W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

Our incurious press

In Error, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post on November 29, 2020 at 8:45 pm

“The press has had little to say about most of the strange details of the election — except, that is, to ridicule all efforts to discuss them. This animus appeared soon after [Election Day], in a spate of caustic articles dismissing any critical discussion of the outcome as crazed speculation: ‘Election paranoia surfaces: Conspiracy theorists call results rigged,’ chuckled the Baltimore Sun on November 5. ‘Internet Buzz on Vote Fraud Is Dismissed,’ proclaimed the Boston Globe on November 10. … The New York Times weighed in with ‘Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried.'”

That passage was not addressing the oddities and suspicions of fraud in this month’s election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

No, the passage is from a cover story in Harper’s magazine published 15 years ago, about suspicions of fraud in the 2004 presidential election, in which George W. Bush won a second term by narrowly defeating John Kerry.

Harper’s cover, August 2005

The Harper’s article assailed mainstream corporate media for their decidedly incurious response to “the strange details of the election” in 2004. Then, as now, the news media were eager to ridicule, reject, and ignore rather than to demonstrate curiosity and investigate.

Read these day, the Harper’s article is striking in its relevance:

“It was as if they were reporting from inside a forest fire without acknowledging the fire, except to keep insisting that there was no fire.”

Suspicions in 2004 centered around voting glitches and irregularities in Ohio, where the election turned. Impetus for believing the outcome was tainted came from exit poll results which were circulated widely on Election Day and indicated that Kerry was bound for victory. The exit polls were in error, but gave rise nonetheless to speculation that were accurate but the election had been corrupted by widespread vote-tampering.

As I write in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, “exit polls became the scaffolding for claims and suspicions — never proven — that the election had been stolen from Kerry, that the exit polls were accurate but fraud had altered the results in key states such as Ohio. … Suspicions about vote fraud and corruption … persisted for months.”

Kerry conceded defeat the day after the election, which drained away enthusiasm for investigating fishiness and suspected vote fraud in the election.

If anything, “the strange details of the election” are more widespread, and puzzling, in 2020. Reports of atypical voting patterns, statistical anomalies, and suspicious spikes in vote counts for Biden have emerged in key states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

They merit scrutiny.

But the response of corporate media has been as indifferent and dismissive as it was in 2004. They have been eager to dismiss “the strange details” of the 2020 election as unfounded — without doing much in the way of independent or searching inquiry. “Baseless” has become a favored characterization.

They seem not to realize that the suspicions are sure to persist, clouding the presumed election of Biden, an aged candidate who seldom left his basement during the Fall campaign and whose gaffes and incoherence suggest he may not be up to the job of president.

This is not to say, however, that the allegations and suspicions about the 2020 election are necessarily accurate, or are sufficient to deny Biden the presidency. It is to say they ought to be treated seriously and investigated dispassionately, especially as a large portion of the American public suspects the election was marred by tampering or vote theft.

After all, it’s not as if irregularities and fraud are unheard of in U.S elections.

To be sure, Trump’s legal team has done itself and the American public no favors by presenting exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims about election fraud. Its conduct at a news conference 10 days ago bordered on clownish. Trump’s lawyers have secured few legal victories.

The news media’s scorn and indifference underscore their transformation in recent years, and the change has not been salutary. Leading news outlets have largely given up their decades-old commitment to nominal impartiality and even-handed treatment of the news. In their place is overt partisanship, driven in part by an altered business model that prioritizes digital subscribers. News outlets play to the demands and expectations of their subscribers, not to their advertisers, which once posed a restraint on excessive partisanship in news columns.

It’s not as if corporate media lack the will or interest to investigate suspicions of election fraud. After all, the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on vague suspicions that Trump somehow conspired with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election — suspicions that proved exaggerated, over-wrought and, in a word, baseless.

It’s not as if corporate media were chastened by their investigations of the 2016 election that came a cropper. Rather, they are disinclined to do anything that can be seen as bolstering Trump and damaging Biden.

