W. Joseph Campbell

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Shoe leather, Watergate, and All the President’s Men

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 28, 2010 at 2:36 pm

The heroic-journalist tale of Watergate–that two intrepid young reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency–is one of the most appealing and self-reverential stories in American media history.

It’s also a media-driven myth, one of 10 addressed in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, an important factor for the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth lies in its cinematic treatment. The media-centric storyline of Watergate was cemented by the film All the President’s Men, which came out to much acclaim in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon’s resignation.

An item posted the other day at the Politics Daily site fondly recalled All the President’s Men, saying the movie “about a bygone era” harkens to the “glory days of newspapers.”

The writer also indulged in the heroic-journalist myth, saying that the Post reporters “who brought down a sitting president” did so “with nothing more than shoe leather, determination, guts and a passion for the truth.”

It’s a wonderful story of journalists triumphant. But it’s exaggerated.

Even writers and officials at the Post have tried over the years to make clear that the newspaper and its reporters did not bring down Richard Nixon.

Howard Kurtz, the newspaper’s media writer, wrote in 2005, for example:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “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 [in 1974] did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

He resigned the presidency about two weeks later.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men, however, placed Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the center of the unraveling of Watergate, while downplaying or dismissing the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I write, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

The movie helped make the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate vivid, memorable, accessible, and central.

After all, no other Watergate-related movie has retained such an appeal, or has likely been seen by as many people as All the President’s Men.

WJC

Recalling the mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on February 26, 2010 at 6:09 am

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” which is widely believed to have been an exceptionally powerful and decisive moment in American journalism.

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was mired in stalemate and suggested negotiations as a way to extricate the country from the conflict.

At the White House that night, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite program, a special report about Vietnam in the aftermath of the surprise Tet offensive. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment, Johnson is said to have snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

With Cronkite having turned against the war, the Johnson White House supposedly reeled. And at the end of March 1968, the president announced he would not seek reelection.

It is one of the great stories American journalism tells about itself, a moment when the power of television was trained on foreign policy to make a difference in an unpopular and faraway war.

More accurately, though, it’s one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media-driven myths.

As I’ve noted on a number of occasions at Media Myth Alert, and as I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book on media-driven myths,  Johnson did not watch the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired that night 42 years ago.

The president that night was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite intoned his downbeat, “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, saying:

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Earlier in the day, Johnson had delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he characterized the U.S. war effort in Churchillian terms.

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed,” he said, adding:  “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

Even if the president had seen the Cronkite program, it is difficult to imagine how his opinion could have swung so abruptly, from a vigorous defense of the war effort to resignation and despair.

Casting further doubt on the “Cronkite Moment” is uncertainty about what, exactly, Johnson supposedly said in reaction to Cronkite’s editorial comments about the war.

The most common version has him saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

But another version is: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Yet another version has it this way: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Still another version is: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

And another goes: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

And, unaccountably: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the middle west.”

Version variability of  such magnitude signals implausibility.

So why, 42 years on, does it matter whether the “Cronkite Moment” is a myth?

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace.

“Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.”

And so it was with the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

Haig, Deep Throat, and the Watergate myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

The recent death of Alexander M. Haig, the combative general who became U.S. secretary of state in the early 1980s, brought reminders about how Haig had figured improbably in the years-long guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat.”

Deep Throat was the well-placed, anonymous source to whom the Washington Post periodically turned in reporting the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency. Haig was chief of staff in the Nixon White House as the Watergate scandal intensified and reached its culmination in 1973-74.

Haig was not implicated in the scandal and has been credited with helping to navigate Nixon’s resignation after it became clear the president had conspired to obstruct justice.

And Haig’s name surfaced periodically in the guessing game about Deep Throat’s identity, which began soon after publication in 1974 of All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book about their reporting on Watergate.

The identity of Deep Throat was the subject of a “parlor game that would not die,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer once put it. The prolonged guessing game, I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, helped promote the notion that the Post and its reporting were central to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

That is, the speculation about Deep Throat’s identity “provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage,” I write, “serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

I saw Haig at news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in the early 1980s and recall being struck by what a swaggering, cocky, arrogant guy he was: An unlikely candidate to have been the secret source whom Woodward would meet in an underground parking garage in suburban Washington in the wee hours of the morning.

