W. Joseph Campbell

What was Rush Limbaugh talking about?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on September 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm

The conservative talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, ruminated on his show yesterday about the power of images — and seemed to err in describing an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War.

In response to a caller’s observation that “the Vietnam War changed when somebody got shot live on the air” — an evident reference to Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph — Limbaugh declared:

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ (AP)

“The Vietnam War, I’ll tell you what began the end of the Vietnam War. It was not Walter Cronkite saying that some operation failed.  It was a picture of young children burned by Agent Orange fleeing an explosion in Time magazine.  That’s what did it.  … Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

It’s most likely the voluble Limbaugh was referring to “Napalm Girl,” the award-winning photograph taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. (At least one radio station thought he was referring to that image, too.)

“Napalm Girl” showed a cluster of Vietnamese children, the terror-stricken victims of a misdirected napalm attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of photograph was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, naked and screaming from the burns she suffered.

Except for the reference to chemical defoliant Agent Orange, “Napalm Girl” — formally titled “The Terror of War” — is the photograph that most closely corresponds to Limbaugh’s description: “Naked girl running away from disaster with her skin burned by Agent Orange.”

More problematic than mistaking the details of one of the Vietnam’s most searing images was Limbaugh’s blithe claim of the photo’s power, that the image — any image — possessed such impact as to mark the beginning of the end of the war.

That’s hardly the case.

By June 1972 when Ut’s photo was taken, the war was essentially over already for U.S. military forces in Vietnam. Nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country. By mid-year 1972, about 49,000 American troops were in Vietnam, well off the peak of 549,000 in early 1969. U.S. casualties were lower, too — from 4,221 killed in 1970 to 1,380 killed in 1971. President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” — of turning over the war effort to South Vietnamese forces — was in full flower.

None of that is attributable to the effects of “Napalm Girl.” Indeed, the beginning of the end for the U.S. military in Vietnam came well before the photograph was taken.

Even so, it’s not uncommon to exaggerate the photograph’s influence; it’s as if the image was so powerful that its effects likewise must be profound.

For example, the Associated Press declared in a retrospective article in 2012, 40 years after the photo was taken, that “Napalm Girl” helped “to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

And more recently, Ut was quoted as saying: “When I pressed the button, I knew. This picture will stop the war.”

It didn’t, of course. The war ended in April 1975, when North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed South Vietnamese troops and seized the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

WJC

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Ouster of WaPo publisher prompts reference to newspaper’s mythical role in Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 2, 2014 at 10:11 pm

News that Jeff Bezos is ousting the publisher of the Washington Post about a year after he purchased the newspaper prompted recollections of the Post’s better days — recollections both exaggerated and erroneous.

A landmark?

Marginal on Watergate

The recollections centered around the newspaper’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago last month in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

It was the Post’s onetime archrival, the New York Times, that indulged today in the most excessive overstatement.

In its initial online report about the departure of Katharine Weymouth as publisher, the Times stated that “she was the last major link to the Graham family, which had become a Washington institution and had presided over The Post’s most glorious era — the decades surrounding the Watergate scandal, in which it was instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”

While Weymouth’s departure, effective October 1, is intriguing — it means that Bezos, the multibillionaire founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is imposing his will on what has become in recent years a thin and faded newspaper — Media Myth Alert is most interested in the mischaracterization of the Post’s role in Watergate.

The newspaper assuredly was not, as the Times claimed, “instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”

The Post’s investigative reporting on Watergate linked Nixon’s reelection committee to the seminal crime of Watergate, the foiled burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The Post also implicated the likes of John Mitchell, the former attorney general who was Nixon’s campaign manager, in the scandal.

Such reports helped the Post win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But they were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency.

Indeed, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s contributions in reporting on the unfolding scandal in 1972-73 were “modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Unseating Nixon, I further noted in Getting It Wrong, “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.”

And even then, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal were it not for the audiotapes he surreptitiously made of many conversations in the Oval Office. Only when compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the tapes that clearly depicted him as taking an active role in plotting the coverup of the Watergate breakin.

Interestingly, it was not reporters for the Post but investigators for a select committee of the U.S. Senate who learned of and forced the disclosure about the existence of the tapes. It was, in other words, a pivotal Watergate story that the Post missed.

The Post lagged on other decisive Watergate stories, notably the existence of the White House coverup of the breakin.

And the story that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, still say they are most proud of was in error on crucial details.

WaPo front_Oct10_72

Washington Post, October 10, 1972

That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — erroneously — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates mounting challenges to Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda disputed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”

So “modest at best” aptly characterizes the Post’s contributions in unraveling Watergate.

The newspaper most certainly did not bring down Nixon.

The departure of Weymouth, and her replacement by Frederick J. Ryan Jr., once an official in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, was accompanied by another interesting sidebar: That of Bezos’ refusal to discuss the move with a reporter for the Post.

As Huffington Post observed:

“Bezos kept up a dubious practice of refusing comment to the journalists he pays when it was announced … that he had replaced the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, with former Politico executive and Reagan administration official Fred Ryan. … Anybody expecting openness and transparency from Bezos, however, would be disappointed, as the Post’s own story made clear.”

The Post’s article said the statement by Bezos announcing the change in publishers “‘did not give reasons for the change or its timing. Bezos declined to comment through a spokesman.”

How clumsy.

WJC

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Confronting the mythology of Watergate

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I plan to call attention to prominent media myths of Watergate during a panel discussion in Montreal this afternoon, three days shy of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in America’s gravest political scandal.

AEJMC 2014 panel_flier3The venue is the annual conference of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and other panelists include Max Holland, author of the well-received Watergate book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, and my colleague at American University, John C. Watson, author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.

Moderating the panel — titled “Beyond the Mythology of Watergate” — will be Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland and author of the award-winning Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

I intend to discuss the dominant narrative of Watergate — the mythical notion that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate crimes of Nixon and forced his resignation.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The trope is endlessly appealing to journalists and has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate. It is, after all, a handy proxy for grasping the essence of Watergate — Nixon resigned because of criminal misconduct — while avoiding the scandal’s mind-numbing complexity.

The many layers of  Watergate — the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not easily understood or readily recalled these days. The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

Hence, the enduring appeal and tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. It’s history lite, history made accessible, history made simple.

As I plan to point out today, the disclosures by Woodward and Bernstein about the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972 weren’t nearly enough to force the president’s resignation. And the decisive revelations of Watergate — among them the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — weren’t the work of the Washington Post.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term in office if not for the Watergate tapes, which clearly showed him approving a cover-up of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.Getting It Wrong_cover

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

The movie in fact ignores and even denigrates the work of other agencies and actors in the many-tenacled investigations of Watergate.

But why, some observers might ask, do Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein, still matter after 40 years? Why does anyone much care?

They care because Woodward and Bernstein are living reminders of the unmasking of America’s greatest political scandal — one that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Woodward and Bernstein are septuagenarians but they speak eagerly about their salad days, especially on occasions presented by the anniversaries of Watergate. The Post brought them together last week for what turned out to be a surprisingly boring look back at Watergate. That tedious program notwithstanding, their saga remains an appealing parable — that dogged and imaginative reporting can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change.

They very much are the heroic faces of Watergate, the journalists who saved us from Nixon.

WJC

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