. Johnson at the time was at a black-tie party in Texas to mark the 51st birthday of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there persuasive evidence that Johnson saw the program at some later date on videotape. Or that the program ever prompted Johnson to say something akin to “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or that he took to heart Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal characterization of the war.

In fact, in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s program, Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy. This was a period when the anchorman’s assessment could have been expected to exert its greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor would have been most pronounced.

Instead, the president mounted an aggressive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart. If, that is, he was aware of it at all.

For example, in mid-March 1968, Johnson told a group of business leaders meeting in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Johnson made several similar statements on other occasions following the “Cronkite Moment,” including a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in Minneapolis, in which the president urged a “‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So Johnson at the time hardly was throwing up his hands in despair about his war policy.

A credulous reference to the “Cronkite Moment” appeared the other day in a column by the Los Angeles Times television critic, who waxed nostalgic about TV coverage of the first manned mission to the lunar surface 50 years ago this month. (“We went to the moon on television,” the column declared.)

The column also stated that in 1968, Cronkite “took time on the CBS Evening News to declare Vietnam ‘a stalemate,’ which some credit as turning the tide of public opinion against the war: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ President Johnson is said to have said, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

There’s much to unpack in that sentence.

For starters, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization came at the close of an hour-long special report, not on the Evening News show.

More important, “the tide of public opinion” had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s report. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Gallup polling in October 1967 found that for the first time, a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

That plurality edged up to 49 percent in a Gallup poll completed on the day of Cronkite’s special report.

If anything, then, Cronkite was following rather than “turning the tide of public opinion about the war.”

Especially striking in the Times column is the phrase, “Johnson is said to have said.”

That really is thin attributive cover, not unlike invoking “reportedly” to allow the inclusion of material that a writer hasn’t independently confirmed, or has doubts about. It’s a squishy sort of dubious attribution that ought to set off alarms for editors.

And for readers.

We know what Johnson said at about the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment. Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support. He was making a light-hearted comment about John Connally’s age.

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

WJC

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Hearst, Remington, and the half-embrace of a hoary media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 17, 2019 at 10:31 am

It’s unusual for media myths to be embraced partially — a half-embrace, as it were, of those prominent tall tales about journalists and their supposed exploits.

On assignment for Hearst

But half-embrace is how a new book treats the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of 19th Century.

Hearst supposedly made the declaration in a telegraphic reply to the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

The exchange of telegrams purportedly went this way:

Remington: “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Clay Risen’s new book, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century, does a half embrace of that well-known but thoroughly dubious tale. Specifically, Risen treats Hearst’s supposed reply as improbable but embraces the Remington portion.

And he does so flatly, writing: “Remington telegraphed Hearst to tell him that there was no war, and that there wasn’t going to be one.”

Risen repeats the purported Remington message: “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

He then says Hearst “allegedly, infamously, replied, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

“In fact,” Risen adds, “it’s unlikely Hearst wrote anything of the kind. … Whatever his reply, Remington ignored him and left Cuba.”

As sources, Risen cites two books, Frederic Remington and the Spanish-American War and The Chief, David Nasaw’s fine biography of Hearst. Both are secondary sources published before my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which devotes a chapter to dismantling the presumptive Remington-Hearst exchange. (I first addressed the Remington-Hearst tale in 2000, in an article for the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.)

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation” — the purported telegrams have never turned up; Hearst denied such an exchange, and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The anecdote’s sole original source was an exaggeration-prone journalist named James Creelman, who mentioned the purported exchange in a book of reminiscences in 1901. But Creelman did not explain how or when he learned about it.

For those and other reasons, the tale is almost certainly untrue. And that goes for the Remington portion, which Risen, deputy op-ed editor at the New York TImes, embraced in his book. It’s highly unlikely Remington wrote anything close to “Everything this quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war.” His work and words give lie to that supposed message.

Cuba at the time was scarcely trouble-free: It was in the midst of an island-wide rebellion against Spanish colonial rule and that armed conflict — that war — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington and Davis to the island. Remington hardly found everything “quiet” in Cuba when he arrived in early January 1897, in the company of the correspondent Richard Harding Davis.

As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Remington sketches, as published in Hearst’s Journal, “depict unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of a rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.”

The subject matter impugns the notion that Remington had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

Remington sketch, Cuba 1897

What’s more, the headlines accompanying the sketches emphasized the conflict in Cuba. Remington’s work appeared in the Journal beneath headlines such as “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington” and “Frederic Remington Sketches a Familiar Incident of the Cuban War” (see nearby).

Following his return to New York, Remington wrote a letter to the Journal’s keenest rival, the New York World, in which he described the Spanish regime in Havana as a “woman-killing outfit down there in Cuba.”

In 1899, Remington described the assignment to Cuba in a magazine article that further challenges the notion “everything” was “quiet” in Cuba when he was there in early 1897.

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, Remington wrote, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a fortress near Havana harbor. The country-side, Remington said, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

He wrote that he shook his fist in anger at Havana as he left for New York aboard a passenger steamer in mid-January 1897, saying he looked forward to returning only in the company of 100,000 American soldiers.

Remington’s sketches and words, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “leave no doubt that he had seen a good deal of war-related disruption in Cuba. The island during his brief visit was anything but ‘quiet.'”

Still, I noted, “it remains some-thing of a mystery why Remington never publicly addressed Creelman’s anecdote.”

In any event, the evidence is overwhelming that the Remington-Hearst anecdote is false. And it is not divisible; if one half is apocryphal, the other must be, too.

A half-embrace is wholly untenable.

WJC

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In ‘Writer’s Almanac’ podcast, Garrison Keillor recycles ‘furnish the war’ media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on May 29, 2019 at 2:49 pm

Four years ago, storyteller Garrison Keillor dredged up the tale of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in 1898. It’s a hoary media myth that Keillor passed off as true on his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast.

Not long ago, Keillor recycled the same claim, in the same words, on the same platform.

As he had in 2015, Keillor declared on “Writer’s Almanac”:

“In 1898, Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

So let’s again unpack Keillor’s claims:

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial typically overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never addressed it.

Moreover, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the tale lives on despite a near-total absence of supporting documentation. True, Hearst sent Remington to Cuba. That was in January 1897 and the artist’s assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal was to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — an island-wide uprising that gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The timing and context of Remington’s trip to Cuba undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote. Indeed, it poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been illogical of Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — the Cuban rebellion — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In any case, the telegrams Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And Spanish authorities, who then controlled telegraphic traffic to and from Cuba, surely would have intercepted and called attention to an incendiary message such as Hearst’s — had it been sent.

Remington

The original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole, self-promotion, and exaggeration.

Creelman mentioned Hearst’s presumed “vow” in passing in On the Great Highway and did not say how or where he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange.

Nor did he say exactly when the supposed exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana,” which was in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on the assignment for Hearst.

The Remington-Hearst anecdote is often invoked, as Keillor has, to promote a superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as an unscrupulous newspaper publisher whose recklessness brought on the Spanish-American War.

But that, too, is a hoary if tenacious media myth.

By email sent last week through the “Writer’s Almanac” website, I asked why Keillor “periodically recycles the media myth about William Randolph Hearst and the purported vow to ‘furnish the war’ with Spain.” I shared links in the email to Getting It Wrong and to Media Myth Alert.

The email went unacknowledged and unanswered.

WJC

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Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.

PBS the other night aired an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. 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, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It was misleading.

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

Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This 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 failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

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 pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of  telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer.

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

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

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