W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Research’

Media Myth Alert at 12: Recalling memorable myth-busting posts

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, PBS, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on October 31, 2021 at 8:59 am

Media Myth Alert today marks its 12th anniversary of calling attention to the publication or posting of prominent but exaggerated tales about media prowess and the presumed power and influence of journalists.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmTwelve years offers a fitting occasion to recall some memorable posts — posts that tweaked often-arrogant media outlets such as the Washington Post and PBS, called out media lapses and hypocrisy, and supported the two editions of my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong.

The lineup that unfolds below is admittedly subjective and represents but a slice of the hundreds of essays posted since the launch of Media Myth Alert on the afternoon of Halloween, 2009. It’s nonetheless a slice that makes for pleasant reminiscence. What follows are headlines and descriptions of five of the posts that for varying reasons have stood out over the years:

■ Why Trump-Russia is hardly Watergate-Nixon (posted March 5, 2017): Long before the special counsel’s report punctured the notion that then-President Donald Trump conspired with the Russians to steal the 2016 presidential election, Media Myth Alert scoffed at the notion afoot among American journalists that the suspected Trump-Russia scandal was akin to Watergate redux.

“’Overstated’ hardly suffices in describing the media’s eagerness to find in President Donald Trump’s odd affinity for Russia parallels or echoes that bring to mind Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal,” I wrote. “Such stuff is overstated. Premature. Facile. And ahistoric.”

I added: “Casually invoking such parallels is to ignore and diminish Watergate’s exceptionality. Watergate was a constitutional crisis of unique dimension in which some 20 men, associated either with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972, went to prison.

“Watergate’s dénouement — Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 — was driven not by dogged reporting of the Washington Post but by Nixon’s self-destructive decision to tape-record conversations at the White House. Thousands of hours of audiotape recordings were secretly made, from February 1971 to July 1973.” (Disclosing the Watergate tapes was a story the Post missed, by the way.)

I followed up in another post a little more than two months later, writing:

“The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his associates to jail.”

The Trump-Russia special counsel, Robert Mueller, released his report in May 2019, rejecting suspicions that the Trump campaign or its associates conspired or coordinated with Russia — thus short-circuited eager speculation about a Watergate-type scandal that would bring down a president.

■ WaPo’s ‘five myths’ feature about Vietnam ignores ‘Cronkite Moment,’ Nixon ‘secret plan,’ ‘Napalm Girl’ (posted October 2, 2017): The Washington Post has figured often in posts at Media Myth Alert over the years. A favorite topic has been the newspaper’s unwillingness to explain or take much responsibility for its deeply erroneous reporting about Pfc. Jessica Lynch’s purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

I’ve referred to that reporting as “the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.”

In its Sunday editions, the Post runs a fussy feature  called “five myths,” a rundown of uneven quality on a fresh topic each week.

In 2017, the newspaper addressed “five Myths” of the Vietnam War — and mentioned none of the prominent media myths of that conflicts. Not the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, in an hour-long special report, supposedly swung public opinion against the war. Not the notion Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the conflict. Not the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph which was taken in June 1972 and supposedly hastened an end to the conflict.

No prominent media myth figured in the Post’s rundown about what it called five “deeply entrenched myths” about Vietnam. Instead, the compilation included such “myths” as: “The refugees who came to the U.S. [after the war] were Vietnam’s elite” and “American soldiers [in Vietnam] were mostly draftees.”

Those were not unimportant aspects of the war. But “deeply entrenched myths”? Certainly not as entrenched as the “Cronkite Moment.” As “Nixon’s secret plan.” As the myths of “Napalm Girl.”

■ It’s like 1948 all over again for American media (posted November 9, 2016): This essay makes the subjective short list because it was a starting point for a book project that culminated in publication last year of my seventh book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.

The “like 1948” essay was posted the morning after Trump’s shocking electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election — an election that Clinton, the news media, and maybe even Trump figured she would win, perhaps decisively.

Truman triumphant, 1948

The depth of surprise on the day after the election brought reminders of the 1948 election, when incumbent Harry S. Truman defeated the odds-on frontrunner, Thomas E. Dewey (see photo nearby of Truman with a Chicago Tribune front page that got it wrong).

In the day-after post, I noted that notable among the misplaced predictions of Clinton’s sure win was that of Stuart Rothenberg, who had written in August 2016 at the Washington Post’s PowerPost blog:

“Three months from now, with the 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, we will look back and agree that the presidential election was over on Aug. 9th.

Rothenberg added that “a dispassionate examination of the data, combined with a coldblooded look at the candidates, the campaigns and presidential elections, produces only one possible conclusion: Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, and the margin isn’t likely to be as close as Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney” in 2012.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-2-32-48-amObama defeated Romney by an electoral count of 332-206.

Trump defeated Clinton by 304 electoral votes to 227.

Clinton won the national popular vote on the strength of lopsided support among California voters. She lost the presidency by failing to carry three key Great Lakes states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — where polls and poll-based forecasts suggested she would win clearly, if not overwhelmingly.

Had Clinton won those states, she would have won the White House.

The shock outcome of 2016 is one of eight high-profile polling failures taken up in chapters of Lost in a Gallup.

