W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

CounterPunch embraces bogus Lynch narrative

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on April 30, 2011 at 7:46 am

Private Lynch, before Iraq

The Pentagon concocted a tale about the battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, a waiflike Army private then 19-years-old, and fed it to the news media in order to boost popular support for the Iraq War.

Voilá,  the dominant popular narrative about Lynch, the conflict’s single most famous soldier.

CounterPunch, a muckraking newsletter, embraced that bogus narrative yesterday in a lengthy essay posted online about the supposed effects of careerism in the U.S. military.

In invoking the Lynch case, CounterPunch asserted:

“The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan … have severely tested and frequently compromised the U.S. officer corps’ traditional values of duty, honor and country. This is obvious in the selective careerist- and agenda-ridden assertions to portray a false picture of events to the American public about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

Several examples followed, including this claim about Lynch: “Americans were told Army Spc. Jessica Lynch fired her M16 rifle until she ran out of bullets and was captured. It was a lie.”

In fact, that statement offers “a false picture of events”: The Pentagon did not put out the story about Lynch’s supposed derring-do in the ambush of her unit at Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, in the first days of the conflict.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the Pentagon was not the source of the false narrative about Lynch.

It was the Washington Post that thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain.

The Post did so April 3, 2003, in a sensational front-page article that appeared beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

The Post’s report said that Lynch, a supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Unit, “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post cited as sources “U.S. officials” whom it otherwise has never identified. As it should, to help dismantle the false narrative.

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world.

For example, a columnist for the Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut suggested that Lynch was destined to join the likes of Audie Murphy and Alvin York in the gallery of improbable American war heroes. Lynch, the columnist noted, “does share qualities and background with her illustrious predecessors. Like them, she is from rural America, daughter of a truck driver, raised in a West Virginia tinroofed house surrounded by fields and woods.”

But the hero-warrior story about Lynch was thoroughly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

Meanwhile, the real hero of Nasiriyah, an Army cook-sergeant named Donald Walters, has received nothing that was remotely comparable to the attention given the false story about Lynch and her purported derring-do.

Walters is believed to have fought to his last bullet at Nasiriyah before being take prisoner by Iraqi irregulars. Soon afterward, he was executed.

It’s quite probable that Walters’ heroism was misattributed to Lynch.

And how do we know the Pentagon was not the source for the Washington Post’s bogus Lynch story?

We know from Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline with Susan Schmidt on the “‘Fighting to the Death’” article.

Loeb, now the Post’s top editor for local news, said in December 2003 on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” he said.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” he added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Loeb also said:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

He described them as “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

Loeb on another occasion was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

Despite Loeb’s insistent exculpatory remarks, the false narrative that the Pentagon made up the story about Lynch lives on, in large measure because it corresponds so well to the view that the war in Iraq was a thoroughly botched and dodgy affair.

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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Glib and sanctimonious: Woodward likens Trump to Joe McCarthy

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

McCarthy in 1954

Bob Woodward, he of Watergate fame, says Donald Trump’s persistent questioning about President Barack Obama’s place of birth is akin to the tactics of the odious Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator infamous for his communists-in-government witch-hunt during the early 1950s.

The probing by Trump, the billionaire developer and prospective presidential candidate, prompted Obama this week to release the long form of his birth certificate, which clearly showed he was born in Hawaii in 1961.

“Trump, I think, was or may be still aspiring to be the new Joe McCarthy,” Woodward said yesterday on the MSNBC talk show, Morning Joe.

But why should anyone care what Woodward thinks about Trump and McCarthy? Woodward’s no expert on 1950s America.

Besides, his claim about McCarthy was little more than glib and sanctimonious hyperbole: Trump’s aggressive badgering of Obama may have been hardball politics. It was nothing akin to McCarthy’s wild accusations about communist infiltration of government, nothing like the senator’s bullying of witnesses under oath in closed session.

Woodward’s a fine one to talk, anyway: It’s not as if his reporting on Watergate for the Washington Postthe reporting that won him lasting acclaim — was free of dubious technique. Far from it.

Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, acknowledged in their book, All the President’s Men, to having committed ethical lapses during their Watergate reporting in the early 1970s.

Notably, they recounted failed attempts to encourage federal grand jurors to violate oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate testimony. Woodward and Bernstein conceded their efforts were “a seedy venture” that nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including the then-executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

According to All the President’s Men, Woodward “wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself.” Such qualms notwithstanding, they went ahead with what they described in the book as a “clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury.”

