W. Joseph Campbell

Kennedy took responsibility?

In Bay of Pigs, Media myths on November 28, 2009 at 11:09 am

Leslie Gelb, a former columnist for the New York Times and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says President Obama’s recent Asia trip was so thin on accomplishment that it revealed a “disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.”

Gelb, writing at the Daily Beast blog, also says Obama “should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making.” He further suggests that “Obama might take responsibility himself, as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.”

There’s no argument here with Gelb’s assessment about Obama’s foreign policy. It projects a decided whiff of amateurishness, indeed.

But on the point about Kennedy’s having taken responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle: Well, there’s a whiff of media myth in that claim.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Kennedy in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, sought to spread the blame to the U.S. news media, particularly the New York Times. On separate occasions in 1961 and 1962, Kennedy told the Times publisher and its managing editor that had the newspaper printed all it knew about the pending invasion, the country and his administration would have been spared a major foreign policy embarrassment. That is, the pre-invasion publicity would have made an assault untenable.

But as James (Scotty) Reston, the veteran Times columnist and correspondent in Washington, correctly noted, Kennedy’s comments were “a cop-out.”

The decision to press ahead with the attempt to topple Fidel Castro rested squarely with the Kennedy administration.

Kennedy’s comments, made to Publisher Orvil E. Dryfoos and Managing Editor Turner Catledge, had the effect of solidifying the media-driven myth that the Times had censored itself in reporting about the run-up to the invasion.

The purported self-censorship took place in the days before the invasion, which failed utterly in its objective of toppling Castro.

But close reading of the newspaper in early April 1961 makes it clear that the Times did not spike it reports about the pending invasion of Cuba. The newspaper did not censor itself. The Times’ coverage about preparations for the assault was in fact fairly detailed and prominently displayed on front pages in the days before the invasion force of Cuban exiles hit the beaches.

The related notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion also is utter fancy.

But the anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship lives on as a timeless lesson about why the news media should not bow or defer to power. It’s a potent, durable, and compelling tale.

It’s also apocryphal.

WJC

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  1. [...] Halberstam’s Powers That Be also offered a graphic, if exaggerated, account that President John Kennedy supposedly called James Reston of the New York Times in April 1961 and urged him not to publish a report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion. [...]

  2. [...] that supposedly altered President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy; the Bay of Pigs suppression myth that erroneously says President John F. Kennedy persuaded the New York Times to spike a story about [...]

  3. [...] with a tenacious media myth linked to the newspaper’s reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly 50 years [...]

  4. [...] in the final analysis, I note, ” it was Kennedy, not American journalists, who gave the go-ahead in April 1961, sending a brigade of Cuban exiles [...]

  5. [...] Supposedly, the Times censored itself about invasion plans several days before the assault took place — at the request of the President John F. Kennedy. [...]

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

  7. [...] editors at the Times caved in to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and eviscerated Szulc’s article, removing key elements about the invasion [...]

  8. [...] topic no doubt was too intricate for set-piece drama that depicts President John F. Kennedy as mirthless and insecure; his wife as clueless, and his father as domineering and routinely [...]

  9. [...] The thwarted invasion entrenched Castro’s dictatorship and represented a major foreign policy setback for the United States and the three-month-old administration of President John F. Kennedy. [...]

  10. [...] suppression myth has it that the Times, at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, spiked or emasculated its detailed report about invasion [...]

  11. [...] Supposedly, in early April 1961, the Times spiked or emasculated a detailed report about the invasion preparations — and did so at the urging of President John F. Kennedy. [...]

  12. [...] F. Kennedy supposedly won that debate in September 1960 because he looked so much more rested and telegenic [...]

  13. [...] was when John F. Kennedy supposedly won the first-ever televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates because he [...]

  14. [...] the mythical tale that the New York Times, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, censored itself in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April [...]

  15. [...] encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, gave rise to the media myth of viewer-listener disagreement: [...]

  16. [...] he wrote in another footnote. As such, participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the [...]

  17. […] to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also […]

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