The book noted that in 2016, “polls and poll-based statistical forecasts had set an election narrative that the news media embraced and locked into place. The final polling estimates showed little to challenge the dominant narrative. The election might be close, but an upset? That seemed implausible.”

Lost in a Gallup quoted Natalie Jackson, the Huffington Post analyst who forecast that Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stood at 98.2 percent, as saying after the election that “when there are hundreds of polls all saying the same thing — as most polls did when they indicated Clinton would win—it’s easy to develop a false sense of certainty and safety in concluding that that’s what will happen.”

■ ‘They even started wars’: Nonsense in Economist’s holiday double issue (posted December 22, 2012): I’ve noted from time to time at Media Myth Alert how international news outlets are known to invoke prominent myths about American news media.

A notable example was found in the year-end double issue of Britain’s Economist magazine in 2012, in an off-beat essay about the Internet-borne resurgence of cartooning. Embedded in that account was reference to the hoary media myth of yellow journalism. It said:

“In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: ‘yellow journalism.’”

The yellow kid character was a contributing factor in the naming of “yellow journalism.” But not the sole factor.

What attracted the attention of Media Myth Alert was this passage:

“Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars.”

They even started wars?

That’s a reference to the myth that in their overheated reporting of Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer whipped up war fever to the extent that American military intervention against Spain became inevitable..

Economist double issue_2012The yellow press certainly reported closely about the runup to the Spanish-American War of 1898. But no serious historian believes the newspapers were important factors in bringing about the conflict.

Simply put, the yellow press did not create, nor was responsible for, the irreconcilable differences that led to war between the United States and Spain.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of [geopolitical and humanitarian] forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

■ Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS (April 14, 2019): I noted not long ago that “PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven. … They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy,” who was the subject of an “American Experience” program in 2020.

PBS documentaries also can give fawning treatment to subjects it regards highly, such as Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes. Pulitzer was, as I wrote in 2019 in reviewing the PBS documentary, “the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

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

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

The effect of all the docu-gushing, I wrote, “was misleading.

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

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

“Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program …. It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth.

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

For years, Pulitzer ran the World by remote control, as an absentee owner. “From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe,” I wrote, “Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer,” noting that “the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored” by PBS.

The topic is not insignificant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

WJC

More memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

‘Such was Cronkite’s influence’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on October 10, 2021 at 6:44 pm

The Boston Herald published an odd commentary the other day, one that scoffed at core elements of the media myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 while repeating the dubious elements anyway.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Such can be the appeal of media-driven myths, those apocryphal or improbable tales about powerful media influence: They can be too compelling to resist and as such invite comparisons to the junk food of journalism.

The Herald’s commentary discussed the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as historical context in considering the lies told about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which may have permanently damaged Joe Biden’s beleaguered presidency.

The commentary asserted:

“Back in 1968 widely respected CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported that the controversial war in Vietnam, which had so divided the country, was lost, hopelessly ‘mired in stalemate.’

“Coming from Cronkite, a battle-hardened World War II reporter, deemed the most trusted newsman on television, the report shook the foundations of the [Lydon] Johnson administration.

“Such was Cronkite’s influence.

“Johnson, following the broadcast, reportedly said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’ Or ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’

“There is no proof that Johnson said any of those things, or if he even watched the broadcast.

“But that was what was reported. The myth took hold and weeks later Johnson, who had repeatedly lied to the American people about the war, announced that he would not seek re-election.”

It’s puzzling why a commentator would enlist media myths to illustrate an argument; invoking a dubious tale, after all, brings neither strength nor clarity to that argument.

In any case, there’s much to unpack in the the Herald’s commentary, which overstates Cronkite’s influence as well as the significance of his remarks made in closing an hour-long televised report on February 27, 1968, about the war in Vietnam.

Cronkite that night did not claim the war was lost; he said the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”

Such an assessment was no daring or original analysis about the war; other U.S. news organizations had invoked such a characterization months before Cronkite’s program. The New York Times, for example, declared in a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times report by R.W. Apple Jr. was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Even sterner critiques were in circulation in late February 1968. Four days before the Cronkite program aired on CBS, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Not stalemated.

Doomed.

Not only was Cronkite’s assessment that night in 1968 unoriginal; it prompted no acknowledged policy shift in Johnson’s Vietnam policy — let alone having shaken the administration’s “foundations.”

It is certain that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. This is significant because presumed impact of the “Cronkite Moment” resides in its sudden, unexpected, and visceral effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or significantly diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.

Moreover, In the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program, Johnson was aggressively and conspicuously hawkish in his public statements about the war — as if he had, in effect, brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort. He doubled down on his Vietnam policy and at one point in mid-March 1968 called publicly for “a total national effort” to win the war.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had begun to shift against the war long before Cronkite’s report. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967.

Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam

Johnson’s surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on what Cronkite had said on television but on the advice of an informal group of foreign policy experts and advisers known as the “Wise Men.” Days before the announcement, the “Wise Men” had met at the White House and, to the president’s astonishment, opposed escalating the conflict as Johnson was contemplating.