Their efforts to entice grand jurors to violate their oaths of secrecy were soon reported to federal prosecutors who in turn informed John Sirica, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you,” the Post’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, told the reporters, according to the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Bernstein also acknowledged in All the President’s Men that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records.

McCarthy-esque their lapses certainly weren’t. But weren’t trivial, either. Adrian Havill, author of Deep Truth, an unauthorized biography of Woodward and Bernstein, wrote that “part of the methodology Bob and Carl used … was unethical or bordered on criminality.”

Their missteps represented serious misjudgments, which are rarely recalled these days, when the hero-worship of Woodward and Bernstein seems as intense as ever.

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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‘Follow the money’: You won’t find that line in the book

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 27, 2011 at 4:00 am

The most famous line about Watergate reporting — “follow the money” — appears nowhere in the most famous book about Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men.

Not in this book

It’s often thought that it does. The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., said so, for example, in an editorial posted online yesterday.

The editorial referred to the stealthy Watergate source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward and declared:

“‘Deep Throat,’ finally identified in 2005 as former FBI associate director Mark Felt, gave Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward the inside dirt on the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover up its dirty tricks.

“He also gave them, as chronicled in their book ‘All the President’s Men,’ this tip: ‘Follow the money.’”

Felt was Woodward’s source; he never met Bernstein until late in Felt’s life.

And Felt never offered Woodward the advice of “follow the money.”

That line doesn’t appear in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their reporting on Watergate. Nor does it appear in any Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Washington Post before 1981.

The passage was, though, written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie came out 35 years ago this month, and has aged quite well.

The acting was notably strong and included a memorable performance by Hal Holbrook, who played a shadowy, tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his lines about “follow the money” with such certainty and quiet insistence that it sounded as if it really were guidance vital to rolling up Watergate.

But in the real-life investigation of Watergate, “follow the money” wouldn’t have taken investigators to the point of determining Nixon’s guilty role in the crimes of Watergate.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, some 20 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes linked to Watergate.

Rolling up a scandal of such sweep, I write 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.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his [second] 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.”

What cost Nixon the presidency wasn’t of the improper use of campaign monies but his efforts to obstruct justice and deter the FBI’s investigation of the scandal.

Still, it’s curious why “follow the money” crossed so seamlessly from the silver screen to the vernacular.

One reason no doubt are proximate release dates of the book and movie of All the President’s Men, allowing the two versions to become confounded.

The book came out in June 1974, just as Watergate was nearing its endgame with Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. The movie was released in April 1976, as the wounds of Watergate were only beginning to heal.

Another reason for the persistent appeal of “follow the money” lies in its pithiness. Like many media-driven myths — those dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power — “follow the money” is neat, tidy, succinct. It’s easy to remember, and it seems almost too good not to be true.

But probably the most compelling explanation for its tenacity lies in the power of the cinema to propel media myths and to offer plausible if greatly simplified versions of history.

Richard Bernstein addressed this tendency quite well in a memorable essay published in 1989 in the New York Times.

He wrote that “movies-as-history” tend “to construct Technicolored and sound-tracked edifices of entertainment on the slender foundations of what appear to be actual events, or, at the very least, to mingle fact with fancy, history with imagination, in such a way that the average viewer has no way of sorting out one from the other.”

Quite so.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men helped ensure that Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post would be regarded as vital and central to the unraveling of Watergate.

The mediacentric version of Watergate — or what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation — allows audiences to sidestep the scandal’s off-putting complexity and engage in a narrative that is entertaining and reassuring.

WJC

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Fact-checking ‘Mother Jones’: A rare two-fer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Spanish-American War on April 26, 2011 at 7:07 am

The most prominent media-driven myths — those dubious or apocryphal stories about the news media that masquerade as factual — include William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” and the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Mother Jones magazine, in the cover story of its May/June number, cites both tales as if they were genuine, in a rare, myth-indulging two-fer.

In an article written by Rick Perlstein and titled “Inside the GOP’s fact-free nation,” Mother Jones says of Hearst (who was no Republican):

“In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer, he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which the Washington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic — although far too cautiously for Hearst’s taste. ‘You furnish the pictures,’ he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, ‘and I’ll furnish the war.’ The tail wagged the dog.”

