W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

A silly season stew: Serving up the Watergate myth

In Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 30, 2010 at 9:01 am

The silly season of journalism is upon us, producing a summer stew of media-driven myths.

Take, for example, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, one of 10 I address and debunk in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

The notion that the investigative reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon is, I write in Getting It Wrong, one of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself.

“But,” I further write, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

It is, though, quite a hardy and versatile myth.

It’s sometimes casually asserted, as in a column the other day in a suburban Washington newspaper, the Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press. The column-writer flatly declared the Washington Post “brought down a U.S. president by its Watergate investigations in the early 1970s.”

On other occasions, the Watergate myth is asserted with gusto, as it was yesterday at the online site of the French business newspaper Les Echos, in a feature article about Katharine Graham. She was publisher of the Post during the Watergate period and beyond.

Les Echos declared that the Post “played a capital role in the disclosure of the scandal,” adding that Woodward and Bernstein, “after a meticulous investigation, were able to untangle the mysterious business of wiretappings, which led to the White House.”

Les Echos failed to mention that Graham, herself, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon.

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at a program at the Newseum marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

“The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” she insisted.

Woodward concurred, albeit in earthier terms: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s White House or his 1972 reelection campaign were convicted of Watergate-related crimes and served time in jail. Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid certain impeachment.

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, I argue, 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. The Supreme Court in July 1974 ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes subpoenaed by the special Watergate prosecutor; the recording of June 23, 1972, captured Nixon plotting the cover-up.

Amid the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest.

And certainly not decisive.

WJC

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Twenty-one men associated with the presidency of Richard M. Nixon or his reelection campaign in 1972 were convicted of Watergate-related crimes, nineteen of whom went to prison.[i] Nixon himself resigned in August 1974, less than halfway through his second term, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction. By then it had become clear that Nixon had ordered senior aides to cover up the scandal’s signal crime, the burglary in June 1972 at the national headquarters of the rival Democratic Party at the Watergate office-apartment complex in Washington, D.C.

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.


[i] See Harry F. Rosenthal, no headline, Associated Press (22 June 197). Retrieved from LexisNexis database.

A subsidiary myth: Lynch rescue ‘was played acted’

In Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on July 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Seven years on, suspicions endure about the rescue of Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old Army private whom the Washington Post catapulted into unsought, and undeserved, fame and celebrity early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was severely injured an ambush in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, and taken prisoner. Nine days later, a U.S. Special Operations team rescued Lynch  from a hospital that also had been a command post for Iraqi irregulars.

Rescuing Jessica Lynch

The Post reported soon after the rescue that Lynch had “fought fiercely” when her unit, the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, was ambushed, and that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths,  it turned out that Lynch was no hero; she never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her injuries were suffered not from gunfire but in the crash of a Humvee as she and others sought to flee.

The account of her battlefield derring-do probably was a case of mistaken identity or misattribution.  It wasn’t Lynch who had fought heroically at Nasiriyah, it most likely was Donald Walters, a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit who, after running out of ammunition, was captured by Iraqi irregulars, and executed.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the Post’s sensational but erroneous account about Lynch’s heroics was picked up by news organizations around the world. The tale became what I call “a foundation myth” that enabled and encouraged “the emergence of subsidiary media myths, including the notion that Lynch’s dramatic rescue … a stunt manipulated by the U.S. military to boost morale at home.”

That subsidiary or spinoff myth reemerged yesterday in a commentary in Boston Globe, which declared:

“In April 2003, the American media latched onto the story of Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old soldier, who, it was said, had been captured and mistreated by Iraqi soldiers. Her ‘rescue’ was play acted.”

Meaning what, “play acted”? That the rescue of Lynch wasn’t authentic? That it was staged? Bogus?

Presumably so. The writer doesn’t elaborate.

The BBC was among the first to claim the rescue was a put-up job. The BBC report’s, “War Spin,” called it “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

The Pentagon dismissed the BBC’s claims as “void of all facts and absolutely ridiculous.”

