W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

‘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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘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

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘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

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

 

NYT turns obscure statement into prominent blurb to tout its Pentagon Papers reporting

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm

“The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The New York Times has turned recently to that expansive claim, most conspicuously in a full-page advertisement, to suggest the rival Washington Post once praised the Times for disclosing the Pentagon Papers.

The quotation has been interpreted as the Times’ giving the Washington Post a thumb in the eye amid the much-ballyhooed limited release of Steven Spielberg‘s cinematic hagiography, The Post.

The movie dramatizes the Washington Post’s secondary role in reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — a focus surely irritating to the Times. (The Times’ review of the film observed that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”)

The quotation attributed to the Washington Post and seeming to commend the Times appears as a front-cover blurb for a new book that brings together the Times’ award-winning articles about the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s once-secret history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The quotation was displayed prominently in a full-page advertisement the Times published the other day (see image nearby) to call attention to the book. The quotation also appears at a Web page promoting the book at the Times’ online store.

But when did the Washington Post make that statement?

Not in the aftermath of the Times’ disclosures of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, as the blurb may suggest: A search of the full-text ProQuest database containing Washington Post content from 1877 through 1997 turned up no such statement.

Front cover blurb

A similar — but somewhat less assertive — statement appeared in the Washington Post in June 2011, in an 850-word article about the government’s declassification of the Pentagon Papers. That article was retrieved from the Nexis database and from a search on Google. Its opening sentence reads:

“The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

As “one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The Washington Post’s report also noted that declassification came “40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times.” But the article did not commend the Times for the revelations — an interpretation that’s certainly suggested by the blurb in the ad and on the book cover.

I asked the Times’ communications staff about the derivation of the quotation and was directed to this site, a rudimentary searchable archive the Washington Post set up, probably in 2011, to permit readers to review the declassified Pentagon Papers. An introductory statement posted at the site said:

“Four decades after the most significant leaks of classified material in American history, the Pentagon Papers have remained classified — until now. Read the full archive of the declassified documents as released by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

So that’s the source of the statement that the Times has invoked as a money quote to tout and recall its enterprise on the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post said it, but clearly in a trivial and off-hand way. It was no prominent pronouncement. Or even a passage in a news article or commentary.

It was made obscurely, and it said nothing about the Times’ enterprise.

The Times’ turning the obscure statement into a prominent blurb underscores that its rivalry with the Washington Post remains keen. Of late, the Times has seemed eager to direct attention to its disclosures about the Pentagon Papers, in light of the favorable reviews of Spielberg’s movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post was undeniably beaten on the Pentagon Papers story in 1971; it started printing excerpts of its own after the federal government enjoined the Times from publishing reports it had prepared drawn from the secret history. Soon after its excerpts began appearing, the Post was similarly restrained by a federal appeals court.

Both newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court which, at the end of June 1971, invalidated the government’s restraint in a 6-to-3 decision and the injunctions were lifted.

The Times’ reporting on the Pentagon Papers won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Post won no Pulitzers that year.

Writing at the “Deadline Hollywood” entertainment news site the other day, Jeremy Gerard discussed the Times’ recent full-page book ad, calling it “a puckish thumb-in-the-eye to the competition” and noting that the “promo is topped with a money quote – ‘The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’ – from, that’s right, the Washington Post.”

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2017

In 'Napalm girl', Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2017 to the appearance of a number of well-known media-driven myths, which are 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 rundown of the five top posts of the year at Media Myth Alert, which was established at the end of October 2009, a few months before publication of the first edition of Getting It Wrong. An expanded second edition of the mythbusting book came out in late 2016.

Vox offers up myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ in essay about ‘fake news’ (posted July 6): “Fake news” was much in the media in 2017, and in addressing the phenomenon, the online site Vox invoked one of the media myths associated with the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of June 1972.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Vox  asserted that the image showed “a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

It was not a U.S. bombing. As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports made quite clear at the time.

For example, a veteran British journalist, Christopher Wain, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned the girl and others is false, but enduring.

And Vox has not corrected its error.

The photographer who took the “Napalm Girl” image, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, retired from the news agency at the end of March 2017.

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy (posted February 23): We are certain to hear fairly often about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in 2018, especially around the 50th anniversary in February of the on-air editorializing by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment is said to have been so powerful and shocking that it came as an epiphany for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was in tatters.

It’s a compelling story of media influence. But it’s hardly what happened.

