W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

A media myth eruption: WaPo, Watergate, and Nixon’s fall

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 30, 2011 at 4:55 am

Bimbo eruptions” was the memorably colorful term invoked during the 1992 presidential campaign by Betsey Wright, an aide to presidential candidate Bill Clinton, to describe the suspicions and potential allegations about Clinton’s womanizing.

Sure, he did

The past couple of days have brought an eruption of media myth — notably, the rich and appealing tale that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Not even the Post buys into that simplistic and media-centric interpretation. As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman correctly noted 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.”

(More coarsely, Woodward himself has declared: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Even so, the media myth about Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post — the heroic-journalist myth, as I describe it in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — is so delicious and compelling that it lives on and on, as this recent eruption attests.

Figuring in the media myth eruption have been:

  • The Daily Beast, which rhetorically asked in a commentary yesterday about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media in Britain: “Did Woodward and Bernstein need [phone-hackers and private investigators] to bring down Richard Nixon?”
  • The Daily Mirror  tabloid in Britain declared in an article posted online today that “Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.”
  • Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, which declared passage in an editorial about Murdoch’s troubles in Britain: “The Washington Post toppled President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.”
  • The publisher of the North Platte Telegraph in Nebraska, who in a column the other day referred to the “early 1970s when the Post brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon using primarily an unnamed source.” That was a reference to Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The appearance of the heroic-journalist myth in such diverse outlets and contexts is testifies to how deeply embedded the tale has become in the popular consciousness.

And why is that?

The heroic-journalist myth, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, is “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Rather that attempting to keep straight the dimensions of a scandal that began to break nearly 40 years ago, it is fair easier to embrace the proxy version — the simplified narrative that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon, with help from the “Deep Throat” source.

The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret — and the subject of much speculation and many guessing games — until 2005 when W. Mark Felt and his family announced that Felt, a former FBI official, had been Woodward’s mysterious source.

The heroic-journalist myth lives on because it’s such a reassuring narrative for the news media — a tale that describes the news media at their supposed best, a time when their reporting made a powerful difference in national life.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the Post and its reporters exposed the Watergate scandal “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a comforting trope about a purported triumph for a profession that’s more accustomed to scorn and condemnation than applause and approbation.

But it’s no less a media myth.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

The single phrase associated most often with Watergate surely is “follow the money” — guidance supposedly given to Washington Post reporters covering the scandal in the early 1970s.

“Follow the money” also is the best-known made-up line of Watergate.

The statement is only as real as images projected on the screen: “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the Watergate book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But because it sounded so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the vernacular.

So it’s commonly believed that “follow the money” was guidance uttered by the  Post’s high-level secret source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The usually sober and usually well-reported Financial Times of London yesterday invoked “follow the money” as if it were genuine, stating in a column on financial matters:

“’Follow the money’ might have been the mantra for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the Watergate scandal. But ‘follow the debt’ would be a better way of summing up where investors should be looking for the next bubble.”

We’ll leave “follow the debt” to bubble-seeking investors.

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is the reference to “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate.

No way was it Watergate’s “mantra.”

The line appeared in no Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Moreover, “follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. The book came out in June 1974, a couple of months before Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

So the phrase was no “mantra.”

What pressed “follow the money” into the vernacular was the marvelous performance of actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a conflicted, shadowy, even tormented “Deep Throat” character. In a memorable, late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character (played by Robert Redford):

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

But had it really been offered to Woodward (“Deep Throat” never met Bernstein during Watergate), “follow the money” would have taken him only so far.

Watergate, after all, was much broader than the misuse of campaign funds.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was  his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s 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 write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Heeding advice to “follow-the-money” scarcely would have enabled investigators to uncover the decisive evidence about Nixon’s misconduct.

WJC

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Juan Williams’ new book repeats Spanish-American War myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 27, 2011 at 8:58 am

The new book by Juan Williams, the political analyst clumsily dismissed by NPR last year, offers some history of American journalism.

Some inaccurate history of American journalism.

The book, Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, repeats the hoary media myth that the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer brought on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

That’s a facile, media-centric interpretation endorsed by few if any serious historians of the conflict.

According to an excerpt of Muzzled posted at the online site of Fox News,  Williams writes:

“Hearst and Pulitzer became infamous for starting a real war. They whipped up so much anger at Spain through inflammatory stories about Spain’s handling of American vessels that they incited the United States to go to war with Spain in the Spanish-American War.”

Williams also says of Hearst and Pulitzer:

“Their coverage of the news, from crime to political scandals to war, was a study in sensationalized accounts, including outright distortion and lies, in a battle to sell more papers in New York City.”