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Couching it with “supposedly” allows no free pass for myth-telling.

It’s quotation most often attributed to Hearst. And as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s a durable media-driven myth that has survived “concerted attempts to discredit and dismantle it.”

It is, I add, “succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.”

The purported recipient of Hearst’s telegram was not “a reporter,” as Perlstein writes, but Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

Hearst had assigned Remington and the correspondent Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spanish colonial rule. They arrived in Havana in early January 1897, and Remington six days later.

He parted ways with Davis in Matanzas, Cuba, and, before leaving Havana for New York, supposedly cabled Hearst, saying:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst, in reply, cabled his famous vow, telling Remington:

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

Remington didn’t stay. He promptly returned to New York, where his sketches were given prominent display in Hearst’s New York Journal, appearing beneath such headlines as:

“Cuban War Sketches Gathered in the Field by Frederic Remington; The Gifted Artist, Visiting Cuba Especially for the Journal.”

That’s hardly an accolade Hearst would have extended to someone who had so brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.”

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote “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 who read U.S. newspapers in early 1897 “would have been well aware,” I write, “that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war,” which gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The tale about the Remington-Hearst exchange is surely apocryphal.

So, too, is the presumed effect of the “Cronkite Moment” which, like the story about Hearst’s famous vow, is “succinct, savory, and easily remembered.”  It reputedly demonstrates the potency of broadcast journalism.

The “Cronkite Moment” was, I point out in Getting It Wrong, purportedly “an occasion when the power of television news was unequivocally confirmed,” a rare, pivotal moment when a truth-telling broadcast demonstrated the folly of a faraway war.

Perlstein writes in Mother Jones:

“Walter Cronkite traveled to Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, saw things with his own eyes, and told the truth: The Vietnam War was stuck in a disastrous stalemate, no matter what the government said. That was a watershed.”

Well, no, it wasn’t.

Cronkite did indeed travel to Vietnam in February 1968 and upon his return to the United States aired an hour-long special report about the war, in which he concluded that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations offered the best way out.

But “mired in stalemate,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was neither notable nor extraordinary” by February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s report aired. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his study of the year 1968, Cronkite’s assessment was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Indeed, months before the program, the New York Times had been using “stalemate” to describe the war in Vietnam.

On July 4, 1967, for example, the Times said this about the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in a front-page analysis published August 7, 1967, the Times declared “the war is not going well.” Victory “is not close at hand.”

The Times published the analysis beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

And in an editorial published October 29, 1967, the Times offered this assessment:

“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite – on both sides – to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” represented no watershed, no assessment of exceptional and stunning clarity. Cronkite said as much in his memoir, which was published in 1997. He wrote that his special report represented for President Lyndon B. Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

In fact, public opinion had begun shifting away from supporting the war months before the “Cronkite Moment.”

It’s often said that Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” interpretation, snapped off the television set and said something to the effect of:

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

LBJ: Not watching TV

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report went it aired. The president at that time wasn’t in front of a television set. And he certainly wasn’t lamenting the loss of Cronkite’s support. Indeed, it is hard to fathom how he could have been much moved by a show he did not see.

At about the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

“Today,” the president said, “you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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Woodward, ‘tombeur de Nixon’

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 25, 2011 at 7:18 am

That headline — which appeared with an item posted yesterday at Les In Rocks, a slick, Paris-based arts and music blog — translates to:

“Woodward, the guy who brought down Nixon.”

Which is hyperbole.

Bob Woodward and the Washington Post did not bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

But as the headline and accompanying interview with Woodward suggest, Wooward-hero worship can be surprisingly intense and deep-seated abroad.

The article’s opening paragraph declared:

“Not many people can boast of having been played in the movies by Robert Redford. In fact, there’s only one. His name is Bob Woodward. He’s a journalist, and with his colleague Carl Bernstein, in life as in the film All the President’s Men, brought down Richard Nixon in 1974 in the Watergate affair.”

(Here’s the original French version: “Peu d’hommes peuvent se vanter d’avoir été incarnés au cinéma par Robert Redford. En fait, il n’y en a qu’un. Il s’appelle Bob Woodward. Il est journaliste et, avec son collègue Carl Bernstein, dans la vie comme dans le film Les Hommes du Président, il fit tomber Richard Nixon en 1974 avec l’affaire du Watergate.”)