Not only did Johnson not see Cronkite’s special report when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks afterward, mounting an aggressive and outspoken defense of his policy while making clear he had not taken the Cronkite’s message to heart — if he was aware of it at all.

Just three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

In mid-March 1968, Johnson told a meeting of business leaders 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.”

A few days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So at a time when Cronkite’s view about Vietnam should have been most potent and influential, Johnson remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war. On several occasions, the president effectively brushed aside Cronkite’s assessment and encouraged popular support for the war effort.

Johnson’s assertiveness at that time is little remembered, while the “Cronkite Moment” remains one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media myths.

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews (posted October 14): Long before its release in late September 2017, Peter Landesman’s biopic of Watergate’s mythical and most famous secret source, W. Mark Felt, was ballyhooed in the Hollywood press as a “spy thriller.”

The movie was grandiose in its title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But its script was a tedious mess that offered no coherent insight into Watergate or what really toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Felt, who was played by Liam Neeson, was a top official at the FBI who in 1972 and 1973 conferred periodically with Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal. In All the President’s Men, a book about their Watergate reporting for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to Felt as “Deep Throat.”

Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward took place in a parking garage in suburban Virginia and became the stuff of legend — not to mention media myth.

About the time he was conferring with Woodward, Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins — known at the FBI as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of fugitives of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for approving illegal entries and searches. He was tried with an FBI colleague; both were convicted and ordered to pay fines. They were pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

A far better biopic about Felt could have been developed around his criminal misconduct in investigating the Weather Underground. Such a movie could have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt wielded for a time at the FBI. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding cinematic treatment that was rewarded with no better than modest receipts at the box office.

WaPo’s media writer embraces Watergate myths (posted October 7): The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years — until Felt and his family revealed in 2005 that he had been the secret source. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, took the occasion to offer an important reminder about Watergate and the forces that had ended Nixon’s presidency.

Getler wrote in a column in June 2005 that “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

In October 2017, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, revisited the lessons of Watergate in an essay in Columbia Journalism Review — and embraced the trope that the Post and Woodward and Bernstein were central to bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

In her essay, Sullivan declared, without documentation, that Woodward and Bernstein had “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.’”

Woodward and Bernstein most certainly did not uncover Nixon’s obstruction. That was revealed in 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president can be heard approving a scheme to divert the FBI’s investigation into the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — the signal crime of Watergate.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account that the Columbia Journalism Review published in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

Deep in that article was a passage noting that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up: “It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew.

We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was hardly decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

And Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review remain uncorrected.

Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam (posted November 14): About two weeks before Minnesota Public Radio dismissed him for inappropriate workplace behavior, storyteller Garrison Keillor wrote an essay in which he imagined paying a return visit to New York City of 1961.

The thought was “unbearable,” he wrote, because “I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Were he somehow to make a return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Certainly not as a campaign pledge for the presidency in 1968 when, as a hoary media myth has it, Nixon cynically proclaimed having a “secret plan” to end the war.

But in fact, Nixon pointedly disavowed such a claim.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he also was quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But it was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year, and that is clear in reviewing search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search period was January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, and search terms were “Nixon” and “secret plan.” No articles were returned in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Had Nixon touted a “secret plan” during his campaign, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Keillor’s odd musings about returning to the ’60s were not the first time he’s indulged in media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor asserted that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph 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.”

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, featuring Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war,” is one of the best-known in American journalism. But it is apocryphal, for reasons addressed in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2017:

 

Rare sighting: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Television on August 5, 2017 at 8:40 am

I noted the other day how unusual it is to find two media myths incorporated into the same article or essay. A media myth twofer, as it were.

An essay posted yesterday at the Daily Beast accomplishes a feat even more rare: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs.

February 28, 1968

The Beast’s essay recounts President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite‘s special report in 1968 about the Vietnam War and invokes the hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s mythical “secret plan” to end the conflict.

Specifically, the essay says “the iconic CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a week-long reporting trip to Vietnam and declared the war essentially unwinnable, upending months of false optimism from the administration. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,’ the president said.

“When Richard Nixon rode to the White House proclaiming a ‘secret plan to win the war in Vietnam’ any expected honeymoon with the press did not last long.”

Myth fairly drips from those unsourced claims.

Taking Nixon’s “secret plan” first: Simply put, it’s a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

Had Nixon, during his run for the presidency in 1968, proclaimed to have a “secret plan to win the war in Vietnam,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

They didn’t.