Hearst and Pulitzer were bitter rivals, to be sure. But anyone who has spent much time reading their newspapers of the mid- and late-1890s can only be impressed by the vigor and breadth of their report.

As media historian John D. Stevens wrote in his study of sensationalism and New York City journalism, it is “tempting to caricature the yellow papers as being edited for janitors and clerks.”

But in fact they “published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information,” Stevens wrote. They were much more than merely sensational.

If the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer titillated, Stevens noted, they also informed.

In any case, they certainly cannot be blamed for bringing on the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

The yellow press “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

Those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish colonial rule of Cuba — the scene of an islandwide rebellion that had begun in 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities ordered thousands of Cubans, mostly old men, women, and children, into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The authorities called the policy “reconcentration,” and it gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The human rights disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — included, but not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The yellow press reported on, but certainly did not create, the devastating effects of Spain’s ill-considered and destructive policy.

So to indict Hearst and Pulitzer, as Williams does, for supposedly “starting” the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and do disservice to a keener understanding of the much-maligned genre of yellow journalism.

WJC

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He ‘did a Zhou Enlai’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on July 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

Cohen (NYTimes photo)

Roger Cohen, a twice-a-week foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, stirred murmured commentary not long by defending Rupert Murdoch as a phone-hacking scandal swirled around the tycoon’s media holdings in Britain.

“If you add everything up,” Cohen wrote about the tough, old media mogul, “he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant.”

Maybe Cohen was being contrarian. Or maybe he didn’t quite grasp what the scandal says about Murdoch and his corporate management.

In a more recent column, Cohen revealed that he’s not fully up to speed with the revised interpretation of Zhou Enlai’s famous comment in 1972 that “it’s too early” to discern the implications of upheaval in France.

The conventional interpretation is that Zhou was speaking about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

As such, his comment suggests a sagacity and a long view of history seldom matched by Western leaders.

Recent evidence has emerged, however, that says Zhou was referring not to the French Revolution but to the more recent political unrest that rocked France in 1968.

The new evidence was offered last month by Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., a retired U.S. diplomat who a was present when Zhou made the comment during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972.

Freeman discussed the context of Zhou’s remark last month at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. London’s Financial Times was first to report on the revised interpretation that Freeman offered about Zhou’s comment.

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said that Zhou made the remark during a discussion about revolutions that had failed or succeeded.

He pointed out that it was clear from the context that Zhou’s “too early to say” comment was in reference to upheaval in France in May 1968, not the years of turmoil that began in 1789.

Freeman described Zhou’s misinterpreted comment as “one of those convenient misunderstandings that never gets corrected,” adding that “it conveniently bolstered a stereotype … about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts.”

The misconstrued comment fit nicely with “what people wanted to hear and believe,” Freeman said, “so it took” hold.

And it’s not infrequently repeated.

Cohen invoked the conventional interpretation late last week, in a column that began this way:

“When I asked Gen. David H. Petraeus what the biggest U.S. mistake of the past decade has been, he did a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution number to the effect that it was too early to say.

“The outgoing commander in Afghanistan and incoming Central Intelligence Agency chief is adept at politics,” Cohen wrote, “one reason he’s the object of the sort of political speculation once reserved for Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the face of the military to most Americans before Petraeus assumed that role later in the post-9/11 era.”

The passage, “he did a Zhou Enlai,” suggests how irresistible Zhou’s misconstrued remark really is — a quality that’s typical of quotations that seem just too highly polished.

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true,” I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Among the myths is the remark attributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who after watching Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic, on-air assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote is almost certainly apocryphal.

Johnson wasn’t in front of a television when Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam aired on CBS television on February 27, 1968.

The president wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support, either.

Rather, Johnson was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

At about the time Cronkite was saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was quipping:

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

WJC

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Jessica Lynch featured in ‘this day in history’ feature; WaPo ignored

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on July 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

Lynch in 2003

It is remarkable how often Jessica Lynch pops up in media reports, even though eight years have passed since the bogus story about her heroics in an ambush in Iraq thrust her into the international limelight.

It’s likewise remarkable how seldom the Washington Post is identified as the sole source of the tale about her derring-do — how Lynch, a private in a non-combat Army maintenance unit, supposedly fought ferociously against Iraqi attackers, despite being shot and stabbed.

None of it was true; Lynch suffered neither gunshot nor stab wounds. She was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as its fled the ambush. But Lynch never fired a shot in the attack, which took place March 23, 2003, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

The other day, the online site of cable TV’s History Channel recalled Lynch and the return in July 2003 to her hometown in West Virginia as the “lead story” of its “this day in history” feature.