WJC

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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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NYTimes commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, Television, Watergate myth on August 5, 2020 at 11:25 am

To say that prominent media myths, those dubious tall tales about the media and the exploits of journalists, are immune from debunking is to confirm a truism.

Shield him from debates?

Some media-centric tall tales are just too good to die away.

These include the heroic trope that two young, dogged reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal. They include the notion that a pessimistic, on-air assessment by anchorman Walter Cronkite about the Vietnam War in 1968 turned American public opinion against the conflict.

And they include the exaggerated narrative of the first presidential debate in 1960 between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, that the former “won” the debate among radio listeners but, because he perspired noticeably and looked wan, “lost” among television viewers.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement was thoroughly and impressively demolished 33 years ago and yet it lives on; it lives on at the New York Times, which unreservedly offered up the myth in an essay published yesterday.

The essay proposed an end to the presidential debates — a fixture in the U.S. political landscape since 1976 — because “have never made sense as a test for presidential leadership.” The author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew who was on a debate panel 44 years ago, has made such an argument before.

But the essay’s publication yesterday also looked like prospective justification for shielding gaffe-prone Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, from confronting President Donald Trump in three 90-minute debates during the unfolding campaign. Biden’s fumbling, sometimes-bizarre statements may not serve him well in such encounters. (Of course, as Drew has written on other occasions, Trump’s isn’t necessarily an effective or well-prepared debater.)

What most interested Media Myth Alert, though, was Drew’s invoking the myth of viewer-listener disagreement.

“Perhaps the most substantive televised debate of all,” she wrote, “was the first one, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

Nixon “won on substance on the radio” while “Kennedy won on television.”

Uh-huh.

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed sharply about the debate’s outcome, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report on such disparate perceptions — especially in the immediate aftermath of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter, when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Moreover, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “there was no unanimity among newspaper columnists and editorial writers about Nixon’s appearance” on television during the first debate, noting:

Not everyone thought Nixon looked awful (AP photo)

“Not all analysts in late September 1960 thought Nixon’s performance was dreadful — or that Kennedy was necessarily all that appealing and rested.”

An after-debate editorial in the Washington Post declared, for example:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Saul Pett, then a prominent writer for the Associated Press, assigned Nixon high marks for cordiality. “On general folksiness both before and during the debate,” Pett wrote, “my scorecard showed Nixon ahead at least 8 to 1. … He smiled more often and more broadly, especially at the start and close of a remark. Kennedy only allowed himself the luxury of a quarter-smile now and then.”

Nixon’s tactics during the debate, rather than how he looked on television, probably were more damaging.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Nixon “committed then the elementary mistake of arguing on his opponent’s terms — of seeming to concur rather than seeking the initiative. Nixon projected a ‘me-too’ sentiment from the start, in answering Kennedy who had spoken first.”

Surprisingly, Nixon in his opening statement declared that he agreed with much of what Kennedy had just said.

The dearth of evidence that Nixon’s appearance was decisive to the debate’s outcome was underscored in a  journal article in 1987 by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. It remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that no public opinion surveys conducted in the debate’s immediate aftermath were aimed specifically at measuring views or reactions of radio audiences.

Vancil and Pendell also noted: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.” To infer “that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss, or Kennedy’s victory,” they added, “is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Quite so.

Flaws in Drew’s commentary about the presidential debates went beyond mentioning the hoary media myth (which she also invoked in her 2007 book about Nixon). An editorial in the Wall Street Journal referred specifically to Drew’s commentary, asserting:

“What a terrible year to make this argument. The pandemic has put the usual political rallies on hold, so fewer voters will see the candidates in the flesh. The conventions will be largely online. Press aides will shape the news coverage by picking friendly interviewers. … Also, Mr. Biden would take office at age 78, becoming the oldest President in history on Day 1. Mr. Trump is all but calling him senile, and Mr. Biden’s verbal stumbles and memory lapses were obvious in the Democratic primaries.”

Modifying the format of one-on-one presidential debates would be far preferable to scrapping them, which would look awfully suspicious.

And cowardly.