Redford, of course, played Woodward in the motion picture, All the President’s Men, which was released 35 years ago this month.

It is easily the most-viewed film about the scandal and, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, All the President’s Men effectively sealed the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

The heroic-journalist interpretation has it that the scandal’s disclosure pivoted on Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting for the Post, that they exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon’s resignation.

That’s an interpretation not even the Post — and not even Woodward — buy into.

As Woodward declared in an interview in 2004 with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Less indelicately, the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote in 2005:

“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.”

But the movie — which has aged impressively well — offers another, simpler, less-accurate interpretation.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI. The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

The film closes with the Woodward and Bernstein characters (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) at their respective desks in the Post’s brilliantly lighted newsroom, pounding away at their typewriters.

The newsroom is otherwise empty. Woodward and Bernstein remain oblivious to their colleagues as they slowly drift in. It’s Inauguration Day 1973 and the Post editors and reporters are shown gathering at television sets in the newsroom to watch as Nixon is sworn in to a second term. Woodward and Bernstein, however, remain at their desks, focused on their work.

The television sets show Nixon smiling as he completes the oath of office. The first volleys of a twenty-one gun salute begin to boom. Woodward and Bernstein continue their frantic typing and the cannonade resounds ever louder. The newsroom scene dissolves to a close-up of an overactive teletype machine, noisily battering out summaries about indictments, trials, and convictions of Nixon’s men.

The clattering machine spells out “Nixon resigns, Ford sworn in,” and stops abruptly. The movie’s over.

It’s an imaginative and effective ending which, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “pulls together the many strands of Watergate. But more than that, it offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

Indeed, it is perhaps the most powerful and vivid assertion of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth. Who else but Woodward and Bernstein?

WJC

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That’s rich: Woodward bemoans celebrity journalism

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2011 at 11:33 am

The country’s foremost celebrity journalist, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and Watergate fame, has deplored what he called the “curse” of celebrity journalism, which he reportedly said has infected the news media.

Woodward, celebrity journalist

Woodward was speaking the other night at a panel in Austin, Texas, that was convened to mark the 35th anniversary of All the President’s Men, the motion picture about the Watergate reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

According to a report posted online by ABC News, Bernstein, who also was on the panel, complained that the culture of journalism has shifted dramatically since the Watergate era of the early 1970s. Woodward, according to the ABC post, characterized this shift the “curse” of celebrity journalism — the “Paris Hilton factor and Kardashian equation.”

Even if he was referring to excessive media attention to the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, it’s still pretty rich for Woodward to bemoan celebrity journalism — given that All the President’s Men established the cult of the contemporary celebrity journalist.

By “celebrity journalist,” I mean the journalist who has attained outsize prominence or who is regarded as more important than the people and the events he or she covers.

Sydney Schanberg, writing in the Village Voice in 2005, pointed out that the Watergate era of the early 1970s “can be fairly marked as the starting point of the age of journalists as celebrities. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein weren’t celebrities when they cracked the story for The Washington Post, but they soon would be, and a wave of emulators quickly began applying to journalism schools.”

Schanberg was incorrect about the Watergate effect on journalism schools: The surge in enrollments was well underway before Watergate, before Woodward and Bernstein became household names.

But he was quite correct about Watergate’s having represented a demarcation of modern celebrity journalism. (Alicia Shepard referred to this phenomenon in 1997, writing in American Journalism Review in 1997: “The Watergate affair changed journalism in many ways, not the least of which was by launching the era of the journalist as celebrity.” She also claimed in the article that Woodward and Bernstein “brought down a president.” Not so.)

More than any other single factor, the movie All the President’s Men propelled the media myth of the heroic journalist — the beguiling notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal exposed the corruption of Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in disgrace in 1974.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, All the President’s Men placed the characters of Woodward and Bernstein squarely if inappropriately “at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating 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 heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity,” I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“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 further note in Getting It Wrong that the notion Woodward and Bernstein “exposed Nixon’s corruption is a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication.” And that offers a wholly inaccurate misleading reading of the history of Watergate.

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That was the effect of the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of the Justice Department, the FBI, special Watergate prosecutors, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Against that tableau, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance.

WJC

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Something exaggerated in hero-worship of Woodward

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 21, 2011 at 9:55 am

There’s something exaggerated, and a bit cloying, about the recent spasm of adulation of Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post and Watergate fame.