One of the participants, George Ball, later recalled: “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights’” in Vietnam.

The president, Ball said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

Cronkite was not at the table of “Wise Men.” By then, his unremarkable commentary about the war was a month old.

Marginal at best: such was Cronkite’s influence on Vietnam policy.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

An easy caricature: PBS portrait of media mogul Hearst is unedifying, superficial

In 1897, Cuba, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Television, Yellow Journalism on September 28, 2021 at 6:01 am

PBS documentaries are nothing if not uneven.

They can devote fawning treatment to some subjects, such as the tyrannical publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whom it profiled a couple of years ago. They can promote erroneous interpretations, such as the notion the American press was unwilling to stand up to red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, subject of an “American Experience” program early last year.

Citizen Hearst: A superficial treatment

And they can minimize complexity about their subjects, as is the case with Citizen Hearst, a mostly superficial “American Experience” portrtait of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The first of two parts aired last night, and it proved unedifying. Hearst was presented as little more than a profligate rich kid who never quite grew up, who loved hi-jinks and fireworks, yet possessed scant commitment to truth-telling.

Such assessments have been around for decades, promoted by a succession of bad biographies such as Ferdinand Lundberg’s polemical Imperial Hearst in 1936 and W.A. Swanberg’s dreadful Citizen Hearst in 1961. A more considered and even-handed treatment of Hearst was offered in David Nasaw’s The Chief, which came out in 2000. 

So it is a bit odd that the PBS documentary presses the frivolous rich-kid theme, given that it claims to be “based on” Nasaw’s biography. And Nasaw is shown in the film frequently, offering comments about Hearst. (He is the sole Hearst biographer among the program’s several talking heads.)

It’s as if PBS producers settled on the frivolous rich-kid theme and ignored evidence of Hearst as a complex character whose journalism — his “yellow journalism” — defies easy caricature.

As practiced in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, “yellow journalism” was  more than merely sensational. It was a distinctive genre of newspapering. Its defining features, as I discussed in my 2001 book,Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, included:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines, some of which stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war,international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Those elements were adopted by newspapers other than Hearst’s. Pulitzer’s World was another exponent of “yellow journalism,” as were some titles in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, where Hearst owned and published the Examiner. But Hearst’s Journal was the newspaper most closely associated with the extremes of  “yellow journalism,” which  the PBS documentary emphasizes in considering the Spanish-American War of 1898, a controversial chapter of Hearst’s life.

The Journal, the documentary claims, offered little more than unfounded, exaggerated, and unverified reporting about the destruction in Havana harbor of the U.S. battleship Maine, a triggering event for the conflict that ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba. At this point, the documentary would have benefited from the insight of Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding biography of the early Hearst.

Whyte pointed out that when stripped from the context New York’s highly competitive newspaper market — where the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule had been an important story for several newspapers for many months — Hearst’s reporting of the Maine disaster in February 1898 and other events in the run-up to the war seems extreme and repellent.

But context matters, Whyte observed, noting:

“Hearst’s coverage [in the run-up to the war] was part of an uproarious national dialogue. His voice sounds freakish when plucked out and examined in isolation, but in the context of the journalistic conversation that erupted as the Maine sank, it sounds quite different.”

Hearst’s Evening Journal, April 1898

Indeed.

PBS often ignores context in pushing its frivolous rich-kid portrait. It misconstrues the fundamental motivation of Hearst’s approach to news-gathering in the late 19th century. Hearst called it the “journalism of action,” which meant newspapers were obliged to take high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

Hearst deployed the “journalism of action” on several fronts — from solving crimes and aiding storm victims to springing a 19-year-old political prisoner from jail in Havana in 1897.

It was an energetic brand of journalism that allowed Hearst’s newspapers to stand out. But the “journalism of action” was not, sustained. It was expensive to pursue, and Hearst’s interests in the early Twentieth Century turned decidedly to politics. Hearst expanded his stable of newspapers but made them platforms for his unfulfilled ambition to win the presidency or the New York governorship.

That Hearst failed in politics ought to tell us something about the presumed power of the press. It’s a topic that PBS sidesteps even while insisting repeatedly that Hearst wielded great influence through his media outlets.

The PBS documentary, which resumes tonight, offers little that is fresh about its subject. It turns tedious at times, and often feels gossipy. It seems impressed by Hearst’s flamboyance but regards it as frivolous.

Hearst was flamboyant. But he and his journalism were scarcely frivolous.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Once-prominent E&P tells media myths about Murrow, Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2021 at 10:29 am

The trade journal Editor & Publisher once was something of a must-read periodical in the news business. It was never much of a crusading magazine, but its announcements about hirings and departures, as well as its classified ads, were closely watched by professional journalists.

E&P, as it’s called, traces its pedigree to the late 19th century but is hardly much of a force these days. It nearly went out of business 12 years or so ago and more recently was sold to a company led by media consultant Michael Blinder.

He is E&P’s publisher and in a column posted this week at the publication’s website, Blinder blamed the news media for exacerbating political divisions in the country. In a passage of particular interest to Media Myth Alert, Blinder wrote:

“I ask you, in today’s media ecosystem, could Edward R. Murrow have really brought that critical ‘truth to power’ that took down Senator Joe McCarthy? Or would Richard Nixon have had to resign over his many documented cover-ups revealed by Woodward and Bernstein? The answer is ‘no!'”