That much is clear from examining search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. daily newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months before, during, and immediately aft Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign.)

Their silence about a “secret plan” signals it was not a plank of Nixon’s campaign.

Moreover, Nixon pointedly dismissed the suggestion he had a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as  saying, “I would pass it on to President Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

As for Cronkite, he did not exactly say the war “essentially unwinnable” following his reporting trip to what then was South Vietnam.

The anchorman said at the close of a special report on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” — a decidedly an unremarkable observation.

“Stalemate” had been circulating in the U.S. news media long before Cronkite’s on-air appraisal. In August 1967, for example, R.W. (Johnny) Apple of New York Times reported from Vietnam that the war “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple said in his dispatch, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

He also wrote:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

Apple’s downbeat analysis was published on the Times’ front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite hedged in his closing remarks on February 27, 1968. He “held open the possibility,” I write, “that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam” in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, a coordinated assault launched by the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies across South Vietnam at the end of January 1968.

Here’s what Cronkite said in his equivocal conclusion:

“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” (Emphasis added.)

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

Notably, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally (see photo nearby), and there is no certain evidence as to whether, or when, the president may have viewed the program on videotape.

As such, Johnson’s purported downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” — is suspect. Especially so because Johnson did not alter his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s report.

In fact, he doubled down on that policy, mounting an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart — if he even heard it.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president declared, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honor to two Marines, Johnson stated:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke about Vietnam with even more vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders 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.”

Two days after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to address the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department, Johnson declared:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days afterward, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25 — nearly a month after Cronkite’s special report — Johnson told an audience of trade unionists:

“Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. He remained, I write in Getting It Wrong, “openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” He was similarly adamant about Vietnam on the day Cronkite’s delivered his report.

As I note in Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is now available), Johnson “invoked Churchillian language” that day at a midday speech in Dallas, saying:

“I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

“I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further declared:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

Johnson’s speech in Dallas is seldom recalled in discussions about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” But it was covered the next day on the front pages of major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times also reported Johnson’s speech on its cover (see image above), beneath a bold, top-of-the-page headline that read:

“NO VIET RETREAT.”

As in all discussions about history, context matters. To embrace the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as accurate is to suspend recognition of context and to ignore what Johnson said about Vietnam before and after Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal “mired in stalemate” assessment.

WJC

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Journos ‘can, under right circumstances, topple a presidency’: What a myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 1, 2017 at 8:48 am

I ruminated the other day about the many applications of the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the ever-engaging myth that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The New York Times today suggests another use — that the heroic-journalist tale sends a message (presumably to the administration of President Donald Trump) “that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The Times made the outsize claim in a glowing article about Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein spoke about the importance of unfettered media.

The Times account, written by media reporter Michael M. Grynbaum, quoted liberal commentator E.J. Dionne as saying the dinner “’was a line-in-the-sand night, to an extent I didn’t expect.’” Dionne was further quoted as saying that “’having Woodward and Bernstein [speak at the dinner] sends another message’ — that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The last portion was Grynbaum’s paraphrase — which makes it no less a media myth.

Ford became president when Nixon quit

As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

The heroic-journalist tale “has become the most familiar story line of Watergate: ready shorthand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity. How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories. …

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office” — namely subpoena-wielding investigators who included special federal prosecutors, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon to surrender secretly recorded audio tapes that confirmed his guilty role in Watergate and made certain his resignation in August 1974.

As I’ve noted often at Media Myth Alert, not even principals at the Post during the Watergate period embraced the heroic-journalist myth.

The newspaper’s publisher back then, Katharine Graham, said during a program at the Newseum in 1997:

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

And the newspaper’s top editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, said on the  “Meet the Press” talk show in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the secret tapes Nixon had made.

Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

And Woodward, himself, told an interviewer in 2006 2004:

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

So why does this myth live on? Why is it so irresistible?

The reasons are many, as I discussed in the post the other day.

Among others, the trope has the heady effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in American history. Moreover, the notion that journalists can topple a president is reassuring to practitioners, especially amid the sustained retrenchment in their field. And it’s a way, however misguided, of a way to pay fawning tribute to Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s.

But perhaps most of all, the myth lives on because it’s an easy-to-remember version of what happened in Watergate, the country’s gravest political crisis. Easy to remember, and easy to retell.

Media myths thrive on such simplicity.

WJC

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