Predictably, the account made no mention of the singular role the Washington Post played in thrusting the bogus hero-warrior story into the public domain. The ensuing worldwide sensation had the effect of making Lynch the single best-known American soldier of the war.

Instead of mentioning the Post, the History Channel feature referred vaguely to “news accounts indicating that even after Lynch was wounded during the ambush she fought back against her captors.”

And just as vaguely, it blamed the government for the bogus story, noting that critics “charged the U.S. government with embellishing her story to boost patriotism and help promote the Iraq war.”

So just who in the “U.S. government” concocted the Lynch story “to boost patriotism and help promote the Iraq war”? Nor surprisingly, the History Channel feature didn’t say: Such accusations typically are unaccompanied by specific details.

The accusation is, though, sometimes aimed at the Pentagon — that the military ginned up the hero-warrior tale about Lynch to bolster public support for the war.

But that claim is untenable for at least two reasons, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

One, public backing for the war in Iraq was quite strong in the conflict’s early days. For example, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, taken of 1,012 American adults on March 29 and 30, 2003, found that 85.5 percent of respondents thought the war effort was going “very well” or “moderately well” for U.S. forces. And that was before Baghdad fell to U.S. ground forces.

So there was no need or incentive to concoct a hero-warrior tale to bolster support for the war.

Two, and more important, one of the Post reporters who wrote the bogus hero-warrior story about Lynch said in late 2003 that the Pentagon was not the source. The reporter, Vernon Loeb, stated flatly:

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

Loeb also said in the interview, which aired December 15, 2003, on National Public Radio, that the Pentagon “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He added:

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

On an earlier occasion, Loeb was quoted in a commentary in the New York Times as saying:

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

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch was published April 3, 2003, and cited otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” as sources.

As I’ve previously stated at Media Myth Alert, it is high time for the Post to identify the “U.S. officials” who led it astray.

The Post is under no obligation to protect the identity of sources who misled it so badly. Identifying them would clear the record by clarifying what role, if any, the Pentagon or other U.S. agencies had in the derivation of the bogus tale.

And doing so certainly would help make those periodic retrospective pieces such as the History Channel’s writeup about Lynch more complete, revealing, and accurate.

WJC

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More media myths from CounterPunch

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

CounterPunch touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”

It’s building a reputation for indulging in media-driven myths, too.

Since mid-March, essays posted at CounterPunch have:

CounterPunch has indulged yet again in media myth, in a commentary in its weekend edition about Rupert Murdoch’s troubled media empire.

CounterPunch claimed the tough old media mogul has “surpassed William Randolph Hearst,” press baron of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “in practicing yellow journalism.”

The commentary invoked the hoary media myth about Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

According to CounterPunch, Hearst said: “Get me the photos and I’ll get you the war.”

That was, CounterPunch added, “Hearst’s 1898 dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

Provocative tale. But it’s pure media myth.

Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

Among the reasons:  The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow — a cable sent to artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba — has never turned up.

More significantly, as I point out Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about Hearst’s purported vow suffers from “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.”

That is, it would have been absurd and illogical for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In addition, the Spanish colonial authorities who ruled Cuba closely controlled and censored incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic: They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary telegram, had it been sent.

But in fact, there was, as I write in Getting It Wrong, no chance that telegrams would have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.

So “furnish the war” (or, “provide the war”) wasn’t at all Hearst’s “dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

That Hearst helped bring on the war with Spain is a media myth, too.

It’s a myth dismantled in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I pointed out that the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War.

“It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1897, when Remington arrived in Havana on assignment for Hearst.

WJC

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An outbreak of ‘follow the money,’ that phony Watergate line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

From Oregon to Canada to India, news outlets turned yesterday to Watergate’s most famous made-up phrase, treating the line as if it were genuine.

Felt: Not his line

The line is “follow the money,” which supposedly was vital guidance that a secret source code-named “Deep Throat” gave to the Washington Post during its Watergate investigation in 1972-74.

The passage was offered up credulously by these news outlets yesterday:

  • The Huffington Post, in (yet another) commentary about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The commentary declared: “During the Washington Post‘s investigative reporting of President [Richard] Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, it’s [sic] source, ‘Deep Throat’ gave the reporters the best advice. ‘Deep Throat’ said that the truth would be discovered if they ‘follow the money.’ They did and it ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
  • The Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon, in a column about the phone-hacking scandal: “As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, ‘Follow the money.’”
  • The Business News Network in Canada, in a blog post about interest rates in that country: “I’ll take the advice of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent most famously known as Deep Throat, the key source in Bob Woodward’s Watergate investigation: follow the money.”
  • The Hindu newspaper in India, in a commentary about suspected banking improprieties: “‘Follow the money’ was the advice given by the secret informant within the government to Bob Woodward of Washington Post at the beginning of the Watergate scandal.”