Later, at the request of three Democratic members of Congress, the Defense Department’s inspector general investigated the BBC’s allegations and found them baseless.

In testimony to Congress in April 2007, Thomas F. Gimble, then the acting inspector general, reported that no evidence had been uncovered to support the claim that Lynch’s rescue “was a staged media event.”

Instead, Gimble said, the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

More than thirty witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations team that rescued Lynch, Gimble said in his written testimony.

Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed by news organizations, he noted.

In undertaking the Lynch rescue, Gimble said, the extrication team “fully expected to meet stiff resistance” and had come under enemy fire from the hospital building and areas nearby.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Gimble’s report came four years after the BBC’s account. By then, the view that the rescue was a stunt had become solidified, a widely accepted element of the Lynch saga.

Gimble’s report in 2007 did not fit what had become the dominant narrative about the rescue.

It made little news.

That’s not so surprising.  After all, the notion of a counterfeit rescue operation fit well with the curdled popular view about the war in Iraq, I note in Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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WikiLeaks disclosure no ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on July 27, 2010 at 9:39 am

The WikiLeaks disclosure of thousands of secret military documents about the war in Afghanistan has been likened–erroneously–to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

Cronkite

A commentary posted today at the Huffington Post is among the latest to make the dubious connection. The commentary said Cronkite’s “assessment of the war is often credited as the turning point for American public opinion, moving opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into the mainstream. Reportedly, upon hearing this commentary, President Lyndon Johnson said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’

“I can’t help wonder if the release of the Afghan War Logs by WikiLeaks is our Cronkite moment for Afghanistan. In fact, when I consider the totality of the recent news on our efforts in Afghanistan, I can’t reach any other conclusion than that if Cronkite was still alive, he would say we have.”

Given that the WikiLeaks documents contain little that was previously unknown about the conflict, disclosure is unlikely to amount to the “Cronkite moment for Afghanistan.”

More important, the “Cronkite Moment” wasn’t very decisive at all.

It really wasn’t much of a “moment.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, Cronkite himself disputed the notion that his assessment about Vietnam had had much effect on Johnson or on U.S. war policy. For example, in promoting his memoir in 1997, Cronkite likened his “mired in stalemate” commentary to a straw on the back of a crippled camel.

He repeated the analogy in 1999, stating in an interview with CNN: “I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Only late in his life did Cronkite embrace the presumptive power of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

As I further discuss in Getting It Wrong, President Johnson did not see Cronkite’s show when it aired February 27, 1968, and therefore “did not have–could not have had–the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.”

At the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted remarks at the birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That speech was given March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Johnson’s aggressive remarks are quite difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to the supposed “Cronkite Moment.”

Moreover, as I discussed yesterday at MediaMythAlert, public opinion polls show that Americans’ views about the war had begun to shift in 1967, months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

Related:

Mangling the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I’m amazed how international news media love to indulge in, and inevitably mangle, some of American journalism’s best-known media myths.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Take, for example, a post today at a blog sponsored by the the London Guardian newspaper.

The blog post invoked the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite’s report on the Vietnam War supposedly swung public opinion against the conflict.

The post read, in part:

“Cronkite, who died just recently, was America’s most authoritative TV newsman. In February 1968, when he told America after spending some time in Vietnam that the war wasn’t winnable, public support for the war went through the floor.”

Let’s unpack that.

First, Cronkite died not “recently,” but in July 2009.

Second, Cronkite did not say in his special report on Vietnam that the war “wasn’t winnable.” He said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese eventually might prove to be a way out for the United States.

Third, American public opinion did not go “through the floor” because of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.

Far from it.

Public opinion polls as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that Americans’ views about the war had begun to shift in 1967, months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, by October 1967, a plurality of Americans (47 percent) maintained that sending U.S. forces to Vietnam had been a mistake, according to Gallup surveys.

In a Gallup poll completed in early February 1968, three weeks before the Cronkite program, the proportion saying entering the war was a mistake stood at 46 percent; 42 percent said it had not been a mistake.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed the day the Cronkite program aired, finding that 49 percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not.