WJC

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Piling on the myths: Claiming ‘energizing’ power for ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 17, 2020 at 7:25 am

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is so raw and exceptional that it must have exerted deep and powerful influences. Or so goes the assumption.

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The image taken in June 1972 shows a cluster of terrorized children fleeing an errant napalm bombing of their village in what then was South Vietnam. At the photograph’s center is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming as she ran, her clothes burned away by the fiery tactical weapon.

It’s been said the image was so moving that it helped end the war.

It’s been said to have turned American public opinion against the war.

It’s even been said to have “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war (even though flame-throwers did not figure in the aerial attack).

Such claims are the stuff of media myths — far-fetched and implausible, supported by no compelling, contemporaneous evidence.

Now comes the Guardian newspaper of London with the undocumented claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the U.S. antiwar movement.

The Guardian‘s assertion was presented in an online essay posted yesterday that ruminated about the dearth of visceral images from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which spread from Wuhan, China, late last year or early this, killing nearly 90,000 people in America and more than 300,000 worldwide.

“The 2020 pandemic is memorable not for [images of] coffins piled high but for data modeling and statistics,” the Guardian essay states, adding:

“In any national or global emergency, the media play an outsized role in conveying extreme experiences to those who have no direct contact. The image of Kim Phuc, the ‘napalm girl’ in the Vietnam war, became the recognized representation of the conflict, energizing the peace movement. Covid-19 has yet to be framed by such an image.”

The claim that “Napalm Girl” was the “recognized representation of the conflict” is certainly open to challenge.

The long war in Vietnam War was illuminated by many evocative images, and it is impossible to say which of them can be called the “recognized representation of the conflict.” Other notable images included the Saigon Execution photo of 1968, and the “Burning Monkimage of 1963. And there were many others.

Less ambiguous is the exaggerated nature of the Guardian essay’s claim that “Napalm Girl” energized the peace movement.

That movement was hardly moribund in the United States in 1972.

In a 2005 journal article about the antiwar movement of the early 1970s (see abstract nearby), Joel Lefkowitz included an extensive list of protests that flared in April and May 1972 — before the “Napalm Girl” image was taken on June 8, 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press.

What catalyzed antiwar protests then was not “Napalm Girl” but President Richard Nixon’s order in May 1972 to mine North Vietnamese ports. That decision energized protests across the United States.

On May 10, 1972, for example, the New York Times described a “coast‐to‐coast outburst of demonstrations,” describing them as “the most turbulent since May, 1970, when protests over the United States invasion of Cambodia closed universities across the country.

The following day, the Times discussed how “antiwar protests [had] convulsed cities and college campuses across the country … as demonstrators blocked highways, occupied buildings, and — at night — fought against club‐wielding policemen under clouds of tear gas. The fighting was particularly violent in Gainesville, Fla.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif., and Minneapolis.”

Memorable though the photograph was, no contemporaneous evidence suggests that “Napalm Girl” had discernible effects of stoking or “energizing” antiwar protests.

And it’s not as if the photograph was displayed on front pages of newspapers across America. Many did give “Napalm Girl” prominent display, including the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia (see nearby).

But many other U.S. newspapers that subscribed to Associated Press services — including titles in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Omaha, and Pittsburgh — did not publish the photograph. A few others placed the image on an inside page.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: “Reservations about the frontal nudity shown in Napalm Girl no doubt led some U.S. newspapers to decline to publish the photograph prominently, if at all.”

More useful than speculating about why the pandemic has produced no image as evocative as “Napalm Girl” is to consider why mainstream media have been reluctant or disinclined to revisit and evaluate predictions they’ve made about the pandemic and its morbidity.

This disinclination was addressed the other day by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, in an essay posted at that popular news-and-polling aggregation site.

“Some [media] ‘feeding frenzies’ have panned out, but many have failed to do so; rather than acknowledging this failure, the press typically moves on,” Trende wrote, noting that “there are dangers to forecasting with incredible certitude, especially with a virus that was detected less than six months ago.”

Revisiting lapses and erroneous projections is an undertaking the news media quite dislike.