But, then, so were many of the other Deep Throat candidates, who included Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state; John Dean, a former White House lawyer; Patrick Buchanan, a former Nixon aide, and Diane Sawyer, another former White House aide and now a TV news anchor.

It’s striking how improbable the Deep Throat candidates really were.

Haig, like most of the others, denied having been the Post’s source. And the guessing game finally came to an end in 2005, when W. Mark Felt, formerly a senior FBI official, confirmed he had been Deep Throat. Despite his denials, Felt had always been a leading suspect.

It’s important to note just how dramatically overstated Deep Throat’s role in the Watergate scandal has been. An obituary about Haig published in the Scotsman offers an example.

“For many years,” the Scotsman said, “Haig’s name was linked with that of ‘Deep Throat’, the code-name Washington Post reporters used for the informant who provided them with leaked information that brought down Nixon.”

Brought down Nixon.

Neither Felt’s “leaked information,” nor the Washington Post‘s reporting, brought down Nixon.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

And against the intricate tableau of Watergate investigators–the federal prosecutors, the FBI, the bipartisan congressional panels–the contributions of the Post and the U.S. news media were modest, and certainly not decisive to the scandal’s denouement.

WJC

Challenging the myth of ‘techno-utopianism’

In Debunking, Media myths on February 22, 2010 at 8:47 am

The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition carried a great article challenging the fashionable notion that new media technologies and platforms represent a lethal threat to authoritarian regimes, such as the theocracy in Iran.

It’s a compelling argument, that “free and unfettered access to information, combined with new tools of mobilization afforded by blogs and social networks, leads to the opening up of authoritarian societies and their eventual democratization,” as the author, Evgeny Morozov, says in the Journal article.

Employing digital options and technology to promote democracy has become a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

Morozov, however, warns that such views are little more than “‘techno-utopianism.'”

Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, notes that “the Internet often makes the jump from deliberation to participation even more difficult, thwarting collective action under the heavy pressure of never-ending internal debate.

“This is what may explain the impotence of recent protests in Iran: Thanks to the sociability and high degree of decentralization afforded by the Internet, Iran’s Green Movement has been split into so many competing debate chambers—some of them composed primarily of net-savvy Iranians in the diaspora—that it couldn’t collect itself [last week] on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.”

Revolutionary change typically “requires a high degree of centralization” among opponents of authoritarian regimes, Morozov notes, adding, the splintering effect of the Internet “does not always help here.”

Moreover, unrestricted access to dissenting views isn’t necessarily a decisive, motivating factor in revolutions.

Morozov offers as a telling example the case of East Germany, where during the Cold War many people had routine and little-restricted access to West German television.  They lived schizophrenically, as the New York Times once put it: In socialism by day, capitalism by night–via West German TV.

Steady exposure to views challenging those of East Germany’s communist government did little to stir revolutionary spirits. Indeed, the East Germans were among the last to rebel against communist rule in the democratization wave that swept Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s.

“According to data compiled by the East German government,” Morozov writes, “East Germans who watched West German television were paradoxically more satisfied with life in their country and the communist regime.”

Ironically, he adds, the upheaval that ultimately unraveled the East German regime had its origins in Dresden, which mostly was beyond the reach of West German television signals.

Morozov also points out that social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook “empower all groups—not just the pro-Western groups that we like.” They can be, and have been, co-opted to disseminate views harmful and antithetical to fledgling pro-democracy movements, in Iran and elsewhere.

Morozov’s article is a reminder of how tempting it can be to overstate, or over-presume, media power. This is a theme raised in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book debunking media-driven myths.

Media-driven myths are dubious or apocryphal tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence.

I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. But too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

It’s easy and tempting to confound the media’s omnipresence with media power. And that certainly helps drive the appeal of “techno-utopianism.”

WJC

Journalists changing history: A double dose of media myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 19, 2010 at 9:06 am

The Buffalo News today offers readers a double dose of media myth, in a column ruminating about the journalism of Diane Sawyer, the anchor of “ABC World News Tonight.”

The myths invoked have nothing to do with Sawyer (who used to work at the Nixon White House and was mentioned a few times as perhaps the elusive “Deep Throat” source who figured in the Washington Post‘s Watergate reporting; “Deep Throat” turned out to be Mark Felt of the FBI).

A double dose of myth in a single column is striking in that it’s fairly uncommon. In this case, the myths invoked are about Watergate and about Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist.