In April 1968, after Cronkite’s program, Gallup reported that 48 percent of Americans thought sending U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake; 40 percent disagreed.

Moreover, as I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Journalists also had detected a softening in support of the war. In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, noted that the ‘summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters—along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials—appeared to be changing their views about the war.'”

And I point out in Getting It Wrong that in early 1968, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary.

“Leading American journalists and news organizations had … weighed in with pessimistic assessments about the war long before Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam,” I write, adding that Mark Kurlansky, in his year-study about the events of 1968, wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial four days before Cronkite’s special report that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

And nearly seven months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. had cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”

Apple’s report appeared on the front page of the Times, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

WJC

Related:

What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 25, 2010 at 1:34 pm

“Without the Watergate hearings, surely Nixon would have escaped judgment.”

So wrote Jeff Stein the other day, at his “Spy Talk” blog, for which the Washington Post is host.

While Stein didn’t focus his commentary on Watergate and the factors accounting for Richard Nixon’s fall, his observation invites reflection about what ultimately ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Were the Watergate hearings–those of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate–indeed pivotal, as Stein suggests? What were the other factors?

I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book about prominent media-driven myths, that the dominant popular narrative of Watergate has long been the notion that dogged investigative reporting of two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was what exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Among the more decisive forces and factors were hearings of the Senate Select Committee in the summer 1973–the “Watergate hearings,” to which Stein refers.

The hearings were most memorable for the stunning disclosure that Nixon had secretly and routinely tape-recorded conversations in the Oval Office.

The disclosure was to prove decisive to Watergate’s outcome. It set off intensive efforts by the special federal prosecutor on Watergate, as well as other subpoena-wielding authorities, to gain access to tapes relevant to their inquiries.

Citing “executive privilege,” Nixon resisted releasing them until ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court–in an 8-0 decision handed down 36 years ago yesterday, July 24, 1974. He complied.

One of the recordings revealed Nixon’s active role in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in in June 1972 at the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. That recording–the so-called “smoking gun” tape–made resignation inevitable.

The “smoking gun” tape showed that Nixon “had instituted a cover-up and thus had participated in an obstruction of justice almost from the outset” of the scandal, Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s foremost historian, wrote in his fine book, The Wars of Watergate.

If not for the Supreme Court’s order, it is my view that Nixon never would have released the tapes revealing his guilt in Watergate and likely would have served out his term, albeit as a badly wounded chief executive.

Interestingly, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men, the book about their Watergate reporting, that they received a lead about the Oval Office tapes shortly before their existence was revealed.

Woodward said he called Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the tip; Bradlee suggested not expending energy in pursuing it.

Had they pursued the tip, Woodward and Bernstein might have broken the pivotal story about Watergate. Had they done so, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–the media-centric view that they uncovered the scandal–would be somewhat more plausible.

WJC

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Silly season arrives? ‘Furnish the war’ sightings suggest as much

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 24, 2010 at 10:01 am

It must be the onset of summer’s silly season, the period from mid-July to the end of August when news content becomes noticeably lighter and fluff-filled.

How else to explain the recent sightings in the news, in the United States and abroad, of William Randolph Hearst’s mythical vow to “furnish the war” with Spain?

The purported Hearstian vow–which, as I describe in Chapter One of my new book, Getting It Wrong, is surely a media myth–appeared yesterday in a breezy travel piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor‘s online site.

The writer, Ruth Walker, tells of a recent cross-country road trip during which she turned often to Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History, a 2008 book by Jan R. Van Meter.

The book, Walker writes, “is essentially a retelling of various chapters of American history through the catchphrases and slogans that emerged from them.”

She notes that a visit to the Hearst Castle in California “recalled William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who called for war with Spain after the USS Maine sank mysteriously in Havana Harbor.”

A memorable Hearstian line, Walker writes, was his “instruction to the artist Frederic Remington, whom he had sent to Cuba to ‘cover,’ as an illustrator, the anticipated war: ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, reasons for doubting the veracity of the anecdote are many and include the significant fact that the purported telegram containing Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow has never surfaced.

