W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘National Press Club’

National Press Club invokes media myths of Watergate

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 30, 2012 at 5:45 am

The National Press Club indulged in a couple of tenacious media myths about Watergate in announcing the other day it was giving its top award to Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on what was the country’s greatest political scandal.

In its statement that Woodward will receive this year’s Fourth Estate Award, the Press Club declared that his “work on the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of an American president” — an interpretation that not even Woodward embraces.

He once told the PBS “Frontline” program that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down [President] Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And on another occasion, Woodward declared more bluntly:

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

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the simplified notion that Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Post led to Nixon’s resignation serves to diminish “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate required, I write, “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, 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” — recordings the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to surrender.

So the notion that Woodward’s reporting for the Post was decisive to Watergate’s outcome is absurd.

So, too, is the subsidiary myth that Watergate reporting — and the cinema’s depiction of the Post’s coverage in All the President’s Men — made the field seem so alluring  that enrollments in college journalism programs surged as a result.

The Press Club statement about Woodward’s award invokes that myth, too, asserting that “enrollment in journalism departments rose in the post-Watergate era, especially after ‘All the President’s Men’ was made into a movie.” It was based on a book by the same title, which was written by Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, separate scholarly studies have debunked the notion of Watergate’s  propellant effect on college enrollments in journalism.

One study, conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995, said that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

So why are these Watergate myths so appealing, and so tenacious, that even the National Press Club embraces them?

One reason is that they’re simplistic, easy-to-remember narratives that locate the news media heroically at the heart of unraveling America’s greatest political scandal.

Indulging in myths such as the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate also offers a subtle way of investing the Press Club award with even greater distinction.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong, the tale about 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.”

It’s a myth that’s no doubt too resilient, too media-centric, and too widely applicable ever to eradicate.

WJC

Keller no keeper of the flame on famous NYT motto

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on February 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

Keller

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, made clear the other day he doesn’t fully understand the derivation and significance of his newspaper’s famous, 114-year-old motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

And he didn’t seem particularly comfortable with the slogan coined (most likely) by Adolph Ochs, who in 1896 acquired the then-beleaguered Times and eventually led the newspaper to preeminence in American journalism.

Ochs, commemorated

Sure, the motto’s smug and overweening, elliptical and easily parodied. But it is the most recognizable motto in American journalism, and it evokes a time now passed when slogans helped define and distinguish U.S. newspapers.

In an appearance not long ago at the National Press Club in Washington, Keller was asked about “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which took a permanent place of prominence on the newspaper’s front page on February 10, 1897.

Keller rather sniffed at it, saying the motto “harkens back to a day when the aim of the newspaper was to be comprehensive.”

According to a transcript of his remarks, Keller said that nowadays the Times is “going to tell you maybe only a little bit, but a little bit about everything.

“And I think that slogan describes an aspiration, or a mindset. Now we tend to be more selective, and try to give you more depth, to tell you the stories that are not obvious.”

Actually, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” was framed a riposte to activist-oritented yellow journalism that flared in New York City in the closing years of the 19th century.

Ochs clearly meant the slogan to be a rebuke to the flamboyant ways of the  New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. Their newspapers were the leading exemplars of the yellow press in fin-de-siècle urban America.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, a year study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the motto was, and remains, a daily rejection of flamboyant, self-promoting journalism.

And as the Times pointed out in 1935 in its obituary about Ochs, the motto “has been much criticized, but the criticisms deal usually with the phraseology rather than with its practical interpretation, and the phraseology was simply an emphatic announcement that The Times was not and would not be what the nineties called a yellow newspaper.”

I further noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Times, at its 50th anniversary in 1901, “referred to ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’ as its ‘covenant.’ One-hundred years later, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal aptly identified the motto as the ‘leitmotif not merely for the Times, but also, by a process of osmosis and emulation, for most other general-interest papers in the country, as well as for much of the broadcast media.'”

So, no, the motto wasn’t an assertion of intent to be comprehensive — although the Times surely carried a lot of news in the late 1890s. Thirty or more articles, many of them a paragraph or two in length, usually found places on its front page back then.

Ochs’ slogan was more than a daily slap at yellow journalism.

It also represents “a daily and lasting reminder of the Times’ triumph in a momentous … clash of paradigms that took shape in 1897—a clash that helped define the modern contours of American journalism,” as I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

That clash pitted three rival, incompatible models for the future of American journalism.

“As suggested by its slogan,” I wrote, “the Times offered a detached, impartial, fact-based model that embraced the innovative technologies emergent in the late nineteenth century but eschewed extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance in presenting the news.

“Extravagance, prurience, and flamboyance were features typically associated with yellow journalism, a robust genre which, despite its controversial and self-indulgent ways, seemed to be irresistibly popular in 1897. The leading exemplar of yellow journalism was … Hearst’s New York Journal, which in 1897 claimed to have developed a new kind of journalism, a paradigm infused by a self-activating ethos that sidestepped the inertia of government to ‘get things done.’

“The Journal called its model the ‘journalism of action’ or the ‘journalism that acts,’ and declared it represented ‘the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.’

“The third rival paradigm,” I wrote, “was more modest and idiosyncratic than those of the Times and Journal. If improbable, it was nonetheless an imaginative response to the trends of commercialization in journalism. The paradigm was an anti-journalistic literary model devised and promoted by J. Lincoln Steffens, who in late 1897 became city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser, then New York’s oldest newspaper.”

That model, Steffens said, was predicated on the notion “that anything that interested any of us would interest our readers and, therefore, would be news if reported interestingly.”

The Times ultimately prevailed in the three-sided rivalry that emerged in 1897, and “All the News That’s Fit to Print” lives on as a reminder of the outcome of that momentous clash of paradigms.

WJC

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