The answer indeed is “no,” because broadcast legend Murrow of CBS did not take down McCarthy. And Nixon did not resign because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Those claims are hoary, media-driven myths — tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or highly exaggerated.

The myths of Murrow-McCarthy and of Watergate are still widely believed despite having been thoroughly debunked.

And not only debunked: they’ve been dismissed or scoffed at by journalists who figured centrally in the respective tales.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, after his famous See It Now television program about McCarthy on March 9, 1954, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said” about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.

McCarthy: red-baiting senator

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Not only that, but as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists [such as muckraking columnist Drew Pearson] had challenged the senator and his tactics” long before March 1954.

Additionally, Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred W. Friendly, scoffed at the notion that Murrow’s program was pivotal or decisive, writing in his memoir: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Even more adamant, perhaps, was Bob Woodward’s dismissing the notion his reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Woodward declared in an interview in 2004:

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

Woodward’s appraisal, however inelegant, is on-target. He and Bernstein did not topple Nixon.

Nor did they reveal, as Blinder writes, Nixon’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate, which began with a botched burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

As Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in 1973, in a lengthy and hagiographic account about Woodward and Bernstein:

“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.”

They “completely missed” the coverup.

The journalism review quoted Woodward as saying this about the coverup and hush money payments: “‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discussed in 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.” 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 guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974, with disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” audiotape, the release of which had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

On the “smoking gun” tape — one of many Nixon had secretly recorded at the White House and elsewhere — the president can be heard approving a plan to use the CIA to divert the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in.

The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon may be cheering and reassuring to contemporary journalists. But it is a misleading interpretation that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces — such as the Supreme Court — that were crucial to Watergate’s unraveling and to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Challenging the media-driven mantra that 9/11 ‘changed everything’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on September 10, 2021 at 3:02 pm

From the hours immediately after the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, news outlets have promoted a mantra that the assault on commercial and military landmarks in New York and suburban Washington “changed everything” in America.

USA Today stated as much on the day after the attacks:

“Days that live in infamy are supposed to be found in dusty history books. Tuesday changed all that. It changed everything. Our world will never be the same.”

The Independent in London declared on the day after:

“Tuesday, 11 September 2001, will go down in America’s annals as the day that changed everything. It was the day that a nation’s confidence was shattered during morning rush-hour in New York City, and its defensive might was mocked at coffee-time in Washington.”

Similar accounts invoking a similar catchcry have appeared in innumerable news reports and commentaries in the 20 years since al-Qaeda terrorists commandeered commercial jets and flew two of them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. They crashed a third into the west facade of the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked jet plunged into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, after passengers attempted to wrest control of the aircraft.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, and the lives of thousands of others were shattered or forever altered.

To posit that 9/11 “changed everything” understandably has been a way to make fathomable the shock, horror, and malignant theatricality of that infamous day, a way to invest September 11, 2001, with exceptional and enduring significance.

But exactly what “changed everything” meant remained definitionally elusive — and subject to not infrequent dispute. “Nothing changes everything,” columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11. (The activist Jesse Jackson said at the first anniversary that “9/11 did not change everything. It did change the subject.”)

The Washington Post made a determined effort recently to pin down and elaborate on the “changed everything” mantra. It did so by devoting much of its Sunday magazine (see cover image nearby) to a collection of brief, solicited opinions purporting to describe how 9/11 wrought change in journalism, television, movies, art, fashion, theater, policing, architecture, editorial cartooning, and other fields and pursuits.

The collection was introduced with a sweeping claim that “9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways.”

It was a far-reaching yet ultimately unpersuasive attempt to clarify and bring dimension to the “changed everything” catchcry. Indeed, it was striking that the Post’s collection presented only mixed evidence of significant change incontrovertibly linked to the attacks. Many entries were impressionistic; vagueness stalked more than a few contributions.

For example, one contributor wrote, “Museums have yet to return to the levels of ambition we saw before the attacks.”

Declared another contributor: “The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.”

USA Today front page, day after 9/11

Another contributor alluded to recordings of telephone calls placed by victims aboard the hijacked aircraft or trapped in the stricken Twin Towers and wrote:

“There’s no way to prove, of course, that 9/11 led more people to use the phrase ‘I love you.’ And we might not be thinking of disaster while on a routine call with Mom, Dad, a sibling, a best friend or a spouse. But it was one of the first times Americans got such a visceral window into other people’s intimate conversations — and I believe that, for many of us, it left a mark.”

The attacks of 9/11 certainly led to change — and fresh intrusions — in airport security and personal privacy. The federal government was expanded. The country fought a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda planned the attacks.

But when considered closely, it becomes clear the 9/11 attacks did not “change everything.”

The attacks were not fatal to American political or economic power. Public opinion polls reported that after 9/11 many Americans felt a surge of patriotic fervor, a deeper commitment to the religious and spiritual side of life, and a newfound sense of political unity.