Consider how little time they devoted to examining why they got it wrong in anticipating Hillary Clinton’s election in 2016. Or why they got it wrong in anticipating Special Counsel Robert Mueller would find President Donald Trump had colluded with the Kremlin to win the presidency. In that presumptive scandal, staffs of the New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize  in 2018 — for what Pulitzer jurors called their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.”

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2018

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Reviews, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2018 to the not-infrequent 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 is a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October 2019, will mark its 10th anniversary:

WaPo’s hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’ (posted May 27): The year brought more than a few credulous references to the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” which is derived from Walter Cronkite’s peroration in a special report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. war effort was stalemated and suggested negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Cronkite in Vietnam

In a page-long look back at the “Cronkite Moment,” the Washington Post in late May praised the anchorman’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam” and asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson “was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That purported quotation, I noted in discussing the Post’s hagiographic retrospective, “is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.”

We know that Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, Johnson may have watched the program at some later date on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s remarks (if he even heard of them). In a series of public events in the first three weeks of March 1968, the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy and endeavored to rally popular support for the war.

So even if he did see Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson gave no indication of having been moved by the anchorman’s “stalemate” message — which was a rather tepid assessment for the time. Just 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.”

The “bitter taste of defeat”: No dithering there about “stalemate.”

A media myth convergence and the ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph (posted May 20): Sometimes, media myths converge.

Sometimes a number of media outlets, separately and independently, invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at roughly the same time.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It’s an occurrence that confirms the wide reach of prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

The famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by a photographer for the Associated Press, was the  subject of a myth convergence in May: Within a few days, the National newspaper in Scotland, the online economic news site Quartz, the left-wing news site Truthdig, and the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa all invoked aspects of the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph; the image shows a cluster of children, screaming as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam.

As I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the myths surrounding the famous photograph are tenacious and include the erroneous notions that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, that it hastened an end to the conflict, and that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

The National claimed that the photograph “dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War.” Quartz made a somewhat similar claim, saying the image “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig was more vague, saying the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.” Sunday Times invoked the pernicious claim that the photograph depicted results of a “US napalm strike.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972. And the claim of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack has been invoked so often and blithely as to become insidious. But it was no “US napalm strike.” The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop, I wrote in another post in 2018, has “served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.”

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie (posted January 2): Steven Spielberg’s The Post featured the talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, was cheered by many critics, but won no major cinematic awards.

That may have been due to its incongruous story line: The movie centered around the disclosures in 1971 about the U.S. government’s classified history of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers. But the focus was not on the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for first reporting about the secret archive. The movie instead was about the newspaper that didn’t break the story, the newspaper that followed the disclosures of the New York Times.

The Post was a fawning look at the Washington Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor. The movie suggested they risked jail time for publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers after the Times had been temporarily blocked from continuing its disclosures.

The movie makes “a heroic statement,” I noted in writing about The Post, “but the emphasis is misplaced.

“To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect.”

It was the Times, after all, that took greatest risks in reporting on the Pentagon Papers; the prospect of Graham and Bradlee’s going to jail for following up on the Timesdisclosures was remote at best.

Not only was The Post’s story line a hard sell, the acting wasn’t stellar. Hanks was mediocre in playing a rumpled Bradlee; the character spoke in a strange and distracting accent that seemed vaguely Southern.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham was cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham was depicted as weak, confused, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being publisher. But then abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham found backbone and gave the order to publish.

It was all quite melodramatic, and not very convincing.

Journalism review in need of journalism history lesson (posted November 16): Columbia Journalism Review seeks to present itself as “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

It didn’t demonstrate much intellectual leadership in publishing an essay that invoked the hoary myth of Edward R. Murrow’s having “exposed” the lies and exaggerations of the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, in a half-hour television program in March 1954.

Red-baiting senator

As I pointed out in addressing the CJR essay, Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist, “took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.”

Those other journalists included the muckraking syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, who challenged McCarthy beginning in February 1950, or more than four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy became so perturbed by Pearson’s persistent questioning and probing that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. (Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.)