Both are myths addressed, and dismantled, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

About Watergate, the column says “it was, to use the current expression, a total ‘game-changer’ in newsrooms, journalism schools, etc., and not entirely to the good. It established journalism as an effective force in—essentially— removing a sitting president.”

And about Murrow, the column declares: “he helped change history by denouncing Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Watergate, first: That the press, and specifically the Washington Post, unraveled the intricate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency is one of the most self-reverential stories American journalism tells about itself.

But it is a dubious and misleading claim.

As I write 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.

“Even then, 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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Amid the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, the contributions of the American press were modest, and certainly not decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth is another self-reverential tale of the power of journalism to alter history through reportorial exposé, in this case through the steady eye of television.

As I further write in Getting It Wrong, Murrow supposedly “confronted and took down the most feared and loathsome American political figure of the Cold War, Joseph R. McCarthy, the Red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin,” when no one else dared to take him on.

The myth revolves around Murrow’s See It Now television program about McCarthy, which aired March 9, 1954. Interestingly Murrow and his co-producer, Fred Friendly, were resisted claims that the show was pivotal.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote not long after the program aired 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,” Tuck wrote.

And Friendly wrote in his memoir, published in 1967:

“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.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that the legendary status associated with the See It Now program has “obscured and diminished the contributions of journalists who took on McCarthy years earlier, at a time when doing so was quite risky.”

Notable among them was Drew Pearson who wrote the muckraking “Washington Merry Go Round” column.

Pearson’s columns began addressing, dissecting, and dismissing McCarthy’s claims as early as February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s famous program.

WJC

Yellow journalism ‘juiced’ the appetite for war? Not likely

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on February 18, 2010 at 5:39 am

An undying myth of American journalism is that yellow journalism, as practiced by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, led the country to war with Spain in April 1898.

That notion, I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “tidily, if mistakenly, serves to illustrate the power and the lurking malevolence of America’s news media.” That’s an important reason the yellow journalism myth lives on.

And on.

William McKinley

The myth reemerged the other day in a Time magazine online feature listing the “top 10 forgettable presidents” of the United States.  Leading the list was Martin Van Buren. In eight place was William McKinley, about whom Time said:

“McKinley was a savvy politician who listened carefully to the public. Though he opposed it at first, McKinley brought the country to war with Spain in 1898 as Pulitzer and Hearst’s ‘yellow journalism’ juiced the nation’s appetite for a fight. America’s claim to Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay count among the war’s legacies.”

So the yellow journalism “juiced” the country’s war appetite, eh?

Like many media-driven myths, this one’s certainly a juicy story–almost too juicy to be false. Like many media myths, it offers a simplistic explanation to a complex question: It is far easier, after all, to blame the yellow press for pushing the country into war than it is to recall the factors accounting for the diplomatic impasse that led the United States and Spain to go to war over Cuba, which at the time was up in arms against Spanish rule.

Significantly, the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer–the New York Journal and New York World, respectively– exerted no more than limited agenda-setting influence on the U.S. press in the run-up to the war.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“A significant body of research indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the exaggerated and fanciful reports appearing in New York City’s yellow journals before and after the Maine’s destruction” in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898.

The destruction of the battleship U.S.S. Maine killed more than 260 Navy sailors and officers, and helped trigger the war.

“Rather than taking a lead from accounts published in the Journal and World, newspapers in the American heartland turned away from their excesses,” I further wrote.

Moreover, I noted, “claims that the yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War contain almost no discussion about how, specifically, that influence was brought to bear within the McKinley administration.

“The reason for such a gap is straightforward.

“There is almost no evidence that the content of the yellow press, especially during the decisive weeks following the Maine’s destruction, shaped the thinking, influenced the policy formulation, or informed the conduct of key White House officials.”

WJC

Recalling journalism’s ‘greatest escape narrative’

In 1897, Debunking, Yellow Journalism on February 17, 2010 at 12:06 am

That Canadian newspaper column I blogged about yesterday included erroneous and exaggerated references to one of the most brazen and spectacular moments in late 19th century journalism–the jailbreak in Havana organized by a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

It was, I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

Evangelina Cisneros

The central figure in the jailbreak was a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros, who had been held for more than a year without charges. She was suspected of plotting to kill a senior Spanish military officer who, she said, had made her the target of unwelcome sexual advances.

