W. Joseph Campbell

Anniversary journalism and media-driven myths in 2011

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on January 1, 2011 at 7:21 am

NY Times front page, April 7, 1961

“Anniversary journalism” has the appeal of being irresistible and easily done.

Typically, a reporter targets an upcoming anniversary (preferably, the occasion is divisible by 5 or 10), sells the idea to an editor, and cobbles together a story recalling the event. Easily done, but as the Independent newspaper in London has observed, not always very compelling.

We’ll surely see a lot of “anniversary journalism” in 2011.

The year, after all, brings the 10th anniversary of terrorist attacks of September 11, the 100th anniversary of the death of Joseph Pulitzer, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.

Media Myth Alert will be especially interested in 2011 in the 50th anniversary of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which gave rise to the durable New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth.

In the run-up to the anniversary in April of the Bay of Pigs invasion, we’ll no doubt see frequent references to this media-driven myth.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my mythbusting book that came out in 2010, the suppression myth has it that the New York Times bowed to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and “spiked,” or self-censored, its detailed report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

The purported self-censorship took place about 10 days before the invasion– which failed utterly in its objective of toppling the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Times did not suppress its reports about the pending invasion of Cuba.

It did not censor itself.

The Times’ reports about preparations for the invasion were in fact fairly detailed–and prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the invasion.

The run-up to the Bay of Pigs was no one-day story. A succession of articles before the invasion “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write.

To be sure, not all pre-invasion news reports were accurate or on-target. Much of the reporting was piecemeal.

But overall, the reports in the Times and other U.S. newspapers let readers know that something was afoot in the Caribbean, that an assault on Castro was in the works.

“Indeed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the coverage helped strip away the fiction circulated by the Kennedy administration that the invasion was strictly a Cuban affair.”

The suppression myth largely centers around a dispatch that a veteran Times correspondent, Tad Szulc, filed on April 6, 1961.

Supposedly, the Kennedy administration learned of the contents of Szulc’s dispatch about the pending invasion and urged that it be suppressed.

In his book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam offered a graphic, though exaggerated, account of Kennedy’s calling James Reston of the Times, saying the newspaper risked having blood on its hands were the article published.

Such a conversation never happened, according to Reston and others quoted in Harrison Salisbury’s Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s account of the Times and its history.

Moreover, as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives on April 6, 1961.

Szulc’s story was published on the front page on April 7, 1961 (see image, above).

I argue in Getting It Wrong that that the suppression myth likely stems from confusion over an episode in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to delay publication of a sensitive report.

That came during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Reston was prepared to report that nuclear-tipped Soviet weapons had been deployed in Cuba. With the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemingly in the balance, the Times complied with the president’s request.

Kennedy took office in 1961–a year with more than a few significant anniversaries. In 1961, Berlin Wall went up, the Soviets put the first man into space, Hemingway killed himself, and Adolf Eichmann‘s war-crimes trial was convened in Israel.

And the Times suppression myth took hold.

WJC

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