W. Joseph Campbell

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

The death of Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, touched off  a wave of tributes that erroneously cited the newspaper’s central role in the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Bradlee, himself, had rejected the simplistic and mythical notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.

But as news spread yesterday that Bradlee had died at age 93, adulatory tributes poured in, many of them blithely invoking the media myth of Watergate.

USA Today, for example, said Bradlee “led” the Post’s “Watergate coverage that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The Los Angeles Times declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary about Bradlee stated that he “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.” (The print edition of the Times is less sweeping if not more accurate, saying Bradlee “presided over The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”)

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Similarly, the German news service Deutsche Welle said “Bradlee oversaw the journalistic investigation that brought down US president Richard Nixon.” (The new service also claimed the Post’s reporting “led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon”: Not only was the Post’s reporting a marginal factor in Nixon’s resignation, which he submitted before he could be impeached.)

And so it went.

Even the Post, which over the years had largely refrained from embracing the Watergate myth, went all in, saying on its front page today that Watergate was “a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting.”

The scandal, in fact, was touched off by a burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and investigative authorities quickly tied the crime to Nixon’s reelection committee and to White House operatives. Watergate hardly was “touched off by the Post’s reporting”; nor did the Post contribute significantly to the scandal’s unraveling.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s reporting failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It also failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, which were crucial to the scandal’s outcome.

Their existence was disclosed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In their book All the President’s Men, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, said they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

But according to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and thus missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

The Post went hagiographic in its editorial page tribute to Bradlee, describing him as “the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.”

The editorial continued, saying, “There was nothing like working for him …. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain ‘creative tension’ was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.”

And so on.

Surely it is not churlish to point out that the editorial failed to mention Bradlee’s greatest failure as editor — the fraud of “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that the Post published in 1980. The article was so compelling that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

But soon after the award was announced, it was revealed that Janet Cooke, the author of “Jimmy’s World,” had falsified key elements of the biography submitted to the Pulitzer board, claiming among other credentials a degree from Vassar and a command of six languages.

The exposure of those lies forced the Post editors to confront Cooke about “Jimmy’s World,” and she soon confessed to having made it all up.

The extensive back story to “Jimmy’s World” was reported by William Green, then the Post’s ombudsman, in 1981; his writeup is available here and, 33 years on, it still makes absorbing reading.

WJC

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Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ invoked as putdown in Conn. gubernatorial race

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes on October 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm
Secret plan? Who me?

Secret plan? Who, me?

A bit of campaign history that never was — Richard Nixon’s promise in 1968 that he had a “secret plan” for ending the Vietnam War — reportedly has emerged as a snide putdown in Connecticut’s closely contested gubernatorial race.

According to the New Haven Register, Dannel Malloy, the Democratic incumbent, referred to Nixon’s purported “secret plan” in attempting to score points against his Republican foe, Tom Foley.

Malloy, the newspaper reported, said “’if you think Tom Foley has a plan, you are probably foolish enough to vote for him. He can’t tell what he wants to do. He won’t tell you what he will cut to get to a flat budget.’” The newspaper further reported that in remarks after a candidates’ debate last night, Malloy compared Foley’s positions “to President Richard Nixon promising he had a secret plan for ending the Vietman [sic] War.”

Now, state politics in Connecticut are but of passing interest to Media Myth Alert; far more intriguing is the reported casual reference to a dubious and mythical tale — a tale of impressive tenacity despite a dearth of evidence to support it.

The notion that Nixon promised a “secret plan” during his run for the presidency dates to the  primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. In early March 1968, Nixon said that his “new leadership” would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In its report about the speech, the United Press International wire service pointed out that Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” But the UPI dispatch noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”

Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam but claiming to possess a “secret plan” to end the war was not an element of his campaign: He did not stump for the presidency declaring he had one.

That much is clear in reviewing a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 in which Nixon was quoted as touting or otherwise speaking about having a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Had Nixon promised or run on a “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Nixon’s foes on occasion claimed that Nixon’s vagueness about how he would “end the war” was tantamount to having a “secret plan.” But such was their interpretation.

When asked directly, Nixon replied by saying that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon further stated, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times:

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

It is possible that Nixon in 1968 privately had in mind a “secret plan” of some kind for Vietnam. But it was not among his campaign promises.

Like many media myths, the anecdote seems too good not to be true. It is easily remembered and suggests guile and duplicity, qualities not infrequently associated with Nixon. But the evidence shows that “secret plan” is really more Nixonian than Nixon.

WJC

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The Wategate myth that offers something for everyone

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 27, 2014 at 1:47 pm

The heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate — the mythical and simplistic notion that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is one of those rare tales that commands appeal across the political spectrum.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon got Nixon

Conservative commentators sometimes invoke the narrative in bashing the news media as agenda-driven and untrustworthy. Left-wing outlets are known to embrace the meme as an ostensible example of crusading journalism that made a difference.

Both impulses were in evidence this week.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, referred to Woodward and Bernstein during his show yesterday, saying they exemplified a tendency in American journalism to lust after career-shattering exposés.

“If you take somebody out,” Limbaugh said, according to a transcript of his program, “if you expose a fraud or a cheat — or if you just take out somebody that you don’t like who has a lot of power — if you as a journalist are instrumental in doing that, then you are considered worthy of advancement in that industry, and it’s best exemplified by Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein and getting Nixon, forcing Nixon to resign.”

Earlier in the week and across the spectrum, the New York Times profiled the Post’s new publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., and took the occasion to recall one his predecessors, Katharine Graham. She was, the Times article noted, the publisher during the Watergate period who “famously stood up to the White House and helped bring down a president.”

Left unsaid by the talk show host and by the Times was just how the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and Graham led to Nixon’s ouster in the Watergate scandal, which broke in June 1972 with a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Truth is, their work didn’t lead to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Or much contribute to his fall.

As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Watergate-era executive editor, once put it in referring to the secret White House tapes that demonstrated the president’s culpability in attempting to cover up the burglary:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Bob Woodward has said, in earthier terms:

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

Or as Katharine Graham herself said at the 25th anniversary of the Watergate breakin:

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

Graham was quite right: Unraveling a scandal of the density and complexity of Watergate required, as I wrote in media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, subpoena power and “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.”

And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the White House tapes — the disclosure of which was made not by Woodward and Bernstein but by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, during questioning before a Senate select committee investigating the scandal.

The heroic-journalist trope is a simplified version of the scandal that cuts through complexities and intricacies to make Watergate accessible. It offers a narrative that’s appealing, memorable, and easy to grasp.

And it offers something for everyone.

WJC

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