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule wore on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal‘s correspondent in Havana.

In reality, Decker was under orders to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of Carlos Carbonell, an American-educated Cuban banker whom she later married. Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard the Seneca, a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The column, published the other day in the Guardian newspaper of Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, offers a grubbier and error-strewn account of the Cisneros case, saying:

“Evangelina was a beautiful, teenage virgin caught in the grasp of evil, dark-haired, poorly shaven, leering captors determined to do horrible things to her. She had to be rescued. At least, that was Hearst’s version of the story.

“He milked her plight for three weeks, until, with the help of a Hearst-funded rescuer, she sawed her way through the bars of her cell, climbed out on the ladder connecting it to an adjoining building, and crawled to freedom.

“Readers loved it. None of it was true, of course.

“A bribe had been paid so she could walk out, but that was the last thing Hearst wanted to see in a story. He wanted action.”

Hearst certainly was an advocate of activist journalism. In 1897, he advanced a model called the “journalism of action,” in which he argued newspapers should do more than gather and comment on the news. Rather, he claimed, newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously to address the ills of society.

The Cisneros jailbreak was just such a case: For Hearst’s Journal, the leading exemplar of flamboyant “yellow journalism,” her rescue was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement of the journalism of action.” (Illicit “jail-breaking journalism” was more like it, scoffed the Chicago Times-Herald.)

Decker

As for the claim that Cisneros sawed through the bars herself: Not so. Decker and his accomplices broke the bars of her cell, using a heavy Stillson wrench.

And as for the claim the rescue was a farce, that Decker paid bribes to win Cisneros’ release: The evidentiary record to support that claim is very, very thin.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“No one has identified to whom bribes were paid, how much, by what method, and how the purported payoffs secured the enduring silence of the authorities.

“A conspiracy of silence that included … Spanish authorities in Cuba would have been so extensive—so many people would have known—that concealment could not possibly have lasted for long, certainly not 100 years and more.”

I further wrote:

“The allegations or suspicions of bribery rest more on assertion—and newspaper rivals’ contempt for the Journal—than on specific, persuasive documentation. They are supported more by argument than evidence.”

The Cisneros jailbreak was not a hoax. It was, rather, the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles—roles that remained obscure for more than 100 years.

WJC

‘Newspapers must learn from their history’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on February 16, 2010 at 8:03 am

So read the headline over a column the other day in a Canadian newspaper, the Guardian of Charlottetown, which says it covers Prince Edward Island “like the dew.”

“Newspapers must learn from their history.”

A fine sentiment, that.

As the Guardian headline suggests, many journalists tend to be ahistoric: They have but a dim understanding of journalism’s past.

It’s not entirely their fault, though: The task of finding lessons in journalism history is complicated because journalism history often is badly mangled, and distorted by myth.

Young W.R. Hearst

The Guardian column offers a case in point: Despite its call to learn from the past, the column mangled an often-mangled moment in journalism history.

That is, it indulged in a hardy media-driven myth–the myth of the purported vow of New York newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to provide the war with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Here’s what the Guardian column said:

“Hearst was embroiled in a newspaper war in New York City. He figured a war would do wonders for circulation. Cuba was run by the Spanish, and that didn’t seem right, so a war there seemed logical.

“Get down there and cover the war, he told his reporting staff. Those assigned to the story promptly booked passage on the next boat. Once there, however, they discovered they had a rather serious problem.

“Have arrived, but there doesn’t seem to be a war, they said in a cable.

“You provide the stories, I’ll provide the war, Hearst replied.”

So where to begin in unpacking this account?

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, the anecdote about Hearst’s vowing to bring about war with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.

Here are some reasons why:

  • The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow has never turned up.
  • Hearst denied ever sending such a message.
  • Spanish censors in Cuba surely would have intercepted, and called attention to, such an inflammatory message, had it been sent.

And the anecdote lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to furnish or provide the war because war—the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule—was the reason Hearst sent correspondents to Cuba in the first place.

In most retellings, the anecdote about Hearst’s vow revolves around the purported exchange of telegrams with the famous artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to Cuba in early 1897. Paired with him on the assignment was the famous writer, Richard Harding Davis.