Movie that solidified the myth

Early this week, Woodward and former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee received a standing ovation from the nearly 1,000 people at a program at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California.

The library recently opened a gallery about the Watergate, the  scandal that cost Nixon the presidency in 1974.

The new exhibit replaced a display that offered a dubious and seriously distorted interpretation of Watergate, which declared among other things that Woodward and his reporting colleague, Carl Bernstein, “used anonymous sources exclusively to try and convict the President in the pages of the Post….” Nixon wasn’t a specific target of their award-winning Watergate reporting.

The replacement exhibit was undertaken after the National Archives took over the library from a private foundation. Woodward and Bradlee went to the library for what was billed as a conversation about Watergate.

Politico reported that Woodward and Bradlee attracted an audience that “listened with rapt attention and regular laughter as the two men traded wisecracks and reminisced about their roles in bringing down the 37thpresident.”

Left unaddressed by Politico was just what were those “roles in bringing down” Nixon. The implication was that their work for the Post was central in forcing the resignation of a corrupt president.

But not even Woodward and Bradlee go so far as to embrace that misleading interpretation of Watergate.

Bradlee asserted in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of Watergate’s signal crime, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic national committee:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And in 2004, Woodward told American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

The Politico piece noted that Bradlee “marveled at how many people still care about a decades-old conflict — one that turned Woodward, his reporting partner Carl Bernstein and Bradlee into the most famous journalists of their era.”

Why people still care is not especially difficult to fathom. It’s largely because Woodward, Bernstein, and to a lesser extent, Bradlee, 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.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“The complexity of the Watergate scandal— the lies, deceit, and criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of what was an exceptional constitutional crisis — are not routinely recalled these days.

“The epic scandal [of 1972-74] has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

I further write in Getting It Wrong:

“What does stand out amid the scandal’s many tangles is the heroic-journalist version of Watergate — the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

“The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the cinematic version of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The movie came out 35 years ago this month — and is to be a topic of discussion tonight when  Woodward, Bernstein, and movie star Robert Redford gather at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum in Austin, Texas.

Redford played the Woodward character in All the President’s Men.

The event no doubt will be the occasion for more standing ovations, more cloying hero-worship.

WJC

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CBC modifies its Bay of Pigs claim — but still has it wrong

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

After my post Sunday that called attention to its erroneous characterization of  the New York Times reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, CBC News in Canada modified its claim that at “the direct request” of the President John F. Kennedy, the Times “played down” its story about the pending invasion of 50 years ago.

The CBC now says the Times “played down their story at the direct request of the Kennedy administration.” It’s a slight modification, but a significant shift in storyline, away from Kennedy to an unnamed person or persons in his administration.

Even so, the CBC offered no compelling evidence about who in the Kennedy administration made such a request to the Times, when, to whom, or how.

The modification does little more than muddy matters.

And the CBC still doesn’t have it right about Kennedy, the Times, and the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that devotes a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, there is no compelling evidence that Kennedy or anyone in his administration pressured, lobbied, or persuaded the Times to modify, emasculate, or sanitize the article it published April 7, 1961, which lies at the heart of this media-driven myth.

Szulc of the Times

That article was written by a veteran correspondent named Tad Szulc, who reported that a force of Cuban exiles had been training in the United States and Central America, preparing to launch an armed assault on the regime of Fidel Castro.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the recollections of none of the principal figures in the Times-suppression episode say that Kennedy pressured the newspaper’s editors about the Szulc story.

These recollections, I write, “include the memoirs of Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of the Times; of James (Scotty) Reston, then the chief of the Times’ Washington bureau; of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, and of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an award-winning Harvard historian who was a White House adviser to Kennedy.”

It’s highly improbable that a such juicy detail as Kennedy’s purported interference with the Times’ news judgment would have been so thoroughly ignored by such a disparate cast.

Moreover, the compelling insider’s account written by Harrison E. Salisbury, a former Times senior editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, asserted that the Kennedy White House neither knew about, nor meddled in, the newspaper’s deliberations about its pre-invasion coverage.

Salisbury was unequivocal about that, writing in his 1980 work, Without Fear or Favor:

“The government in April 1961, did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of its internal discussions and deliberations.

