W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Scoring points’

Invoking Murrow-McCarthy myth to assert the worthiness of TV

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on June 11, 2011 at 6:58 am


Media-driven myths have a variety of perverse applications — including value in scoring points in arguments.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald does just that in turning to a particularly hardy media myth — that of Edward R. Murrow’s supposedly decisive televised report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

In a commentary titled “In defense of the idiot box,” the Morning Herald argues for the worthiness of television, asserting that the medium “has the power to shock, appeal, nauseate and, if everything comes together, inspire.”

The commentary further states:

“TV has made a difference before. In the early days, Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy, starting a tradition of fearless TV journalism exposing the corruption of government, the horrors of war and the dark side of society. The medium may have numbed the odd brain but it’s also done a lot of good ….”

Mind-numbing television generally is.

More doubtful is the commentary’s extravagant claim about the fearlessness of Murrow. His report about McCarthy, which aired on the See It Now show of March 9, 1954, scarcely can be termed “fearless” and shouldn’t be seen as inaugurating any sort of “tradition” of searching, intrepid broadcast journalism.

That’s because Murrow was very late in taking on McCarthy and the senator’s heavy-handed campaign against communists in government.

Pearson, muckraking columnist

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out last year, the evidence “is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no … decisive effect, that Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Notable among those journalists was Drew Pearson, who wrote the syndicated and widely read muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson was quick to call attention to the recklessness of McCarthy’s claims.

He took on McCarthy in February 1950, soon after the senator first raised his claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government.

Pearson wrote that month that “the alleged communists which [McCarthy] claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Far from being fearless, Murrow, it can be argued, waited till the risks had subsided before taking on McCarthy. By March 1954, McCarthy’s capacity to stir dread was in decided retreat.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Eric Sevareid, Murrow’s friend and colleague at CBS News, was among those who chafed at the interpretation of fearlessness attached to the Murrow program which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said in the 1970s:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong how the media myth about Murrow took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.

“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program,” I write, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.

“Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, 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.'”

Murrow, moreover, told Newsweek magazine: “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous” in confronting McCarthy.

Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, likewise rejected claims that the See It Now program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. As Friendly wrote 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.”


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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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