Remington and Davis were there at a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been well aware that Cuba was the theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which led in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

Although the Guardian column suggested that Hearst blithely sought to foment a war as a ploy to boost readership (“a war would do wonders for circulation”), the causes of the conflict with Spain were of course far more profound and complex.

The Cubans who rebelled against Spanish rule were determined to win political independence, and would settle for nothing short of that.

The Spanish, for domestic economic and political reasons, would not grant Cuba its independence.

And the Americans could no longer tolerate the disruptions and human rights abuses created by Spain’s failed attempt to put down the Cuban rebellion.

That impasse became the formula for the U.S. war with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

It is quite likely the United States would have gone to war no matter what Hearst printed in his newspapers.

WJC

Why not the ‘McGee Moment’?

In Debunking, Media myths on February 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

I recently reviewed Journalism’s Roving Eye, a hefty, impressively researched study by John Maxwell Hamilton of the history of American foreign correspondence.

In my review, written for the quarterly Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, I note:

“Hamilton ranges widely and confidently over the colorful history of American foreign correspondence. …  Journalism’s Roving Eye is engaging, and highly readable.”

But I also note the book “projects a surprising sense of conventionality in recounting memorable moments in U.S. foreign correspondence.” As an example, I cite the anecdote — one of the favorites in all of American journalism — about Walter Cronkite’s on-air editorializing February 27, 1968.

That anecdote has become so wrapped in legend that it is has come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

On that occasion, Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam had become “mired in stalemate” and suggested that time was approaching for negotiations to end the conflict.

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment, the president abruptly switched off the television and supposedly told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

Hamilton cites that anecdote and quotes David Halberstam’s line from The Power That Be, that the Cronkite’s editorializing “was the first time that a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

But, of course, that wasn’t the case.

The last U.S. combat troops did not leave Vietnam until 1973, more than five years after the “Cronkite Moment.”

What’s more, as I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, “Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.

“That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired.”

The president was in Austin, Texas, at the time of the Cronkite program, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

Moreover, I write in Getting It Wrong, “Johnson’s supposedly downbeat, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s on-air assessment clashes sharply with the president’s aggressive characterization about the war. Hours before the Cronkite program, Johnson delivered [in Dallas] a little-recalled but rousing speech on Vietnam, a speech cast in Churchillian terms.”

In late winter 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither stunning nor particularly cutting-edge. About seven months earlier, I note in the book, “the New York Times had suggested the war in Vietnam was stalemated.”

Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network.

“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

There was no equivocating about being “mired in stalemate.” No nuanced suggestions about maybe opening negotiations.

Lost.

It’s faintly curious that McGee’s pointed and emphatic editorial comment is not more often remembered.

But of course no one ever talks about the “McGee Moment.”

WJC

A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid news reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is a trope that knows few bounds.

It’s one of the favorite stories American journalism tells about itself, and it turns up often, even in such unexpected places as online celebrity gossip sites.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The well-known gossip columnist Liz Smith casually invoked the myth the other day, in an item at wowowow.com about Carl Bernstein. He is the former Washington Post reporter who figured prominently in the newspaper’s coverage of the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972-73.

Smith referred to Bernstein as the “Watergate partner of Bob Woodward whose work for the Washington Post brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a hardy one: It lives on in textbooks, it’s taught in schools, and it rattles around in newsrooms.

It’s quite unrestrained in its reach, and over time has become the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal.

But as I write in my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong, it’s also “a misleading interpretation, one that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the summer of 1974.”

As “earnest and revealing as their reporting was,” I further write, “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money” to the burglars who broke into the national headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–learned about, and disclosed the existence of, the White House tape recordings that captured Nixon’s complicity in the coverup. The special federal prosecutors on Watergate pressed for the release of the tapes. And the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over the  tapes subpoenaed by the special prosecutor.

Those were pivotal events that led to Nixon’s resignation.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog postings, it’s intriguing that the Post from time to time has tried to make clear its reporting was not decisive to Nixon’s resignation.

For example, in 2005, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

This is not to say the Post’s Watergate reporting was without distinction.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary. The Post was the first news organization to establish a connection between the burglars and the White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds to reelect Nixon were used to fund the break-in, the first to implicate former Attorney General John Mitchell in the scandal….”

Those reports were published in the four months following the Watergate break-in.

Meanwhile, Nixon was on his way to reelection in a forty-nine state landslide.

WJC

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