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story.” The newspaper, he wrote, “believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

Even with the modification of its article about the Bay of Pigs, the CBC was not inclined to abandon entirely the notion that Kennedy, somehow, took a direct role in meddling with the Times. In a sidebar article posted Sunday, the CBC asserted:

“Numerous sources say that President Kennedy spoke with someone at the New York Times about their reporting there was going to be an invasion of Cuba.”

Many sources may have made such a claim. But assertion is not evidence. And none of the sources mentioned by the CBC offered documentation for their claims.

The CBC sidebar referred specifically to David Halberstam, who wrote The Powers That Be, and Peter Wyden, author of Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story.

Halberstam offered a highly colorful  yet uncorroborated claim that Kennedy called Reston “and tried to get him to kill” Szulc’s article.

Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately about what the Szulc story would do to his policy,” Halberstam wrote, adding that the president warned that the Times would risk having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion a failure.

Wyden claimed that Orvil Dryfoos, then the Times president, “was in touch with” Kennedy, and the president “was upset” by plans to publish the report.

In a footnote, Wyden added: “It can no longer be determined whether Dryfoos contacted the President or whether Kennedy was told about the story and took the initiative.”

The CBC sidebar referred to yet another version, offered in a history of the Times titled The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. According to that account, Reston took the initiative to call the CIA director, Allen Dulles, to speak with him about Szulc’s story as it was being prepared for publication.

“Dulles advised Scotty [Reston] that, for national security reasons, it would be best not to publish the story,” according to The Trust’s version. “However, if the Times decided it absolutely must publish, it should keep [references to] the CIA out of it.”

Such a conversation, however, was neither mentioned nor hinted at by Reston in his memoir, Deadline, which discussed in some detail the Times’ handling of the Szulc story.

And if it Dulles did offer such pre-invasion advice, the suggestions were made in response to Reston’s inquiry — which is quite apart from the Kennedy administration’s calling on, and lobbying, the Times.

Significantly, the versions of Halberstam, Weyden, and The Trust do not agree on who called whom, or what was discussed. Collectively, they offer a great deal of version variability — shifting accounts of what Kennedy supposedly said, and with whom at the Times he supposedly spoke.

Version variability of such magnitude can be a marker of a media-driven myth, as I point out in Getting It Wrong.

That Kennedy took the initiative and called on the Times to encourage the newspaper to tread lightly in its pre-invasion reporting is at the heart of this media myth. And there’s no evidence to support that claim — as the CBC’s modification indicates.

WJC

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Canada’s CBC invokes Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on April 17, 2011 at 2:38 am

CBC News in Canada invoked the hardy New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth this weekend in a lengthy online article recapping the failed invasion of Cuba, which was launched 50 years ago today.

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

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, neither Kennedy nor anyone in his administration asked or lobbied the Times to kill or tone down the pre-invasion report, which was published on the newspaper’s front page on April 7, 1961.

Moreover, the Times coverage of the pending invasion was not confined to that article.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong: “The suppression myth … ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion.”

The CBC, however, invoked the hoary suppression myth as if it were genuine. It declared, in reference to the Times report of April 7, 1961:

“The Times had actually played down their story at the direct request of Kennedy, something both he and The Times’ editors later regretted. Shortly after the invasion, Kennedy reportedly told a Times editor, ‘if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.’”

No call to the Times

While Kennedy did not call on Times editors before the invasion, he did say on separate occasions in the months afterward that had the newspaper printed more details about the pending invasion, it “would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”

Of course, such comments were quite self-serving. I note in Getting It Wrong that they “represented an attempt to deflect blame for the debacle” at the Bay of Pigs, where the invasion force of CIA-trained exiles was rolled up within three days.

James (“Scotty”) Reston of the Times later characterized Kennedy’s comments as “a cop-out,” adding:

“It is ridiculous to think that publishing the fact that the invasion was imminent would have avoided this disaster. I am sure the operation would have gone forward” nonetheless.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the Times’ pre-invasion coverage cited no prospective date for the invasion. But the newspaper’s front-page reports in April 1961 unmistakably signaled that something was afoot, that an attempt to oust Castro by arms was forthcoming. And on April 17, 1961, at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba, the invasion force of some 1,400 exiles launched their ill-fated attack.

The Times wasn’t alone, either, in reporting about the pending invasion. Its competition on the pre-invasion story included the Miami Herald, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time magazine.