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate soon after the confrontation to condemn Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

So by the time Murrow devoted his “See It Now” program to McCarthy, the senator’s claims about communists having infiltrated the federal government were well-known, as were his bullying tactics. His popularity was on the skids by then, too.

Airing a critical report about McCarthy in March 1954 was more belated than courageous.

Columbia Journalism Review touted Murrow’s mythical role on other occasions — notably in an essay in July 2016 that invoked the broadcaster’s program on McCarthy as a precedent for journalists seeking to suspend professional detachment in reporting on Donald Trump and his campaign for president.

The fading of a media myth? Not so fast (posted October 30): The run-up to Halloween this year was marked by noticeably few media references to mass panic and hysteria that supposedly swept the United States during and right after the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel that told of a deadly invasion of Earth by Mars.

It’s become pretty clear that Americans weren’t pitched into panic by the hour-long program that aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, some listeners may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program as clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the myth of radio-induced panic usually emerges predictably in the run-up to Halloween.

Except for this year, when credulous media references to the “panic broadcast” seemed fewer, and seemed overwhelmed by searching commentary that rejected the notion the show created panic and hysteria. All of which prompted a Media Myth Alert post that asked, optimistically:

“Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?”

Such optimism was dashed not long after the anniversary when the New York Times published a commentary asserting that the “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

Clearly, the media myth of the “panic broadcast” hadn’t been interred.

Interestingly, the Times’ reference to “widespread panic” hinted at confusion within the newspaper’s op-ed section: At the anniversary of the broadcast, the Times had posted an online commentary that declared the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

In any event, the dashed optimism about the “panic broadcast” offered fresh confirmation that no media myth ever completely dies away.

Myths after all tend to be too delicious to be completely discredited.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2018:

 

Not so fast about that fading media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on November 10, 2018 at 5:57 pm

So there I was, waxing hopeful the other day that The War of the Worlds panic myth was fading away.

A passage in a commentary today in the New York Times rather dashes that optimism.

From today’s NYTimes

The myth has it that on the eve of Halloween in 1938, a Sunday night radio dramatization about Martians invading the eastern United States, a tale adapted from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, pitched Americans by the thousands into panic and mass hysteria.

And the Times’s commentary repeats the myth, stating: The “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

That all makes for a good story, but it’s thinly documented — as the Times itself made clear just last week. At the show’s 80th anniversary, the Times posted online a commentary that said the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

It’s too bad the Times did away with its “public editor”; I’d love to know what an in-house critic like Liz Spayd (who was dismissed when the position was abruptly scrapped) would say about such incoherence in the commentary section.

In any event, the notion the broadcast triggered panic and hysteria is a false narrative. There was no mass panic, no hysteria. And that conclusion comes from a variety of scholars who periodically over the past 25 years or so have considered the broadcast’s presumed effects and found them missing.

While some listeners that long ago night may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the show’s audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized it for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween. The program was aired on CBS radio in its familiar time slot and featured familiar voices, notably that of 23-year-old Orson Welles, the show’s director and star.

For American newspapers, though, the presumptive panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” as I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Newspapers were eager to reprimand radio and their “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans,” I wrote.

The Times participated in the dressing-down 80 years ago, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

The story of nationwide panic quickly faded from the front pages in 1938, which surely wouldn’t have been the case had the program stirred nationwide turmoil: Such an extraordinary event would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

My recent optimism about the panic myth’s fading away was buoyed by the comparatively few naive references to the myth in the run-up to the 80th anniversary. “News reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years,” I wrote, adding that I was hopeful about the myth’s dissolving in the face of repeated debunkings.

I also noted, “It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.” And I might well have closed the blog post there. Instead, I wrote:

“But it may be that ‘panic broadcast’ myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.”

Guess not.

WJC

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‘Chappaquiddick,’ the movie: Muddled character study

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Reviews, Scandal, Watergate myth on April 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

Chappaquiddick, the docudrama revisiting Senator Ted Kennedy’s misconduct following a late-night automobile accident in July 1969 that killed his 28-year-old female passenger, was released over the weekend to larger-than-expected audiences and not-bad reviews.