Such responses proved fleeting, however. They faded in time.

Even the Post’s collection acknowledged, perhaps unintentionally,  that change after 9/11 wasn’t always so enduring. The syndicated cartoonist Steve Breen wrote, for example, that after the attacks “there seemed to be an unspoken rule that our favorite target, President George W. Bush, was off-limits. Luckily, that didn’t last long, and we were free to go after Bush (as well as Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, etc.) unfettered.”

Gene Weingarten, the newspaper’s humor columnist, observed: “Pretty quickly [after 9/11], humor returned. It was, I think, the first return to normalcy after that ghastly day, the first good thing to happen.”

(Just a week after the 9/11 attacks, Weingarten had lamented the diminished state of humor in America. “The problem,” he wrote then, “is we are finding no humor, anywhere. When will we be able to laugh again?”)

An assessment far more tempered and thoughtful about the effects of 9/11 was offered not long ago by Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown University professor who pointed out:

“In the United States, the long-term impact of 9/11 does not compare to the great underlying tensions that have shaped American life over generations and centuries: racial tensions and oppression, fears created by immigration, concern about cultural change and the threat to religion and morality, fears about the impact of alcohol and drugs, and the Cold War.

“The impact of 9/11 rather resembles one of the ‘moral panics’ analyzed by James A. Morone in Hellfire Nation; a wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again, leaving behind a new layer of US security institutions and practices.”

Akin to a “wave of public hysteria that, like Prohibition and McCarthyism, has receded again”: that’s a fair point — a tenable interpretation given the analytical distance allowed by the passage of 20 years.

“The events of 9/11,” Lieven observed in closing, “have not … defined the world in general, and certainly not ‘our’ world in the West.

“The truly defining factors are quite different,” he wrote, citing the “geopolitical struggle with China” and the domestic troubles of Western democracies.

What’s notable and refreshing about Lieven’s commentary is that it did not proceed from an assumption that 9/11 “changed everything.” It is instead a detached and critical assessment, of which we could use more.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Insidious: Off-hand references signal deep embedding of prominent media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 6, 2021 at 11:15 am

The insidious nature of prominent media myths is evident in how casually they are invoked, as if their veracity is beyond question.

These blithe, passing references in news articles and commentary seldom are accompanied by much context or explanation. And their appearance signals how deeply embedded some media myths have become.

Two recent cases serve to illustrate this tendency.

Musings in the New York Times

One example appeared last week in an entertaining if overlong New York Times article that mused about the identity of an elusive and anonymous Instagram user whose handle is rg_bunny1. Over the recent months, user rg_bunny1 has unleashed what the Times called “a daily torrent of quirky, particular images that, taken together, speak to an aesthetic that delights, confounds, fixates and infuriates in equal measures.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert was the article’s passing reference to Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal of 1972-74. Bernstein, we are told, was “one-half of the duo that famously uncovered the source that brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The “duo” was Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “the source” no doubt refers to “Deep Throat,” the anonymous informant with whom Woodward — but not Bernstein — consulted from time to time as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973.

But he was “the source that brought down the Nixon presidency”?

Nope. Not “Deep Throat.” Not Bernstein and Woodward. Not their reporting for the Washington Post.

Those all are components of a tenacious media myth — what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — a trope that’s erroneous but ever-appealing, easy to retell and easy to grasp.

What really brought down Nixon is far more complicated than a duo of journalists and a well-placed anonymous source.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions and intricacy 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.”

But even then, I noted, “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 to his presidency in August 1974.

The disclosure about the existence of Nixon’s tapes was pivotal in the Watergate saga — and it was a disclosure not by Bernstein and Woodward or by “Deep Throat,” but by a former Nixon aide in testimony before  a U.S. Senate select committee. (In a book about their Watergate reporting, Bernstein and Woodward claimed to have had a lead about the existence of the tapes, but did not pursue it because the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, didn’t think it would lead to a high-quality story.)

The “Deep Throat” source was W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official who fed Watergate-related information, and sometimes misinformation, to Woodward (as well as a reporter for Time magazine named Sandy Smith). Felt was motivated not so much by altruism or distate for Nixon’s White House as by ambition to become director of the FBI, a position that opened up in May 1972 with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.

By leaking to reporters, Felt believed he could undercut his rivals for the FBI directorship. Those motives were persuasively described in Max Holland’s 2016 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

It’s useful and revealing in this context to recall what Woodward once said about the notion that he and Bernstein toppled Nixon. Woodward told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Another example of a media myth breezily cited appeared the other day in essay posted at the online site of Newsmax, the cable news outlet that has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump.

The essay took up President Joe Biden’s recent gun-control proposal, asserting that it would “strangle the rights of law-abiding gun-owners.” In search of an analogy, the essay landed on the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a pessimistic, on-air assessment about the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The Newsmax essay invoked President Lyndon Johnson’s supposed reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” or something to that effect — and declared:

“At that moment, and on that basis, [Johnson] decided that he wouldn’t seek another term as president.”

Again, nope.

Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968, and it is not clear whether the president ever saw the show program on videotape at some undefined later date.