Hearst, moreover, denied having sent such a message, and Remington apparently never discussed such an exchange.

Additionally, Hearst’s purported message is incongruous and illogical on its face: It would have made no sense for Hearst to have pledged to “furnish the war” because war–the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule–was the reason he assigned Remington to Cuba in the first place.

The artist was on the island for six days in January 1897–15 months before the start of the Spanish-American War. The war was not “anticipated” in early 1897.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that Remington’s work from Cuba impugns the anecdote, too. His sketches for Hearst’s New York Journal depicted unmistakable (if unremarkable) scenes of the rebellion, which had begun in 1895.

Remington’s work for the Journal showed a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban non-combatant captives being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort, and a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s wounded leg.

The sketches appeared in the Journal beneath headlines such as “Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington” and “Frederic Remington Sketches A Familiar Incident of the Cuban War.”

Remington clearly had seen many signs of war in Cuba.

For those and other reasons, the anecdote about Hearst’s vow is assuredly a media-driven myth, a dubious and improbable tale that deserves relegation to the closet of historical imprecision.

And that closet need not be opened at any time of year, not even during summer’s silly season when indulgence in the lighter side of the news becomes conspicuous.

WJC

Related:

Invoking media myths to score points

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 23, 2010 at 8:25 am

Media-driven myths, those improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual, endure for a number of reasons–not the least of which is their value in scoring points about contemporary American journalism.

Evidence of that impulse appears today in a commentary posted at the Moderate Voice blog. The commentary assails conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart as a latter-day practitioner of “yellow journalism” and invokes what are media myths in making that claim.

“At the turn of the 19th century,” the commentary says, “Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ‘created a frenzy’ among the U.S. citizenry that pushed us into the Spanish-American War. Historians accuse Hearst of trying to boost his circulation by advocating war.”

In support of that dubious claim–most historians scoff at the notion that Pulitzer and Hearst “pushed us into” war with Spain–the Moderate Voice commentary offers the hoary tale of Hearst’s purported vow, supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, that stated:

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Well, where to begin in unpacking the errors in such sweeping claims?

For starters, Hearst and Pulitzer were prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, not at “the turn of the 19th century.”

More significant, there is little evidence that the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer–the New York Journal and New York World, specifically–“created a frenzy” in the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, Hearst and Pulitzer exerted no more than limited agenda-setting influence on the U.S. press in the run-up to the war.

As I noted 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 mysterious destruction of the battleship U.S.S. Maine killed more than 260 Navy sailors and officers, and helped propel the war with Spain.

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” inside the administration of President William McKinley.

“There is,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “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.”

The pithy “furnish the war” vow is almost certainly apocryphal, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 media-driven myths.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the purported vow has gained “unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.

“It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism.” The Moderate Voice commentary accomplishes all three.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the tale about Hearst’s vow lives on “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

Additionally, the tale endures in the face of what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” It would have been illogical and absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the islandwide Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Remington was in Cuba in early 1897, at a time when anyone reading U.S. newspapers would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, Spain had sent nearly 200,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, which gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

WJC

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‘Famously rumored': Hearst and his reputed vow

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 22, 2010 at 9:26 am

Media-driven myths are propelled by many forces, among them the reality that the tales sometimes are just too good, too delicious, to check out.

Hearst's Evening Journal, April 1898

So it was with a commentary posted yesterday at the “Unleashed” blog of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The commentary invoked the well-known and often-repeated anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, stating:

“Hearst is famously rumored to have declared in writing to artist Frederic Remington: ‘I’ll furnish the war,’ referring, of course, to the Spanish-American War in 1898, henceforth referred to as ‘Mr Hearst’s War’….”

“Famously rumored,” eh? A flimsy construct, that, for making a point or building an argument.

It takes but a few minutes spent online to find evidence that the Hearstian vow is almost certainly a media-driven myth–a dubious, improbable tale masquerading as fact.

Chapter One in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths, takes up and dismantles the Hearstian vow, and that chapter is readily accessible online.