The film’s release also was accompanied by a bit of carping from a Kennedy apologist who characterized Chappaquiddick as a distortion, as bad history.

Such complaints are fair enough, when accurate. Plenty of American history has been distorted by the cinema.

The movie version of All the President’s Men, for example, fueled the media myth that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s The Post mythologized the presumed courage of the publisher of the newspaper — the Washington Postthat trailed the New York Times in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the government’s classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for its reporting on the case.

The carping about Chappaquiddick came in a prickly commentary in the Times that claimed the movie “distorts a tragedy” in revisiting Kennedy’s actions leading to the watery death of Mary Jo Kopechne — one of the late Robert Kennedy’s female campaign staffers, six of whom Ted Kennedy and friends invited to party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July 1969.

Kennedy, who was married, and Kopechne, who was not, left the party together, with the senator behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan.

According to Kennedy’s accounts, he made a wrong turn, drove the sedan down an unpaved road and off a wooden bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick. The car flipped before landing in the water. Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) escaped the sunken Oldsmobile and made it back to his hotel room in Edgartown, across a ferry channel from Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) died alone inside the car.

The incident — and the success of Kennedy and his minions in thwarting thorough investigations of his conduct — are at the dramatic heart of Chappaquiddick.

If anything, though, the movie shows too little of the fecklessness of local authorities whose deference allowed Kennedy to escape with a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of a deadly accident. Power enabled by privilege was Chappaquiddick’s amoral takeaway.

Chappaquiddick would have been a powerful film had it presented a withering, focused look at the privilege and power that got the senator off the hook and safely away from criminal jeopardy.

The Times commentary chafed at the movie’s treatment of Kennedy, whom Massachusetts voters returned to the U.S. Senate seven times after the Chappaquiddick scandal.

“Contrary to the film’s implications,” says the commentary, written by Neil Gabler, “Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption,” adds Gabler, who is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy.  Chappaquiddick, he writes, “is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”

How hagiographic. How beside the point.

Chappaquiddick could have been a withering and unsparing examination of a scion of privilege, a national figure who had a long history of drinking to excess and of treating women badly, and who by his own admission acted reprehensibly in the hours after driving the Oldsmobile off the bridge.

As it is, the film is a somewhat muddled character study, in part because of gaps in the narrative — gaps that persist because the senator was never compelled to explain fully what happened on that summer’s night 49 years ago.

Despite it shortcomings and occasional indulgence in dramatic license, the movie presents the incontrovertible main elements of the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, namely that:

  • Kennedy left the party with a young woman not his wife. Kennedy later said he was driving her to the ferry that would take her to Edgartown and her hotel. But Kopechne left behind at the party her purse and motel room key.
  • Kennedy did not immediately call for help from police or rescue workers after escaping the Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond.
  • Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours — until Kopechne’s lifeless body had been found in the submerged sedan.
  • Kennedy’s loyalists sought to pitch the episode as another tragedy for Kennedy’s family.
  • Kennedy was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, not the far more serious charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
  • Kennedy’s ambitions to become president were derailed by Kopechne’s death; he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

As Leo DaMore wrote in Senatorial Privilege, an incisive and detailed study of Chappaquiddick, “In his pursuit of the presidential nomination, Kennedy had run against Chappaquiddick. And Chappaquiddick had won.”

So why is a movie about the Chappaquiddick scandal worth making nowadays? Principally because Chappaquiddick, and Kennedy’s misconduct, have receded in popular consciousness. Kennedy, who late in his life was celebrated fulsomely as a “lion of the Senate,” lived until 2009, 40 years after Kopechne’s death.

A more honorable man than he would have resigned in July 1969 and left public life.

WJC

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‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: The Post is a hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, but the emphasis is misplaced.

To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect. The underlying history is dubious, which means The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a clumsy distraction, and it inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper for nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says, yes, go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary these days, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.

WJC

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