But it is clear that in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite report, Johnson remained publicly and adamantly hawkish about the war. In orher words, when the effects of Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment should have been most potent, Johnson was as insistent as ever about prosecuting the conflict. After the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy.

Just three days after Cronkite’s report, for example, 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,” he 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.”

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

“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.”

The president spoke about Vietnam with even greater 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.”

Johnson’s views on Vietnam did change, and he did decide against seeking reelection to the presidency.

But not because of what Cronkite had said.

The reasons for the president’s change of heart were political, at least in part.

By mid-March 1968, Johnson was facing insurgent challenges for the Democratic nomination from two anti-war U.S. senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Johnson had nearly lost the New Hampshire primary election on March 12, 1968, to McCarthy and he seemed unlikely to prevail in the upcoming primary in Wisconsin.

Also was influential in swinging Johnson’s views about the war was a coterie of informal advisers who met at the White House in late March 1968.

The advisers, who came to be called the “Wise Men,” included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under-secretary of state.

“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights'” in Vietnam, Ball later recalled.

Johnson, he said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”

The counsel of the Wise Men was a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech on March 31, 1968, Johnson announced limits to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam, as an inducement to the communist regime in Hanoi to enter talks to end the war.

Johnson closed the speech by declaring he would not seek reelection — a bombshell announcement that contained no reference, passing or otherwise, to Cronkite’s on-air assessment of a month before.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Punctured tale of Trump’s photo op may live on as media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 15, 2021 at 12:24 pm

The insistent media narrative that demonstrators were violently expelled from Lafayette Square outside the White House a year ago to allow then-President Donald Trump to pose for photographs at a fire-damanged church nearby was convincingly and impressively deflated last week in a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Although punctured, the photo op narrative may well live on as a full-blown media-driven myth, as a tale widely believed despite the evidence disputing it.

From the IG’s report

Embedded in the narrative about Trump’s photo op of June 1, 2020, are earmarks of media myths — those well-known tales about and/or by the news media that are widely known and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The inspector general’s report made clear that corporate media exaggerated in declaring that Trump or his aides ordered demonstrators dispersed from Lafayette Park so he could pose at the historic St. John Episcopal Church, the basement of which had been damaged by fire in rioting the night before.

Mark Lee Greenblatt, the Interior Department inspector general, said in a statement accompanying the report that “the evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park” en route to the church. (USPP is an acronym for United States Park Police, a law enforcement unit of the National Park Service.)

The protests near the White House were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer a few days earlier.

“No one we interviewed stated that the USPP cleared the park because of a potential visit by the President or that the USPP altered the timeline to accommodate the President’s movement,” the inspector general’s report stated.

Instead, the report said, Park Police “cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers” that occurred during civil unrest the two nights before. Indeed, fencing material had arrived at the site before Park Police learned of Trump’s plans, according to a timeline included in the report.

Such findings represent a serious blow to an aggressive media narrative that excoriated Trump for arrogance, hubris, and reckless use of power. “The IG’s conclusion could not be clearer: the media narrative was false from start to finish,” wrote prominent media critic Glenn Greenwald, referring to the inspector general’s report.

“In sum,” Greenwald added, “the media claims that were repeated over and over and over as proven fact — and even confirmed by ‘fact-checkers’ — were completely false.”

And yet, it is not at all far-fetched that the tale of Trump’s photo op will live on as a media myth — believed because it’s believable, even though disputed or severely challenged.

The photo op narrative shares central features of media myths in that it’s a prominent tale but yet simplistic, pithy, and easily retold.

Similarly, the photo-op tale is, at least perhaps for foes of Trump, too good not to be true, a truism also characteristic of many media myths.

Likewise, the tale of the photo op is focused on a clear central actor — a clear villain, in this case. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of the central actor in the mythical but enduring tale of William Randolph Hearst, a media bogeyman for all time, and his vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

Moreover, the photo op episode lends itself to readily identifiable shorthand, not unlike the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” in which an editorial comment by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite in 1968 supposedly swung public opinion against the war in Vietnam. The epithet “Trump’s photo op” already is routinely associated with the events near the White House on June 1, 2020.

Another feature of media myths is that high-profile challenges to arise well after the erroneous narrative is in place. Such was the case of the media myth that Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. What I call the heroic journalists interpretation of the Watergate scandal took hold before it was ever prominently challenged. The inspector general’s report was released slightly more than a year after the photo-op episode.

And even then, the inspector general’s report set off little soul-searching by the corporate media, especially by news outlets such as CNN, which ran hard with the photo-op story as it unfolded last year.

 

But rarely do the corporate media take to soul-searching or apologies when they fumble an important story, a point made in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Or as media critic Jack Shafer noted years ago:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Shafer further wrote: “Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”

So it’s been with the Trump-photo op. Corporate media have been disinclined to offer explanations or to revisit their misguided assumptions in any sustained way.

In a few instances, journalists have openly disparaged the inspector general’s report. CNN’s chief domestic correspondent, Jim Acosta, referred to Trump’s private estate in Florida and sneered that the report suggested “this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June 1st.”

Almost a “whitewash”? And what was that about reluctance to concede error “no matter what the facts are”?

