W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

News media indispensable to democracy? Some evidence would be nice

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on May 1, 2011 at 9:49 am

The Washington Post ombudsman invokes in his column today the defining conceit of American journalism: That without truth-telling reporters and editors, democracy would be imperiled.

Or, as he puts it, rather simplistically:

“What we do is report, write and edit stories. We take and publish photographs (and now video, too). We publish the stories and images as news through compelling design and graphics. And, in columns and blogs, we analyze the news. Through this painstaking process, we reveal truths. The country cannot long survive as a democracy, or as a capitalist economy, without this kind of independent journalism.”

But how does the ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, know that? What evidence does he offer to buttress the notion that the news media are indispensable bulwarks of democracy and capitalism?

None. He presents the self-congratulatory claim about journalism’s value as self-evident.

It is true that robust journalism and media pluralism are hallmarks of democratic governance.

But democratic rule typically enables independent journalism rather than the other way round.

We see this phenomenon across the world: Whenever the heavy hand of authoritarian rule is lifted, non-official news media flourish, usually as partisan platforms. It’s a point I made in my first book, The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, which examined the rise of media pluralism in two states in Francophone West Africa.

But emergent independent journalism, or well-established journalism, isn’t a variable essential to a thriving democracy. I’m reminded of a superb essay on this topic that the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009 for slate.com.

As Shafer correctly pointed out:

“Democracy thrived in the United States in the 1800s, long before the invention of what we call quality journalism. Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections. Compare that with the 55.3 percent and 56.8 percent turnouts in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.”

And party-oriented journalism lasted well beyond 1888. It stretched through the period of the yellow press at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. The leading newspapers of those days were often overtly partisan.

The leading practitioner of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst, turned his newspapers into a platform for his mostly unfulfilled political objectives. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president and the governorship of New York, ambitions that were boosted by, but not contingent upon, his activist-oriented newspapers.

Shafer’s column also noted:

“Could it be that deep-dish reporting that uncovers governmental malfeasance and waste … doesn’t promote activism or participation? Could it be that such exposés end up souring the public on democracy and other institutions?”

It’s an interesting point. Aggressive, searching journalism that offers a stream of reporting about the flaws, shortcomings, and corruption in democratic institutions also may be a reason many adult Americans have tired of the news and have turned it off completely.

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center and released last year, 17 percent of adult Americans go newsless on a typical day. That is, they eschew the news despite ready access to a variety of news-delivery options and platforms, both traditional and digital.

The going-newsless phenomenon in a news-drenched society is highest among 18-to-24-years-old; 31 percent of those young Americans go without the news on a typical day.

“Large numbers of Americans are beyond media influence,” I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

So how are news outlets so vital to American democracy when so many Americans ignore them completely? Pexton’s assertion about the indispensable character of the media ignores such complexity.

Pexton’s claim is the kind of thin platitude that serves to reassure journalists in a time of great upheaval in the field, a time when the direction of the profession is uncertain, when the longevity of once-superior newspapers like the Washington Post is in doubt.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds, and Little Miss Attila,
for linking to this post

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NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth: Check out new trailer

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 4, 2011 at 8:20 am

Fifty years ago this week, the New York Times bowed to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and suppressed or emasculated a story offering details about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion.

Had the Times not censored itself, had it published it knew about the planned assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the invasion likely would have been scuttled, and the United States would have been spared a humiliating foreign policy setback.

Or so the media myth has it.

What I call the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth is a hardy, tenacious tale that is addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth is the subject of a new video trailer, posted online last night by my graduate assistant, Jeremiah N. Patterson.

At the heart of the suppression myth is a report filed from Miami by veteran correspondent Tad Szulc and published on the Times front page April 7, 1961, 10 days before the ill-fated invasion.

Supposedly, editors at the Times so thoroughly watered down Szulc’s dispatch that when published, it was a mere wisp of what the correspondent had filed. Supposedly, the report was emasculated in New York.

But that’s just not so.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Szulc’s dispatch received editing at the Times that was judicious, restrained, and well-considered — editing that had the effect of improving the story’s accuracy.

But it wasn’t spiked. It wasn’t suppressed.

It ran to 1,000 words and was published above the fold on the Times front page — prime real estate in American journalism.

Nor is there any evidence that Kennedy or officials in his administration knew about the Szulc report and asked, lobbied, or otherwise cajoled the Times to suppress the dispatch or water it down.

That notion, I write in Getting It Wrong, “is utter fancy.”

Indeed, I add, “the recollections of none of the principal figures in the Times-suppression episode say that Kennedy pressured the newspaper’s editors.

“These include the memoirs of Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of the Times; of James (Scotty) Reston, then the chief of the Times’ Washington bureau; of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, and of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an award-winning Harvard historian who was a White House adviser to Kennedy.”

Harrison Salisbury in his Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, offers a detailed account of the handling of the Szulc dispatch.