As those cases suggest, “follow the money” is impressively versatile. Its popularity seems limitless.

But however appealing and catchy, “follow the money” is contrived.

The phrase was never uttered by the “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Woodward as Watergate unfolded. (“Deep Throat” was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI. Felt never spoke during Watergate with Woodward’s reporting partner, Carl Bernstein.)

According to a database of Washington Post content, the phrase “follow the money” appeared in no news article or editorial about Watergate before 1981.

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, which came out in 1974.

The derivation of the passage lies in a scene in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie was released to much fanfare in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon resigned the presidency for his guilty role in obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.

What pressed “follow the money” into the popular consciousness was an outstanding performance turned in by actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a twitchy, conflicted, shadowy “Deep Throat.” In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But the guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken him only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than a case of improper use of campaign monies.

In the end, Nixon was toppled by his efforts to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As a simplistic key to explaining the scandal, the follow-the-money interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled Watergate and forced Nixon from office.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and 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 write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

WJC

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‘Economist’ indulges in media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

The latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsweekly carries a column that presents an intriguing discussion of “the madness of great men” — an affliction it says is common among media tycoons.

To buttress that point, the usually well-reported Economist turns to a media myth — the discredited notion that press baron William Randolph Hearst, the timeless bogeyman of American journalism, fomented the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Such claims about Hearst are often made but rarely supported by persuasive explanations as to how the contents of Hearst’s newspapers were transformed into U.S. policy and military action.

The Economist column offers no such explanation: Its assertion about Hearst is supported by no evidence.

The column, titled “Great bad men as bosses,” considers the serious recent troubles of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and introduces Hearst with a brief discussion of “what Norwegians call stormannsgalskap, the madness of great men.” (It also can be translated to “megalomania.”)

Stormannsgalskap,” the Economist says, “is particularly common among media barons, not least because they frequently blur the line between reporting reality and shaping it. William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

Widely suspected by whom?

No serious historian of the Spanish-American war period gives much credence to such claims.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer “is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1898.

To deprive the Cuban rebels of support, Spain’s colonial rulers herded Cuban women, children, and old men into garrison towns, where thousands of them died from starvation and disease.

While mostly forgotten nowadays, that humanitarian crisis was widely reported in the U.S. press, and widely condemned by the U.S. government.

The disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I noted in Yellow Journalism.

And as a leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has correctly noted, the ill-advised and destructive policy toward Cuban non-combatants “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The Economist’s additional claim, that Hearst stirred up the war “to give his papers something to report,” is laughable.

Quite simply, there was no shortage of news to cover in the run-up to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, a “variety of other events figured prominently on the Journal’s front page in the months before the Spanish-American War,” including the inauguration in March 1897 of President William McKinley;  the brief war between Greece and Turkey; the headless torso murder mystery that gripped New York in the summer of 1897; the Klondike gold rush; New York’s vigorously contested mayoral election, and the Journal-sponsored New Year’s Eve gala to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs of New York City.

WJC

Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 21, 2011 at 2:51 am

As it has receded in time and memory, the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 has become ever more prone to myth and misleading interpretation.

Bernstein in 2009 (Newseum photo)

That helps explain why Watergate’s dominant narrative centers on the reporting exploits of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two then-young reporters for the Washington Post.

It’s far simpler to focus on two star reporters — and to inflate their accomplishments — than it is to wrestle with the forbidding complexity of a scandal that sent 19 men to jail and forced the resignation of a sitting U.S. president, Richard Nixon.

That’s a point I make in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year. “How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate,” I write, “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a narrative that commands considerable appeal abroad as well.

Just yesterday, Britain’s Sky News channel became the latest news outlet to indulge in the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, declaring in a report posted online that “Bernstein was one of two reporters who revealed US president Richard Nixon’s efforts to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“It led to the conviction of a number of White House officials and Mr Nixon’s eventual resignation,” Sky’s report said.

Well, no: Neither Bernstein nor Woodward “revealed” Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington, the scandal’s signal crime. And their reporting didn’t bring about Nixon’s downfall, either.