According to a critique published in May 1961 in The Reporter, a journalists’ trade publication, the pre-invasion story “was covered heavily if not always well” by the U.S. news media.

So what, then, accounts for the emergence and tenacity of the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth?

I write in Getting It Wrong that the myth’s most likely derivation lies in confusion with a separate episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to hold off publishing a report about the Soviets having deployed nuclear-tipped weapons in Cuba.

On that occasion, when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed in the balance, the Times complied, holding off publication 24 hours.

“What likely has happened is that, over the years, distinctions between the separate incidents surrounding the Times and Cuba became blurred,” I write. “That is, it was mistakenly thought that Kennedy had called the Times executives about the newspaper’s coverage in the days before the Bay of Pigs invasion when, in fact, his call came on an entirely different matter in 1962.”

WJC

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More mythical claims for WaPo’s Watergate reporting

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2011 at 8:35 am

Nixon quits

The claims for the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seldom are very modest. The mythical notion that their reporting brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 is among the most cherished — and extravagant — tales in American journalism.

But the assertions posted yesterday at the online site of a Texas alternative newspaper were extraordinary in their lavishness.

The newspaper, the Austin Chronicle, declared:

“In the summer of 1972, when the unlikely duo of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein stumbled onto what would turn out to be the most important hard news story of the century, investigative journalism and the gritty and laborious, but ultimately necessary, processes it entailed reached a zenith.

“Public people in positions of great – and presumably unassailable – power went to prison as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged determination not to allow what was initially perceived as a nonstory to die out. They stuck to their guns, their guts, and their deadlines. And in the end, President Richard Milhous Nixon, facing impeachment and charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, was forced out of office by genuine, bipartisan outrage. Absolute hubris corrupted absolutely. It was a brief, shining moment when American journalism not only shook the pillars of power but also very nearly toppled them.”

There’s a lot of exaggeration to unpack there, so let’s focus on key claims:

  • Woodward and Bernstein “stumbled onto what would turn out to be the most important hard news story of the century.”
  • “Public people” went to prison because of their Watergate reporting.
  • Woodward and Bernstein’s work on Watergate was a moment when “American journalism … shook the pillars of power.”

This is not to quibble with word choice, but Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not stumble onto the Watergate scandal. They were assigned by editors at the Washington Post to dig into the highly suspicious breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic national committee.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his brilliant 1974 essay, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was highly derivative, sustained by leaks from federal investigations into the crimes of Watergate.

And I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal” — the White House attempt to cover-up crimes associated with the breakin and the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars.

Those aspects of the scandal, Woodward was quoted as saying in 1973, were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

As for the claim that Woodward and Bernstein sent “public people” to jail: Well, who were they?

This is not a claim that Woodward and Bernstein are known to make publicly. And it’s not a claim that appears in their book, All the President’s Men, which describes their reporting on Watergate.

A case might be made that their reporting about the “dirty tricks” organized by Donald Segretti, a minor figure in the Watergate scandal, led to his imprisonment. Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of distributing illegal campaign materials during the 1972 Democratic primaries and spent 4 1/2 months in prison.

But as Epstein noted in his essay, “neither the prosecutors, the grand jury, nor the Watergate Committee … found any evidence to support the Bernstein-Woodward thesis that Watergate was part of the Segretti operation.” Segretti’s dirty tricks were a sideshow, not central elements of the Watergate scandal.

Nor can it be accurately said that Woodward and Bernstein’s work on Watergate represented a moment when “American journalism … shook the pillars of power.”

Those pillars were shaken by an unprecedented constitutional crisis caused not by investigative journalism but by the illegal conduct of Nixon, his senior aides, and officials in reelection campaign.

Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974 following release of audiotapes he secretly made; the content of the tapes showed he had approved an attempt to divert the FBI from investigating the crimes of Watergate. The incriminating tapes were surrendered only after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the president must turn them over to federal prosecutors.

Nixon, then, was forced from office only after the disclosure of unequivocal proof that he had obstructed justice in the investigation of the crimes of Watergate. The Washington Post had nothing to do with those disclosures.

As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during the Watergate period has said: It “must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Woodward put it in an interview in 2004:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

That’s earthy but telling perspective. And it represents a useful antidote to breathtaking and lavish claims about the effects of newspaper reporting.

WJC

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