And Salisbury’s version is unequivocal. “The government in April 1961,” he wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to public the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone [Times president Orvil] Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story.”

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

The trailer discussing the New York Times-Bay of Pigs media myth is the latest video Patterson has prepared on topics related to Getting It Wrong.

Early this year, he produced a trailer about the book and in Fall 2010 prepared a trailer about the media myths surrounding The War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938.


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When we err, we correct: Still waiting, Bill Keller

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 27, 2011 at 7:06 am


Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, offers a smug and  sanctimonious commentary today, asserting that the newspaper strives “to be impartial” and corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Whether the Times is impartial open to serious debate. What interests Media Myth Alert is Keller’s claim that the Times strives for promptness in correcting errors — even to the point of seeming a bit absurd in doing so.

Keller wrote that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’)”

But the policy of publishing a prompt and forthright correction certainly hasn’t been followed in the matter of a correction the Times flubbed two months ago — a lapse that I brought to the attention of the newspaper and its public editor, or ombudsman.

Granted, correcting a correction can be complicated and muddy.

But still: If the policy is to “correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible,” then there’s no reason for the newspaper not to have addressed by now a correction that it so clearly flubbed.

Joseph Welch

The correction in question was published January 23, 2011; in it, the Times sought to set straight its mistake in a “Week in Review” article of the week before, which referred to the dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The Times sought to set straight the context and circumstances of Welch’s memorable remarks, which came during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. The Times stated in its correction:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

Which was incorrect on two counts, as I pointed out.

McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee — a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations). And McCarthy was at the hearing to testify.

As I wrote in calling attention to the flubbed correction:

“Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s ‘sense of decency,’ the senator was sworn in as a witness.”

According to hearing excerpts the Times published at the time, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

To date, the Times has not corrected its flubbed correction.

So why does it matter? After all, 1954 was a long time ago.

It matters because the Army-McCarthy hearings were an important moment in Cold War America. A newspaper as important — and self-important — as the Times should be expected to get straight the details about a memorable and dramatic occasion.

It also matters because of Keller’s smug assurance that the Times corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Surely, if the Times deigns it important to set the record straight about Ivana Trump’s bras, it ought to fix its flawed correction about the Army-McCarthy hearings.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 20, 2011 at 8:06 am

Media myths have many uses, none of them necessarily praiseworthy.

Media myths can offer simplified and misleading versions of important historical events. They can be invoked as presumptive evidence of the power of the news media.

And they can be used to score points against political opponents.

That latter application was evident the other day in a commentary at Huffington Post that invoked the most famous made-up line of Watergate, “follow the money.”

Pope (Sierra Club)

The HuffPo commentary — written by Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club environmental group — declared:

“But if, as Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ advised Woodward and Bernstein, we ‘follow the money,’ it’s clear that the real strategic objective of the far right is an American society ruled domestically by a predatory oligarchy and projected globally as a militaristic empire.”

While the claim is exaggerated nonsense, Media Myth Alert is most interested in Pope’s blithe, off-handed use of “follow the money” as if it were genuine, as if it had been vital guidance offered by a stealthy Watergate source. As if it lends Pope’s argument some sort of higher moral authority.


Deep Throat” — who as it turned out was the second-ranking official at the FBI, W. Mark Felt — spoke periodically with Bob Woodward (but never Carl Bernstein) as the two reporters investigated the emergent Watergate scandal for the Washington Post.

But “follow the money” was advice never given by Felt in periodic meetings with Woodward, which sometimes took place in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington.

And as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, no Post article or editorial related to Watergate invoked “follow the money” until June 1981 – nearly seven years after the scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. (The Post article in 1981 simply mentioned that “follow the money” had been used in a fifth grade play.)

“Follow the money” was the creation of screenwriter William Goldman. He has taken credit for writing it into the script of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The book came out in 1974, just as Watergate was reaching a climax. The movie was released in 1976, as the wounds of the scandal were just beginning to heal. The book and, especially, the movie served to promote what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — the endlessly appealing notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down Nixon.

Since 1976, untold millions of people — now including Carl Pope — have invoked the line, oblivious to its derivation.

“Follow the money” was spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook, who was the “Deep Throat” character in All the President’s Men.

And Holbrook, who turned 85 last week, played the part exquisitely well.

In a memorable scene depicting a late-night meeting in the parking garage, in which Holbrook tells the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

The line was delivered with authority, certainty, and insistence — and it sounded for all the world as if it were advice crucial to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

In that way, it represents a simplified version about how the scandal was uncovered, about how the thread of Watergate corruption led to the Oval Office and Nixon.

Watergate, though, was far more complex than identifying and pursuing a money trail.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions required more than simply following the money.

I note in Getting It Wrong:

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I write, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive,” in the outcome of Watergate.

In the end, Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 was what forced his resignation in 1974.

It’s important to note, too, that “Deep Throat” in real life was no hero. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to break-ins he had authorized as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.

Felt was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.


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Who, or what, brought down Nixon?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Who brought him down?

The easy, but wrong, answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that interpretation has become “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

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

It’s also a prominent media-driven myth–a well-known but dubious or improbable tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

What I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and intricate scandal.

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”

Britain’s Spectator magazine takes up the Watergate question in an article about fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that has swept up Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sunday News of the World.

To its credit, Spectator sidestepped the heroic-journalist myth in declaring:

“Everyone who remembers the Watergate scandal remembers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting. Brilliant though it was, the Nixon administration was destroyed not by the Washington Post, but by Sam Ervin’s Senate committee, which had the powers parliamentary select committees ought to have to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to talk or go to jail for contempt.”

While commendable in eschewing the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation, the Spectator commentary overstated the importance of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina and took testimony during the spring and summer of 1973.

Rather than destroying Nixon’s presidency, the select committee had the effect of training public attention on the crimes of Watergate and, in the testimony it elicited, offered a way to determine whether Nixon had a guilty role in the scandal.

The select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes, I note in Getting It Wrong, “proved crucial to the scandal’s outcome.”

They constituted Nixon’s “deepest secret,” Stanley Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, has written.

The revelation about their existence set off a year-long effort to force Nixon to turn over the tapes, as they promised to clear or implicate him in the scandal.

Nixon resisted surrendering the tapes until compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in July 1974.

The tapes revealed his guilty role in seeking to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate’s seminal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the offices of the Democratic national committee in Washington.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In the final analysis, then, who or what brought down Richard Nixon?

Certainly not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, either.

The best answer is that rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” making inevitable the early end of his presidency.


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NYTimes flubs the correction

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on January 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

The New York Times today publishes a correction to last week’s “Week in Review” article about sudden “transformational moments” — and flubs the correction.

McCarthy: He testified

The article discussed among other topics the dramatic exchange at a Senate hearing on June 9, 1954, in which lawyer Joseph N. Welch supposedly deflated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

I raised doubts in a recent post at Media Myth Alert about whether the Welch-McCarthy encounter was as “transformational” as the Times suggested.

The correction in the Times today addresses the context of the encounter and states:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

But McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee–a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations) and he was there to testify.

(McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, were focal points of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. At the time, McCarthy was chairman of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. He removed himself from the temporary subcommittee which conducted the Army-McCarthy hearings and which was chaired by Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota. McCarthy, however, was permitted to cross-examine witnesses during the hearings.)

Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s “sense of decency,” the senator was sworn in as a witness.

McCarthy, Cohn at 1954 hearings

According to hearing excerpts published in the Times, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

And he proceeded to discuss at length his views about the Communist Party U.S.A. and its leadership. “The orders flow, of course, from Moscow,” McCarthy declared.

In a front-page article published June 10, 1954, the Times focused on the Welch-McCarthy encounter of the day before, stating in its lead paragraph:

“The Army-McCarthy hearings reached a dramatic high point … in an angry, emotion-packed exchange between Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch, special counsel for the Army.”

The four-column headline over the Times article read:


Interestingly, coverage in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1954, focused on McCarthy’s having taken the witness stand the day before, announcing in bold headlines stripped across the top of a cluttered front page:


The opening paragraphs in the Tribune read:

“Sen. McCarthy [R., Wis.] warned that a Red world would follow communist penetration of the United States government as he took the witness stand … in his battle with the Pentagon.

“The appearance under oath of McCarthy came on the 30th day of the senate inquiry ….

“McCarthy outlined the nature and size of the communist conspiracy in this nation, describing it as a militant organization of 25,000 trained spies and saboteurs.”

Not until the fifth paragraph did the Tribune mention the Welch-McCarthy encounter.

Quite clearly, then, McCarthy was “at the hearings to testify.” And testify he did, in rather typical fashion.

So why does all this matter? So what if the Times flubbed a correction about its reference to a long-ago moment that probably wasn’t  so “transformational”?

After all, as media critic Jack Shafer of slate.com has pointed out:

“Readers should recognize that in journalism as in life, some number of mistakes are unavoidable. And some of those mistakes, while deplorable, don’t matter all that much.”

But injecting fresh error into a correction goes beyond trivial, and may signal trouble in the newspaper’s internal fact-checking procedures.

There is, of course, inherent value in setting the record straight, as the Times recognized in publishing the correction in the first place.

Setting the record straight supposedly helps promote a newspaper’s credibility, too. As I note in Getting It Wrong, my book debunking prominent media-driven myths, “a central objective of newsgathering” is “that of seeking to get it right.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

Flubbing the correction suggests a broader unfamiliarity at the Times with an important period in American history–and hints, too, at a reluctance to consult its electronic database of back issues.


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