Nixon’s authorization of a cover-up — to obstruct justice by attempting to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in — wasn’t clearly demonstrated until July 1974.

That was when Nixon complied with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and surrendered audiotapes of key, Watergate-related conversations that he had secretly recorded in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes clearly showed the president had engaged in a cover-up, a revelation that led directly to his resigning in August 1974.

Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting had nothing to do with the forced disclosure of the incriminating audiotapes.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting disclose that the tapes existed.

That Nixon had made such recordings emerged in July 1973, during the Watergate investigation by a select committee of the U.S. Senate.

To call out the erroneous Sky News report about Bernstein and Woodward is not to pick nits.

Rather, it’s to insist on a more precise understanding of the Washington Post’s modest role in Watergate — and to note how routinely that role is exaggerated.

In other words, to call out the Sky News report is to insist on what Bernstein says is journalism’s fundamental objective — that of seeking “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

And the truth is, the Post’s reporting did not disclose the cover-up Nixon ordered; nor did the newspaper’s reporting force the president’s resignation.

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate, I point out 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 term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”

WJC

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Tarring Murdoch with Hearst’s evil ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

Rupert Murdoch’s much-anticipated hearing yesterday before a Parliament committee was hardly very dramatic — save for the assault on the tough old media mogul by a chucklehead wielding a shaving cream-pie.

The hearing, which centered around the misconduct of journalists formerly in Murdoch’s employ, was more farce and tedium than high-noon encounter that threatened Murdoch’s far-reaching media empire.

Murdoch, who is 80 and clearly doddering, even won a measure of sympathy as victim of the none-too-bright shaving cream-pie attack.

What was fairly remarkable was that in the hearing’s aftermath at least a couple of U.S. commentators turned credulously to a hoary media myth to make points about Murdoch’s supposedly evil ways.

Hearst: Made no vow

The media myth is the tale that press baron William Randolph Hearst, in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, why that tale is almost surely apocryphal for reasons that include Hearst’s denial and the improbable context in which his message supposedly was sent.

One of the pundits invoking the media myth was Milos Stehlik, a commentator on WBEZ, an FM radio station in Chicago.

Stehlik likened Murdoch to Hearst and Charles Foster Kane, the fictional media baron in Citizen Kane, the 1941 movie loosely based on Hearst’s life.

“Kane, Hearst and Murdoch … share a political activism which pretends to help the media-consuming masses while, in reality, mostly helped their own privileged class,” Stehlik declared, before invoking the “furnish the war” myth as if it were genuine.

“Hearst,” he said, “told artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba, to send dispatches about the war. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war in Cuba. Hearst famously told Remington to just provide him the pictures, and he would furnish the war.”

Meanwhile in Seattle, Jon Talton, a newspaper columnist on economic issues, posted a commentary that began this way:

“Press lord Rupert Murdoch isn’t accused of doing anything some of his notorious forebears wouldn’t have attempted given the technology. ‘You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,’ William Randolph Hearst is said to have instructed his Cuba correspondents as he ginned up circulation on the eve of the Spanish-American War.”

If Hearst had made the vow, it wouldn’t have been “on the eve of the Spanish-American War,” as Talton wrote in his column for the Seattle Times. It would have been in January 1897 — 15 months before the war began.

That was when Remington arrived in Havana, on a brief assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington soon tired of the assignment and, the myth has it, cabled Hearst, stating:

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

Hearst, in New York, supposedly replied by stating:

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

The anecdote’s sole original source was a blustering, cigar-chomping journalist named James Creelman, who recounted the tale in his 1901 memoir, On the Great Highway.

Creelman, though, did not explain how he heard about the Remington-Hearst exchange. It couldn’t have been first hand because at the time Remington was in Cuba, Creelman was in Spain, on assignment for the Journal.

That means Creelman could only have learned about the tale second-hand or, as is more likely, just made it up.

Significantly, the context of the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange makes no sense.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “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.”

The rebellion was a vicious conflict that began in early 1895; by early 1897, it had reached islandwide proportion. As such, the rebellion attracted much attention in U.S. newspapers, including those published by Hearst.

So what may prompt pundits to turn credulously and not infrequently to the anecdote about Hearst and his supposed wickedness?

Because it’s arguably the most deliciously evil tale in journalism history, a tale that reveals Hearst’s ruthlessness and his warmongering. It’s a tale about journalism at its most sinister and malign, a tale wrapped in a dark and arrogant pledge to bring on a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

And these days, it’s a handy if indirect way of tarring Murdoch, by associating him with Hearst in the exclusive club of vile and villainous media magnates.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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