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The impressive and enduring appeal of journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative

In 1897, Newspapers, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on May 29, 2021 at 4:50 pm

American journalism’s most famous jailbreak narrative — the escape of Evangelina Cisneros from a Havana prison in October 1897 — once again has demonstrated remarkable and enduring appeal.

The jailbreak, which was organized by a Havana-based reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s brash New York Journal, is the centerpiece of a recently published fictional account —  the third treatment by a novelist since the early 1990s.

The rescue of Cisneros, then a teenage political prisoner, represented the zenith of Hearst’s “journalism of action,” a paradigm that envisioned newspapers taking high-profile participatory roles in addressing, and remedying, wrongs of society.

The jailbreak is central to Chanel Cleeton’s The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, which was published early this month. It also was a narrative centerpiece of Daniel Lynch’s amusing if improbable Yellow, which was published in 1992, and of Amy Ephron’s White Rose, which came out in 1999 and was billed as part romance, part thriller.

I read portions of Cleeton’s novel and was struck by the reminiscence to details first described in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. (I also reported findings about the jailbreak in an article, “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” that was published in 2002 in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal American Journalism.)

Cleeton, however, acknowledges no debt to The Year That Defined American Journalism, which specifically rejected the persistent but evidence-thin notion that the jailbreak was a hoax, that Cisneros was freed because Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba had been bribed to look the other way.

I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism that the Cisneros jailbreak instead was “the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles” — roles that had remained obscure for more than 100 years.

To her credit, Cleeton does not embrace the jailbreak-as-hoax notion.

But her discussion of the main actors who conspired to break Cisneros from jail certainly would be familiar to readers of The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Cisneros in 1898

Indeed, several characters discussed in The Year That Defined American Journalism figure in Cleeron’s novel.

They include:

Karl Decker, the jailbreak’s organizer who nominally was the Journal’s correspondent in Havana; Carlos Carbonnel, the Cuban-American banker who secluded Cisneros at his home after the jailbreak and who married her several months later; Walter B. Barker, the headstrong U.S. consular officer in north-central Cuba who acted as Cisneros’ guardian aboard the New York-bound steamer on the final leg of her escape from Havana, and William B. MacDonald and Francisco (Paco) DeBesche, who were Decker’s accomplices in the jailbreak.

Several previously undisclosed details about the Cisneros escape were found in my review of an unpublished manuscript of Fitzhugh Lee, the senior U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1896 until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The manuscript offered insights “not to be found in other sources,” I noted in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

Lee’s manuscript and his other papers at the University of Virginia — which, at my urging, were opened to scholars in 2001 — also make clear that he, his wife, and daughter took exceptional interest in the plight of Cisneros (whose full name was Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros).

At the time of her escape, she was 19-years-old and had spent 15 months in captivity in Havana’s notorious jail for women, Casa de Recogidas, without being tried.

She was suspected by Spanish authorities of complicity in an assault on a senior Spanish officer on the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth); Cisneros said the officer, Colonel José Bérriz, had made unwelcome advances toward her. The Cisneros case unfolded during the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule, an insurgency that began in 1895 and had spread across Cuba by 1897.

Spanish authorities imposed harsh conditions on Cubans in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which eventually brought U.S. intervention and the Spanish-American War.

His manuscript suggests that Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was aware of the plot to free Cisneros. But he had plausible deniability, given that he was on home leave in the United States when Cisneros escaped in the small hours of October 7, 1897.

Two days later, Cisneros was dressed as a boy and brought aboard the steamer Seneca, which reached New York October 13.

In keeping with his paradigm of activist journalism, Hearst organized a thunderous outdoor reception for Cisneros and Decker, who, under an assumed name, had separately fled Cuba aboard a Spanish-flagged vessel. Nearly 75,000 people came to Madison Square, a turnout the Journal described as “the greatest gathering New York has seen since the close of the [civil] war” in 1865.

The jailbreak and flight of Evangelina Cisneros make for a remarkable story, one without direct equivalent in American journalism. It is a complex and untidy narrative, too. As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “to examine the Cisneros affair in any detailed way is to confront a tangle of contradiction, exaggeration, and misdirection.”

Scrubbing jailhouse floors (New York Journal)

The Journal, for example, probably exaggerated the conditions of her confinement, suggesting that among other indignities she was commanded to scrub the jailhouse floors. Fitzhugh Lee publicly scoffed at such accounts.

Cleeton hinted at the complexity of the jailbreak narrative, writing in an author’s note at the close of her novel, “There were times in telling Evangelina’s story that truth felt stranger than fiction,” adding that “there was no need for dramatic embellishment.”

She said her primary source was The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, which the Journal had arranged for publication in late 1897, based on reporting by Decker and others. The book, however, contained almost no detail about the plot to free her; no reference by name to Decker’s co-conspirators; no specific mention of Carlos Carbonell, the bachelor-banker who, as Lee’s manuscript makes clear, was vital to the success of the covert operation.

Story of Evangelina Cisneros was the only work cited specifically by Cleeton, who she said she “utilized” more than 100 sources “to research different aspects of the novel.”