Still, it’s clear that the anecdote’s simplistic directness have helped make it resistant to debunking. As I note in Getting It Wrong, media myths that can be reduced to a memorably pithy phrase are most likely to withstand debunking.

So it is with “furnish the war.”

The anecdote also is impressively flexible. It is useful, I write, “in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

Even more impressive, perhaps, is that the anecdote endures despite the near-complete absence of supporting documentation.

Hearst

“It lives on,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “even though the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place. Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war.”

Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba 15 months before the Spanish-American War broke out. In early 1897, no one, including Hearst, could have known the United States would take up arms against Spain over Cuba.

WJC

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‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk’? Not because of Cronkite

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on July 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly “went berserk” when he heard Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

So claims Tom Hayden, the 1960s antiwar activist in a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation magazine.

Johnson, unberserk

Hayden’s commentary invoked what often is called the “Cronkite Moment” in saying:

“Cronkite went to Vietnam in April 1968 to survey the state of that war, just as [MSNBC's Rachel] Maddow spent time in Afghanistan investigating the current reality. When Cronkite pronounced Vietnam as ‘mired in stalemate,’ it is said that Lyndon Johnson went berserk.”

It’s a striking way of describing the mythical “Cronkite Moment”: I’ve never before read that Johnson supposedly “went berserk” in response to Cronkite’s characterization.

In any case, Hayden’s descriptions of Cronkite’s program and Johnson’s reaction are in error.

The trip to which Hayden refers took place not in April 1968 but in February that year. Cronkite went to Vietnam then to gather material for a special report that aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

Johnson, however, did not see the Cronkite program when it aired.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other media-driven myths, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

Johnson wasn’t going “berserk” on that occasion. Rather, he was offering light-hearted remarks at the birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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.”

Even if Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong. The show represented no epiphany for the president, no occasion for going “berserk.”

Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That speech was given March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He criticized war critics as wanting the United States to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s aggressive remarks are quite difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.

Moreover, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment about Vietnam was an unremarkable characterization by early 1968. Mark Kurlansky said as much in his well-received year-study about 1968.

Indeed, nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment,” the New York Times published on its front page a news analysis that said victory in Vietnam “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert that former NBC newsman Frank McGee in March 1968 offered an analysis about Vietnam that was more direct and punchier than Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization.

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

No hedging there about the war effort being “mired in stalemate.”

Lost.

Related:

Watergate a Washington Post ‘scoop’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 20, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Among the myths and misunderstandings associated with the sprawling scandal that was Watergate is the notion that the Washington Post owned the story.

The notion was reiterated today in a post at a blog of a North Carolina newspaper. The post, which discussed the Post‘s ongoing investigative series on U.S. intelligence networks, contained this passage:

“Newspaper editors and writers usually consider themselves patriots, but they are aware that government officials sometimes hide their actions behind the national security banner. The issue came up as the Watergate scandal was unfolding during the Nixon administration. That was also a Washington Post scoop.”

A “scoop”? Not exactly.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, “rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972.”

The Los Angeles Times, for example, published an unprecedented, first-person account in early October 1972 of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who acted as the lookout man in the burglary at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972–the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

And the New York Times was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure in early 1973 that made clear that efforts were under way to cover up and conceal the crimes and misconduct of others in the scandal.

Unlike most other Watergate-related news reports in 1972 and early 1973, the New York Times story about hush money “hit home!” John Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon, recalled years later in a memoir titled Lost Honor. “It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall,” Dean wrote.

In addition, as Edward Jay Epstein wrote in his classic essay about Watergate and the news media, the Washington Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in directing public attention to the scandal.

“In short, even in publicizing Watergate,” Epstein wrote, “the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

And as I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“Nixon’s Democratic challenger for the presidency, George McGovern, repeatedly invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances in the summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was ‘at least indirectly responsible’ for the Watergate burglary.”

So in its reporting on the emergent scandal in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post “was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate,” I write.

As the scandal unfolded, then, the Post was very much not on its own.

WJC

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