Given the novel’s reliance on details first published in The Year That Defined American Journalism, acknowledging the book by name would have been fitting.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Watergate myth, extravagant version: Nixon was ‘dethroned entirely’ by press

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2021 at 7:15 am

Nixon ‘dethroned entirely’ by the press? Hardly

The mythical notion that dogged journalism brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal is unshakeable in its appeal and irresistible in its application.

Seldom has the myth been presented as colorfully or extravagantly as it was in a recent Esquire UK essay pegged to the 45th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men, the movie that did much to embed the heroic-journalist trope in popular consciousness.

“It’s easy to romantici[z]e a time when people bought newspapers and presidents could be shamed,” the essay stated. “We think of simpler as better. Which is perhaps why, on its 45th anniversary, All the President’s Men, is ostensibly heralded as something of a shiny art[i]fact from an even shinier era.

“Because back then, presidents couldn’t only be shamed by the free-ish and fair-ish press, but dethroned entirely – a rare event that serves as the true life narrative backbone of All the President’s Men as it retells the Watergate scandal and The Washington Post reporters behind its excavation.”

Dethroned entirely?

That may be a charmingly British turn of phrase.

But it’s not what happened in Watergate.

The movie All the President’s Men certainly leaves the impression Nixon was dethroned by journalism, given its focus on the characters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the lead reporters for the Washington Post on Watergate.

But in reality, forces and factors far more diverse and powerful than Woodward and Bernstein brought about the fall Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “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.”

And even then, I noted, “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, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s seminal crime — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I further wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — a version even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

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

It cannot be said often enough that in their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein  missed some key developments as the Watergate scandal unfolded — notably the disclosure that Nixon had installed the secret taping system at the White House.

The existence of the tapes was revealed in July 1973, in testimony by a former Nixon aide before the U.S. Senate Committee on Watergate.

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

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

Put another way, absent the tapes, no Nixon dethroning.

So what, then, accounts for the persistence of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth?

Its appeal no doubt reflects a fundamental characteristic of media myths: it’s simplistic. The heroic-journalists interpretation offers easy-to-grasp version of a sprawling scandal that sent some two dozen men to jail. Embracing the heroic-journalist  trope allows the side-stepping of Watergate’s intricacies.

It’s become what I’ve called “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Hal Holbrook, ‘follow the money,’ and Watergate’s distorted history

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 3, 2021 at 8:48 am

The death of actor Hal Holbrook was reported yesterday and, inevitably, his cinematic portrayal of a shadowy, garage-lurking source in the Watergate scandal received prominent mention in a flurry of obituaries.

Those articles recalled Holbrook’s advice in the film All the President’s Men to “follow the money” which, in the movie, was presented as guidance crucial to unraveling the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate.

Indeed, “follow the money” is a cinematic anagram that often has been taken as genuine. In fact it’s Watergate’s most famous made-up line. The urgent-sounding advice was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, which was adapted from a book by the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Their book, also titled All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in 1974, not long before Nixon’s resignation.

As popular as the book was, far more people have seen the movie, which has been lavishly praised over the years for its outstanding cast and for its supposed accuracy. The Post’s movie critic once declared, extravagantly:

“In the annals of Washington’s most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than ‘All the President’s Men,’ which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The movie as the “record itself of the Watergate scandal.”

Hardly.

Beyond injecting “follow the money” into the popular vernacular, All the President’s Men toyed with the historical record in several respects. Notably, the film:

  • embraced and elevated the mythical heroic-journalist trope, depicting the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as vital to unraveling the scandal. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein missed key developments in Watergate, such as the pivotal disclosure of the taping system Nixon had installed at the White House.
  • minimized, and even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s dimensions.
  • depicted Woodward and Bernstein as having faced threats far greater than they really encountered. They were shown, for example, as taking precautions to thwart electronic surveillance presumably aimed at them by the Nixon administration. Although “Deep Throat” — who in real life was Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official — had warned them about such eavesdropping techniques, Woodward and Bernstein followed precautions such as conferring on street corners only for a short period. It “all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic,” they wrote in their book, and soon went back to their routines.

The film also blurred somewhat the personas of Holbrook and Felt, who in 2005 revealed that he had been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source. An  essay in the Post today claimed that while Holbrook’s “follow the money” line had been made up for dramatic purposes, it “still reflected what Felt was saying without saying it.”

Interestingly, Holbrook, who was 95 when he died last month, said late in his life that he wasn’t interested in playing the “Deep Throat” source because the character was shown only in deep shadows of a parking garage. “I turned the script down because there’s nothing there,” Holbrook said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “You don’t see the guy and there’s nothing there. I’m not going to do it.”

Holbrook was persuaded to take the part by Robert Redford, who acquired rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book and played Woodward in the movie. “He said, ‘Listen, Hal. People will remember this role more than anything else in the film. … I’m telling you the truth, they will remember this role,'” Holbrook quoted Redford as saying.

Holbrook said he relented and reluctantly agreed to play “Deep Throat.” He acknowledged in the interview that Redford turned out to be right about the memorable quality of the stealthy character. “He was right as rain,” Holbrook conceded. “He understood it, and I didn’t.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: